The life of maverick Italian designer Joe Colombo (1930–1971) may have been short, but his future-focused vision of intelligent technology and integrated living environments had a revolutionary impact on mid-century design.
Colombo’s diverse career began in the world of fine art, studying painting and sculpture at the Brera Academy of Fine Art in his hometown of Milan. He gravitated towards the avant-garde art scene, becoming part of the Movimento Nucleare (Nuclear Movement) of painters, founded by Sergio Dangelo and Enrico Baj, who, inspired by mounting international anxiety about nuclear war, challenged the boundaries of painting with organic forms.
From 1951 until 1955, Colombo’s abstract works were exhibited in Milan, Torino, Verviers, Venice and Brussels – and in 1954 he curated a ceramics exhibition for the 10th Milan Triennale, where he also built several open-air ‘shrines’ to showcase television transmissions. Colombo’s contributions to the Triennale marked the beginning of a move into design and architecture, which saw him study the latter at the Politecnico di Milano.
IN TUNE WITH THE ZEITGEIST
He designed his first architecture project, a condominium, in 1956, before taking over the family business, which produced electric cables, in 1959. It was there that he started to experiment with new construction and production technologies, and in 1961, Colombo opened his own interior design studio, designing architecture and furniture.
Captivated by the zeitgeist of the Atomic Era, Colombo believed that he could create the environment of the future, and that the emerging language of interior design he was helping to shape would result in seamlessly integrated living environments rather than individual pieces of furniture. His progressive work was driven by the desire to create objects that were independent of the architecture that contained them, and could adapt to suit any space, now or in future. He started to translate some of the fantastical visions germinated during his art career into practical, yet forward-looking, designs built on his mission to reinvent the home for a new way of living, more suited to the reality of today and tomorrow.
Given his futuristic aesthetic, it’s unsurprising that Colombo is closely associated with plastic as a material. His Universale chair (1965) was the first injection-molded chair made entirely from plastic – and one of the earliest plastic chairs to be commercially available. He also turned to plastic materials and finishes to create self-contained units that provided all the services of a room – such as his Mini-kitchen (1963); and the Total Furnishing Unit at MoMA (1971) – all within a modular pod. Despite his fondness for plastics and industrial finishes, Colombo was willing to explore other materials, even producing a small number of pieces in rattan.
Tragically, Colombo died suddenly on his 41st birthday in 1971, and so the full extent of his potential was perhaps never realized. Today his work is held within permanent collections and showcased within exhibitions at institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum and Design Museum in London, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Through Studio Joe Colombo, now run by his former assistant, the architect Ignazia Favata, his legacy lives on.
EXTRAORDINARY NUMBER OF INNOVATIVE FURNITURE
Colombo won an IN-Arch prize for the interior of a hotel in Sardinia in 1964, but it was with the extraordinary number of innovative furniture and multifunctional mobile unit designs he created throughout the 1960s that he made his name. Designs such as the cocooning, throne-like Elda Armchair (1963) ensured Colombo’s name would forever be attached to the mid-century sci-fi aesthetic; whereas the likes of the transformable Multichair system (1970) exemplified his career-defining focus on low-footprint multifunctionality and versatility.
In Visiona 69, created for Bayer in 1969, Colombo clearly laid out his functionally integrated vision for the future of human living spaces. This installation provided everything for the home with a triad of functional units: the Night-Cell for sleeping, bathing and storage; the Kitchen-Box for cooking and dining, and Central Living for everything else.
Colombo's Boby Trolley in plastic (1970), with its wheels with rotary drawers, was conceived as an aid for architects’ drafting tables but gained popularity throughout homes and offices and went on to win first price on the SMAU in 1971. His best-known technological designs include the Optic alarm clock (1970), and the lighting products Acrilica (1962), Spider (1965) and Ciclope (1970). He was awarded the Compasso d'Oro prize by the ADI (Associazione per il Disegno Industriale) in 1967 and 1970, the International Design Award by the American Institute of Interior Designers of Chicago in 1968 and 1970.