See How Artisans in the Italian Alps Make This High-Design Concrete Lamp
Two short, quickly scribbled words nearly put an end to the Aplomb before the hanging lamp even reached the prototype stage: "Non fare." Italian shorthand for, "It cannot be done."
That fateful sentence is scrawled across the bottom of a faded sheet of fax paper dated June 6, 2008, below an original drawing for the funnel-shaped pendant by Paolo Lucidi and Luca Pevere. The designers had approached master craftsman Giovanni Piccinelli about producing the design in concrete for Foscarini, a high-end Italian lighting firm. But upon seeing the specifications, Piccinelli demurred.
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Piccinelli, now 77, started working with concrete when he was seven, growing up in Valcamonica, a valley in the Italian Alps that he still calls home. In 1997, he started his own workshop, Crea Cemento, mostly working on large-scale building projects. But Lucidi and Pevere wanted him to execute a cast concrete pendant with thin two-centimeter walls, hung by a slender cylindrical neck, also of concrete. The concept seemed ludicrous to him.
Carlo Urbinati, Foscarini’s founder and president, then took up the cause, asking Piccinelli and his two sons, Carlo, an architect and creative director of Crea, and Ottavio, its logistics manager, to reconsider.
"When you’re being challenged, you’re probably in a good position to find something new," Urbinati says. "Often, the real meaning of ‘it cannot be done’ is actually ‘I’ve just never done that before.’"
Piccinelli went back to the drawing board and began crafting fiberglass molds for prototypes. He had made thousands of molds during his decades-long career, but they had been for pillars and staircases, not fancy pendants. The scale of Aplomb was entirely different. "Non fare."
Yet Urbinati had chosen Crea because it had a reputation for being the best. Foscarini, based just northwest of Venice, was founded in 1981 with no factory. It still outsources all of its production. "This allows us to be as free as we can," Urbinati says. "If you have your own factory, you’re tied to a specific means of production. It exerts an unconscious commitment."
Meanwhile, the economic downturn of 2008 hit the construction industry hard. As Crea’s other business dried up, Piccinelli and his sons kept working on prototypes for Aplomb, spending more than two years perfecting the recipe of sand, cement, leveling compounds, and other additives to produce a mixture that was fluid enough to pour, yet would retain its shape without breaking. Making matters more complicated, Foscarini had certain requirements, such as a perfectly turned edge and a smooth finish unmarred by large pock marks. All of these elements could be thrown off by a simple change in temperature or humidity in the workshop.
Finally, the team hit upon a recipe that produces a pendant that is sturdy yet delicate. (The name "Aplomb" refers to the construction tool that uses gravity to determine a vertical line—a plumb bob—and also to having an attitude of poise or self-confidence.) In 2010, the pendant officially went into production. "È possibile farlo." It can be done.
Aplomb was a tipping point for Crea. In the past 10 years, the family-run business has shifted to creating vases, pen holders, and tables for more than 70 Italian brands, from Alessi to Fendi. The workshop is still small—fewer than 10 people—but thriving.
And that concrete recipe? "It’s a secret," says Urbinati. "Someone in Asia tried to copy it and the pendant broke. That’s why we never reveal the full ingredients."
The Aplomb Pendant
The elegantly industrial suspension lamp is completely handmade in Italy.
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