Design is where it is today in large part thanks to this innovative trio. Here’s a quick primer to the Italian design minds we’re still looking to for inspiration today.
Giò Ponti (1891–1979) (above)
"Industry," Giò Ponti wrote, "is the style of the 20th century, its mode of creation." Writer, painter, architect, designer, and Citroën DS driver Ponti channeled art into industry with his prolific work, from Milan’s iconic Pirelli skyscraper to graphic ceramic plates, from the La Pavoni espresso machine to the Superleggera chair. In 1928, he founded Domus, which for decades was Europe’s most beautiful, eclectic, and influential design magazine.
Achille Castiglioni (1918–2002)
Between alluring irony and blunt practicality are the brilliant designs of Achille Castiglioni, whose mantra was "Start from scratch. Stick to common sense. Know your goals and means." For Castiglioni, who sometimes worked with his brothers Livio and Pier Giacomo, common sense meant sitting on a bicycle seat while talking on the phone, or using a polymer webbing to create the poetic Gatto table lamp. achillecastiglioni.it
Anna Castelli Ferrieri (1918–2006)
The materials revolution of post-war Italian design would not have been the same without Anna Castelli Ferrieri, an architect, designer, and art director who cofounded Kartell, the pioneering manufacturer of injection-molded plastic household objects, with her engineer husband, Giulio Castelli. Her Componibili cylindrical sliding door shelf units are icons to this day.
In picking the most vital Italian designers of today, we sought contemporary corollaries to yesterday’s class of masters.
Stefano Boeri (born 1956)
Anthropological reflection and politics meet architecture in the writings, research, buildings, and project plans of Stefano Boeri, who founded a practice called Multiplicity. As editor of Domus in the early aughts, he was both loved and loathed for taking an interdisciplinary approach to buildings; now he edits Abitare, the country’s leading architecture magazine. A true polymath and possible megalomaniac, he’s running for mayor of Milan.
Patricia Urquiola (born 1961)
Patricia Urquiola was a Spanish architect before she became one of Italy’s most famous designers. "She fell in love with design after working with Achille Castiglioni in the ‘80s," says Urquiola’s friend Patrizia Moroso. Her amazingly prolific furniture designs embody technology, biomorphism, subtlety, and craft. Nowadays, no Italian company’s collection is complete without a bit of Urquiola.
Renzo Piano (born 1937)
Pritzker Prize–winner Renzo Piano is the most ubiquitous Italian architect on the global stage. He has lovely manners, and his international workshop consistently churns out polished, thoughtful, calm, and high-tech public spaces. Piano’s unrivaled string of blockbusters over the last few decades includes Kansai International Airport in Osaka, San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, and the Shard, Europe’s tallest skyscraper, underway in London. rpbw.com
Our "Process" queen Virginia Gardiner currently lives in London, where she is finishing up a master's degree in industrial design engineering. "It has been fun but also tiring," she reports. "I spend a lot of time in the workshop with glue and other stuff on my hands and have recently been casting lots of shapes in horse poo from the horses that trot around Buckingham Palace. But we have to make stuff with a market, so I'm working on a new waterless toilet.