Giovanna Castiglioni: my father used to say, “if you’re not curious, forget about it”

He designed everyday items and famous decor objects that would go on to become real design icons, like the “Arco” lamp for Flos. Achille Castiglioni was – and still is – a beacon in the world of design. In the eternal battle between form and function, he definitely was partial to the latter; with a painstakingly rigorous eye, he focused on real industrial design: the kind that produced ingenious solutions, manufactured on a large scale to become part of people’s life. After winning the Compasso D’oro no less than nine times, he still disliked being called “Maestro” or being described as a “starchitect”.

These are some of the many interesting facts his daughter Giovanna told us about him. Giovanna Castiglioni today is Vice President and General Secretary of the Castiglioni Foundation, which celebrates Achille’s memory with a historical archive, exhibitions, initiatives and itineraries dedicated to the discovery of his designs. We asked her about the relationship she had with her father and about her father as a designer, and here is what she told us.

What are you working on at the moment, at the Castiglioni Foundation?
Next year will be the 100th anniversary of my father’s birth, and we are organizing a range of initiatives, including two exhibitions at the Foundation. The first is “Cento per cento Achille”, which will open on February 16th (his birthday) until April 30th. We asked one hundred designers to contribute a plain object – such as a pair of scissors or a hammer – that has become famous or popular, but whose designer is unknown. My father loved these objects and often showcased them during lessons at universities, to prove how important they were to students. For example, scissors were at the base of a wonderful lesson he held on the relationship between form and function: cutting, of course, but also the shape of the object that could change depending on whether they were used to prune bonsais or cut fabric. The exhibition will be curated by Domitilla Dardi and Chiara Alessi, and will be an opportunity to celebrate all unknown designers.
The second initiative stems from the exhibition project that the Foundation started last year with “Dimensione Domestica”, which explores the themes of modern living by recreating setups by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni. After “Ambiente di soggiorno”, which was displayed at Villa Olmo in Como in 1957 and “L’ambiente arredato per il pranzo” that my father and his brother showcased at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence in 1965, next year (from May to December) we’ll have “Ambiente per il pranzo”, which Achille designed for the 1984 “Mobili Italiani” exhibition held in Tokyo, which we will replicate at the Foundation.

What do you remember about your father, Achille Castiglioni?
He was open, humble and warm. I remember him being happy all the time. He came home whistling. He loved his job very much, but never loved us kids any less. We were privileged. I was the youngest and even had the chance to enjoy more time with him, once his career was going, he was happy, and happy to work for different companies. I have to admit my job at the Foundation is wonderful, and it gives me the chance to feel my father close even now that he is gone.

What was his approach to design?
He was rigorous and precise, but always with a touch of irony that could deflate tension at work. He played a lot with all his designs, although he always aimed for the best in quality and believed in well-designed projects.

Could you tell us a story about him – as a designer and a man – that you remember fondly?
I have so many memories about him, and invite everyone to come see us at the Foundation because when I take visitors on a guided tour I share a lot of stories about him. I may even have put him “on show” more than he or my mother would have liked, but – as I like to say – every visitor can “take home a little Castiglioni”. At the end of the visit people often hug me, because we talk about the real essence of this man and convey all of his enthusiasm, and people really feel like they are taking home a little piece of him.
I have a very pleasant memory of when he invented an object in 1980 to avoid fighting with my mother at night. She loved staying up to read until late, while he went to bed early. He invented a lamp with a mirror that directed light on the book and didn’t bother the person sleeping on the other side of the bed. So my parents never fought again since the Eighties: I think that’s a great story. My father did things with love. He wanted to solve problems: that was good design to him.

What was your father’s favorite, amongst all of his design?
The light switch he designed for VLM in 1968. He loved it and was proud of it because it was a real piece of industrial design: it was cheap, used in everyone’s home, and worked. Instead my favorite is the “Giovi” lamp, which he designed for me: it represents a sun and its rays.

Do you feel any responsibility to tell Achille Castiglioni’s story?
Yes, very much. Both my brother Carlo and I have inherited my mother’s huge commitment to keep his memory alive and manage the firm where he worked for forty years, first with his brother and later alone. I feel a huge responsibility to tell the story of Italian design in the “Castiglioni Method”, but also in every new edition of the objects he designed, because companies are not the same as when Achille worked with them.

How has design changed over the years?
You used to work with ink, no mistakes allowed. Today you can use computers and the Internet has made us all closer in the world. Skype can take you to Japan or China in real time, while my father took hours to get to Tokyo. Perhaps companies should start believing in younger generations again, like Aurelio Zanotta believed in my father, or Alessi believed in Mendini. Today they often bet on objects and marketing, leveraging famous names and neglecting a vast scene of young designers that never emerge because they don’t have the opportunity to rise. The visionary entrepreneur of the past has become wary of risks and very careful about communication. In the past, company and designer worked in mutual dialog, so the former could grow thanks to the latter’s work and vice versa.

So do you think Italian design is still competitive compared to other countries, like it was in your father’s time? 
That’s a good question. If we look at the most important design schools in our country, they are full of foreign students who are curious to find out what happens in Milan’s constant buzz; they absorb the culture of Italian design that put creativity and practicality at the service of design. Foreigners are really “invading” us and this is a sign of the times. I don’t know if we will still be competitive in the future: we need to roll up our sleeves and make good design, not just beautiful shapes.

What would you like everyone to remember about your father?
That he was an extremely humane and open person. I went with him to gallery openings, without realizing how famous he was at the time. He smiled and cared about people and their lives, honestly. He stayed humble and disliked being called “Maestro”. Of course he was happy to have won nine Compasso d’Oro, but he didn’t bask in the glory of his “Arco” lamp at New York’s MoMA – he was happier to know it could be found in regular homes.

Many replicas have been made of his most famous designs, such as the “Arco”. What did he think about that?
Often, someone would come to the office and tell him, “They copied this or that”. To which he replied calmly, “If they are copying it, they must like it”. He smiled when he saw an “Arco” replica. Of course he was not happy to see three holes in the marble base, when one was enough to move it, but in general he smiled at the whole thing, also because it’s not that easy to make a good replica.

What will the Castiglioni Foundation’s role be in the future?
After my brother and I are gone, the Foundation will continue to maintain the archive and welcome visitors making them feel like they are both at a design firm and at home. Next year will be important and decisive for us, considering the celebrations for the centennial of my father’s birth. We can’t make any mistakes, although he used to say, “doing something wrong is right”, because mistakes help us learn not to make the same mistakes again.

What is your advice to young designers hoping to follow in your father’s footsteps?
Be humble and try to design for people. Be curious, look around. My father always told his students “if you are not curious, forget about it”. He urged them to stay hungry for new things, to study and see everything, landscapes, places, things, study music, poetry. Everything we need for design is around us, and being able to see it makes you a better designer than anything that might make you a famous “starchitect”.

What inspired Achille Castiglioni?
Everyday objects, nature, everything around him. He loved seeing everything, even going on amusement rides. He would say, “I’m taking my girl to the rides” – except his “girl” was eighteen by then! It really was his excuse to look at everything around him through a child’s eyes. He loved creating things with people and for people. Even when he sat on the beach, looking at the waves, I think he kept thinking and was wondering what noise rocks hitting each other would make. I think in his mind a beautiful design was being born just then.

Interview by Barbara Palladino

© Achille Castiglioni Foundation


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