Midcentury Italian lighting

Auction-room records reveal the current clamour for Italy’s postwar lighting genius. Jenny Dalton reports

Gio Ponti’s 1960 wall lights for Lumi, £11,000 for a pair
Gio Ponti’s 1960 wall lights for Lumi, £11,000 for a pair

If anyone doubted the pre-eminence of Gino Sarfatti (1912-1985) as the king of 20th-century Italian lighting, the recent sale of one of his rare chandeliers for $72,100 at a Wright auction in Chicago should have set them straight. Sarfatti was creator of the now Flos-owned brand Arteluce and was – according to Didier Krzentowski, owner of Galerie Kreo in Paris and an authority on (and personal collector of) Sarfatti’s work – “without doubt the most important lighting designer of the second half of the 20th century”.

Krzentowski continues: “He was actually the only designer who just produced lights. He was also at the forefront of new technologies, especially the use of new light bulbs. He was the first to employ neon and halogens, his 1063 standing light from 1954 being the first with the former. A pure avant-garde work, it predates the earliest Dan Flavin art pieces using neon by eight years.”

A 1948 Gino Sarfatti chandelier, sold by Wright for $72,100
A 1948 Gino Sarfatti chandelier, sold by Wright for $72,100 | Image: Wright

Sarfatti’s star is firmly in the ascendant again, due in part to a recent exhibition at the Triennale museum in Milan and several books on his work. But he isn’t the only lighting designer of that time and place to be enjoying renewed interest. According to Domenico Raimondo, the London design specialist for Phillips, the postwar period produced a number of innovative companies and designers who were part of a “unique synergy happening in Italy at that time between industrial manufacturing and craftsmanship”.

These innovators included Angelo Lelli, the founder of Arredoluce who employed the likes of architect Gio Ponti, and Oluce, founded by Giuseppe Ostuni, who also worked with an architect, Tito Agnoli – not forgetting the design heavyweights that Sarfatti himself had hired at Arteluce, including Vittoriano Viganò, Massimo Vignelli and Sergio Asti. The draw of architect-trained designers, says Raimondo, is that their work has “a different backbone. Their approach is innovative and technical. There always seems to be something fresh and the work is never repetitive.”

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At Phillips, a 2012 sale of 20th-century design saw distinctive works fetch prices well above their estimates. A rare Sarfatti table lamp, model no 576 from the 1950s, reached £10,000 (two and a half times its top estimate), a Ponti 1957 standard lamp for Arredoluce £18,750 (over £3,000 above), and an opaque glass and painted metal lamp by Lelli for Arredoluce £16,250 (nearly £10,000 above). “This is a growing market,” says Raimondo, “and we believe there is more room for growth because of the calibre and quality of the work”.

For collector Nicoletta Fiorucci, founder of the London-based Fiorucci Art Trust, the midcentury in Italy offered “a sort of freedom in design that you can’t find any more. It was a period of design couture, because so few pieces were made. The aesthetic is polished and simple. My favourite is a Sarfatti floor lamp where the shape is so strong and minimal that it suits every home I decorate. I tried new lamps, but couldn’t stand them; I tried older lamps, but they didn’t work for me. I became a collector of the period by default.”

A 1950s Angelo Lelli for Arredoluce floor lamp, £9,800
A 1950s Angelo Lelli for Arredoluce floor lamp, £9,800

Alessandro Pedretti, a Milanese architect and collector, adds: “The 1950s was probably the last decade in which Italian lighting had a particular style; small numbers were produced with a quality that was still artisan but that benefited from industrial manufacture. Today, in a world where many objects are produced in the millions, it seems incredible to own a piece of which maybe only 100 were produced and that was made by a master of his field. It feels like a statement of luxury and distinction.”

Van den Akker Antiques in New York frequently stocks lamps by designers such as Sarfatti and Lelli. Co-owner Rob Copley says prices for lighting by Silnovo, Arredoluce, Arteluce and also Fontana Arte (glass specialists, but very much sought after) “have skyrocketed over the past five to 10 years, as postwar Italian lighting is one of the best ways to modernise a traditional interior, or to add warmth to a stark, minimalist plan”.

A 1962 Lelli for Arredoluce desk lamp, sold by Galerie Kreo
A 1962 Lelli for Arredoluce desk lamp, sold by Galerie Kreo | Image: Fabrice Gousset, courtesy Galerie Kreo

Despite the rarest pieces now selling for over £10,000, many examples are priced in the low thousands. It depends wholly on the availability of and the demand for a particular design, says Gary de Sparham, CEO of De Parma in London’s Chelsea. He currently stocks a range of Lelli and Ponti designs, several Sarfattis, and creations by Ostuni for Oluce. Meanwhile, online retailer Vintage Seekers features designs for under £2,000, including those by Luigi Massoni for Guzzini, and, for £1,500, a pair of 1960s Clio wall lights by Sergio Mazza for Artemide.

Interestingly, there are also still unexpected discoveries to be made from such a prolific time of productivity and design. De Sparham sells a number of anonymous pieces for less than £1,000 because “they’re cool, funky and of the period”. Pedretti admits he is now collecting anonymous designs, too, because they have “incredible value due to advanced visual or technical innovation for their time”. Italian design and lighting dealer Paola Bazzoli, who exhibits and sells at London’s Modern Shows, counts Gaetano Sciolari, a designer of fabulous geometric chandeliers, as one of her favourites. “He’s not very well known to the general public, but for me he is an absolute genius.”

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