Essay #04 - The New Face of Fontana Arte

When the Nice group, producer of home and industrial automation systems, acquired the entire share capital of Fontana Arte in 2012, the challenge to restructure one of the most iconic Italian lighting brands didn't seem like an easy task. Retaining the character of this icon, founded in 1932, introducing new blood into collection in a coherent way, and no longer relying on its archive pieces and classics was the overall purpose of the group. The first sign of success was the opening of the new store in Milan late last year. Located on Corso Monforte, the space designed by Fabio Calvi and Paolo Brambilla is a link between the past and present of Fontana Arte, combining the charm and smooth shapes of the 1950s with the latest technological innovations. Gio Ponti and Pietro Chiesa, the founders of the brand, were a clear inspiration, and their spirit and their creations echo throughout the store.

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Known for being one of the most remarkable figures in Italian post-war design, Gio Ponti stood out for his eclectic creative streak, covering areas as diverse as architecture, painting, graphic design and scenography. While the Pirelli Tower remains an elegant landmark on Milan's cityscape and Domus magazine – founded in the 1920s together with Gianni Mazzocchi – is still a reference in the field of architecture and design, pieces like the Superleggera chair for Cassina or the collection of objects for Christofle demonstrate the timelessness of Ponti's legacy.

The broadness of his vision, the constant search for visual lightness and freshness, and the blend of functionality with a poetic element were the foundations of the designer's work and the founding elements of Fontana Arte, which live on even today.

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Similarly, the influence of Pietro Chiesa marked the history of the Italian brand. From an affluent family of artists from Ticino, he soon started specialising in glass, a material he was greatly fascinated by for its fluidity and versatility. Combining modernity with extraordinary technical ability, Chiesa used the glass to create some of the first pieces for Fontana Arte, many of which are still in production.

The Fontana coffee table, designed in 1932, is an excellent example of his relentless desire to experiment with the properties of the material, taking them to the extreme.

Featuring great visual lightness, the Fontana is a subtle object where, hidden behind its simple lines lies enormous technical complexity, having been built with a single pane of molded glass with a thickness of 15mm. Responsible for over a thousand prototypes, Pietro Chiesa is also the author of other Fontana Arte classics, such as the elegant Luminator lamp and the sculptural Cartoccio glass vase.

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Since Fontana Arte has always been founded on craftsmanship, in the mid '50s, the French master glassmaker and decorator Max Ingrand, known for his stained glass windows in churches, was invited to be the brand's creative director, taking it into the industrial era. Taking advantage of the economic expansion of the postwar period and the growing public interest in interior pieces, Fontana Arte abandoned the limited editions and moved on to mass production, but without losing its attention to detail. Celebrating 60 years in 2014, the Fontana lamp (now presented in black as an anniversary edition) is Max Ingrand's best-known piece and the materialisation of the ideas that the Frenchman introduced to Fontana Arte, combining industrial manufacturing methods with a delicate body in white blown glass.

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In 1979, the Italian brand began a new phase with the appointment of Gae Aulenti as artistic director. A renowned architect and prolific designer – she was behind projects such as the renovation of the interiors of the Musée d'Orsay and the Palazzo Grassi, and classics like the Pipistrello lamp –, Aulenti introduced a dynamic cultural renewal at Fontana Arte, restructuring the collection and making media and marketing a strategic element of the company. Enlisting the help of Piero Castiglioni in product development, Pierluigi Cerri on the graphics side, and Daniella Puppa and Franco Raggi in event and exhibition design, Gae Aulenti cemented Fontana Arte's position as a leading name in the lighting field, a feat that was recognised with the Compasso d'Oro award in 1998. Having passed away in 2012 after receiving an award from the Milan Triennale for her career, Gae Aulenti left an important cultural legacy, laying the foundations for an auspicious future.

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Taking on the great responsibility of leading the creative side of Fontana Arte in 2012, the designer Giorgio Biscaro became the new artistic director on the brand's 80th anniversary. Rather than collaborating with renowned architects and designers, Biscaro called in a number of emerging talents to present the new face of Fontana Arte.

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While the GamFratesi duo created the Cheshire collection, a reference to the cat popularised in the story Alice in Wonderland, Ferréol Babin presented the innovative Lunaire wall lamp, inspired by the luminous effect of eclipses. Dutch artists Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta, founders of Studio Drift, developed the suspended sculptural lamp Albedo based on an installation presented in Dubai in 2012; Andreas Engesvik designed Blom, a truly luminous flower; the studio Form Us With Love created the original Yupik, a multifunctional piece made with polypropylene foam, and Studio Klass came up with the luxurious Odeon, a 'wall washer' fully covered in leather.

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With a timeless design, the latest pieces from Fontana Arte have brought a much-needed breath of fresh air to the collection, whilst respecting the tradition of the brand and Gio Ponti's philosophy:

“I am interested in the splendour of the past, but I'm much more interested in the splendour of the future.”

Article published in Essential Macau No.19