For fifty years we have been crafting objects of light and shedding brightness on generations of dreams.
For us, light is the substance for expressing new ideas and illuminating unexplored emotions. We write the future, reading our past and expressing the present, in a continuity of positive challenges and bold choices that have shaped our image and identity.
Our history has taught us to fan the flames of provocation with research into new poetic notions of functionality.
Trusting our intuition has always allowed us to create products that become icons, establishing new typologies and innovative archetypes.
Connecting with masters of design. Discovering new talents. Commanding high technical and technological status. Staying tuned into mass culture. These qualities always place us at the cutting edge.
Experimentation opens the way for us to use revolutionary materials – as in the past with Cocoon – and hi-tech solutions, today represented by OLEDs and eco-sustainable materials.
By conceiving new languages around light, we chart new aesthetics and freedoms for living.
Our lamps, of yesterday and today, never fail to be serious about their sense of play and irony.
On the fine line that divides and unites art and design, craftsmanship and industry, the limited edition and larger scale manufacturing, an individual’s idea and the collective imagination. That’s our place. That’s where you’ll find us.
In the early 1960s, Italy was a world of possibilities, a kind of progress-minded fairy garden (where yet a few old conservative ogres roamed). An unprecedented economic boom gave leeway to a type of design and industrial production which aimed to build up a new way of living that was up-to-date, modern and above all independent from the dominating models of American consumption-culture that were then being preached. It is quite amusing to discover, many years later, how Italy succeeded in contradicting the outcome of complex psychological studies and costly marketing surveys (of which “one must always be suspicious” as Achille Castiglioni used to say) by constructing – in an uncomplicated way, and with few means – the design culture that would become the reference model to the world, Americans included.
In those years, the most distinguishing peculiarity of Italian entrepreneurs was their success at unearthing, from the folds of a national economy that was still craft and family-based, the necessary people, instruments and production capacity to manufacture industrial archetypes and products of absolute novelty which, before long, were worldwide icons of design. And so it was for Flos in the new phase that began with the passing of its helm from the artistic approach of Dino Gavina to the more entrepreneurial style of Sergio Gandini. Sergio and his wife Piera had been in the furniture business since 1959 in Brescia with their store Stile, an important showcase for many manufacturers. When Flos moved to Brescia in order to tap into the acclaimed local expertise in metal manufacturing (an area that would now be called an “industrial district”), Gandini soon became a partner in the company owned by Gavina and Cesare Cassina. Despite its relocation from Merano to Brescia, the firm was having difficulty turning much of a profit, although its production included brilliant pieces such as Arco, Toio and the whole Cocoon series of lamps.
Gandini entered the company with a vision that combined astute management and the capacity to see a demand for products that was not yet satisfied. And so his figure as an entrepreneur joined that of others such as Cesare Cassina, all of whom knew how to collaborate personably with architects and rise to the challenge of developing a new market sector: modern objects for the modern home. In their vision, culture and industry overlapped with production ingenuity and well-chosen communication channels. The first lamp produced under Gandini’s leadership was called Jucker (by Tobia Scarpa, 1963) in reference to an esteemed member of the Bauhaus clan: a clear homage to the cultured matrix of nascent Italian design. In 1965, even The New York Times mentioned the Arco lamp, which was presented at the International Home Furnishing Market in Chicago – a pioneering initial approach to the capricious American market. Entirely new was the idea to plan new products by means of an “image committee” made up of the company’s owners and its designers, who were bound to the company by the exclusive right it had to their designs of lighting fixtures. The designers were Afra & Tobia Scarpa and the Castiglioni brothers, who would remain the creative soul of Flos’s entire production for many years to come.
In landscape architecture, “desire lines” is the enchanting expression used to define the spontaneous paths made by the footfall of pedestrians who have no time or desire to follow the winding walkways that designers have worked so hard on to “embellish” their project. They are the typical, noticeable tracks of eroded grass that usually indicate the most direct or convenient route to one’s destination. Desire lines can be interpreted as personal paths to the discovery of beauty, ones that everyone would like to find for themselves without obeying rules or following conventions. This is what the garden of Italian industry was like where Flos sprouted, grew and blossomed. The pieces of its production were like as many desire lines: unusual and surprising shapes and ways of illuminating, light sources and trajectories that branch off the beaten track along the unpredictable byways of chance and intuitive design.
They are the typical, noticeable tracks of eroded grass that usually indicate the most direct or convenient route to one’s destination. Desire lines can be interpreted as personal paths to the discovery of beauty, ones that everyone would like to find for themselves without obeying rules or following conventions. This is what the garden of Italian industry was like where Flos sprouted, grew and blossomed. The pieces of its production were like as many desire lines: unusual and surprising shapes and ways of illuminating, light sources and trajectories that branch off the beaten track along the unpredictable byways of chance and intuitive design.
A NEW DIRECTION
“Postmodern” is probably the one philosophical term used commonly in every day language that has had the longest run of notoriety. Nowadays, however, few can recall just how important a role it played in influencing trends and styles in the late ’80s/early ’90s, especially in the fields of furniture and interior design. Flos never succumbed to the rather simplistic interpretation that identified postmodernism with neoclassical columns, Corinthian capitals and other amenities, which more than a few companies in the furniture and lighting business bought into. Still, in the company’s silent revolution that began in the late eighties, there was a lot of postmodern, in the best, most sophisticated, sense of the term.
If being postmodern means acknowledging that modernism, in all its purity — especially in the field of design — had reached a dead end, then the choices made of a young Piero Gandini seem not only brilliant from a business point of view, but also demonstrate an intuitive understanding that the world of products and spaces for lighting would soon be radically changed, thanks in part to a good dose of irony and self-effacing humour by the designers. Even in this new version, Flos always stayed true to Flos. Achille Castiglioni remained a source of continuous inspiration and creativity — for example with his new Taraxacum, the 1988 reinvention of the flower and final tribute to the incandescent light bulb — publicly launched with both a big party in Milan’s Palazzo Visconti and an ironic stand at Euroluce, where the products were present but invisible, displayed under sheets of light tissue paper. And even an architect like Tobia Scarpa freed himself from the purist language of his first pieces and — with Piero Gandini’s guidance — invented a curious product such as the adjustable table lamp Pierrot (1990). Also produced in a limited edition, it used low-voltage to create flat arms in various finishes, including the application of a graphic pattern that reinterpreted the notion of decoration, an idea that orthodox modernism had tried to abolish.
The real strategic change came about, however, with the arrival of Philippe Starck, whose first project for Flos was Arà (1988), a curious pivoting, horn-shaped lamp that reflected the fable-like imagery of a designer soon destined to achieve immense popularity. Piero Gandini had already understood the commercial possibilities of Starck’s work — by then already a world-renown interior designer — and readily accepted his proposal to mass-produce a small plastic object designed for a hotel in New York: Miss Sissi, a kind of iconic bedside lamp, “What everybody subconsciously thinks a lamp is”, as Starck would put it in a lecture years later. Sergio Gandini was initially dubious, but in 1991 the project went into production and became incredibly successful. As Piero told Francesca Picchi and Valerio Castelli in an interview: “We sold eight thousand Miss Sissis in ten days; we had to set up the moulds four separate times in fifteen days, and the following year we sold over one hundred thousand of them.”
If design is war, as Enzo Mari likes to say, then with that successful insight Piero Gandini had earned his first medal, decorated as a genuine entrepreneur for once again being willing to risk investing in a simple idea, which, in itself, certainly didn’t guarantee large sales, even if it had come from an intelligent designer like Starck. From then on, the two forged a bond of friendship and trust that grew into an increasingly-close knit working relationship and led, shortly thereafter, to Starck’s becoming a member of Flos’ ‘Image Committee’ — an exclusive group that, for over twenty years, had comprised only Scarpa, Castiglioni and, of course, Sergio Gandini. Having overcome his doubts about the whole Miss Sissi operation, Gandini began his long and affectionate farewell to the company and to his role in management that was well on its way to being successfully passed on to the next generation.
WHERE IS THE FUTURE NOW
Even those who strive their hardest to find meaning in the work of designers and producers have difficulty following the fluctuations of design factories in the face of technical problems, market demand and new designers and inspirations. The hard industrial reality remains the need to sell the items that are produced, with sufficient continuity and growth to allow continued investment in culture, communication and image. Which is why we need to ask ourselves what projects Flos has in store in the short term and how it intends to stay loyal to its cultured image in the turbulent waters of markets and peoples’ desires.
There is no doubt that diversification, initially in the architectural sector, and rising market share help sustain initiatives that offer artists and designers new ways to express themselves. And so it was that in the same year, 2007, Flos presented its Architectural catalogue in Barcelona (in the super white, lunar MACBA Museum designed by Richard Meier) and, just a few months later in Rome, thousands of visitors came to see the huge light projections by Jenny Holzer in some of the city’s finest monumental art locations, from Gianicolo to Castel Sant’Angelo. Likewise in the new Flos showroom in Corso Monforte, which opened the same year, young artists attended new product presentations, showing their installations around the pieces on show. This showroom is a place of unusual coincidences for me. For many years the magazine Abitare had its offices here, where I worked with Italo Lupi and other dear friends, discussing new international designers in articles in the magazine. And it was one of the most intelligent of them, Jasper Morrison, who designed those spaces for Flos, with natural and artificial light alternating between the ground floor and the basement, where the natural darkness provides the ideal place to try out different lighting conditions, surrounded by stones, water, dark colours and reflecting and non-reflecting surfaces.
There therefore needs to be something more than general interest to combine art and design (a highly complex operation, in which certain producers have risked and continue to risk banality) into a vision for an industry that is still rooted in ideas and shapes. They are basically quite abstract concepts, linked only to human perception, until someone produces them in real life as tangible objects. The concept of sustainability too, so invasive in many public declarations and so lacking in concrete action, for Flos becomes something real in its partnership with the inventors of a new, totally biodegradable resin that is tested in 2012 to produce lamps designed to disappear in time when no longer of use, in the natural, original run of things.
So how can the intangible be transformed into tangible? Or is it not possible to imagine truly intangible production? And is light not perhaps intangible by definition, with its particle/waveform nature, at least according to certain theories? These aren’t philosophical speculations, because increasingly production, services and the market are more information than matter, more virtual experiences than real contacts. One of the tasks of a new industrial culture is to define the methods and strategies to deal with this unprecedented situation in technical and artistic history. Flos seems to have got off to a good start when we think, for example, of Paul Cocksedge’s 2011 installation that used red Sestosenso lights to show a virtual racing car to visitors to the Corso Monforte showroom during the Euroluce trade fair.
In the run of things, I have had the chance to meet Piero Gandini on several occasions in recent years, to talk about Flos in Domus or in this or that book, or simply to enjoy listening to a more open industrial vision about the future of design and objects. Over and above his activism, his sensitivity in being able to understand the value of designers who are often just starting out, and his desire to experiment, I have always seemed to find in him the same inventive vein, and also the “cold passion” of a creator in his own right, someone who without doubt produces material things, but who at the same time makes possible new, different states of illumination, which are by definition intangible. It is no doubt an interesting and gratifying balancing act, but one that is also difficult and risky. It is a question of taking up the challenge of the future, of what has not yet been seen or done. The people who do so, like Gandini, are helped by digital technology, which still has lots of surprises in store. So let’s see what Flos brings next and enjoy the experience of this fascinating present/future of artificial light, even if only to be able to tell those who come after us about it.