Joe Colombo is arguably one of the most influential and colourful designers of the 20th century. Born in Italy in 1930 he was first active as a painter in the burgeoning ‘nuclear movement’ of European artists influenced by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By the late 1950’s Colombo had turned his attention to industrial design and began experimenting with the new and exciting materials, including reinforced plastics, which were being developed in laboratories across the globe.
By 1962 he had broadened his remit and opened his own design office in Milan to focus on applications from architecture to interior and product design. Success was quick to follow and in 1964 he was awarded the prestigious ‘In-Arch” prize for the interior of a hotel in Sardinia the ceiling of which was made of Perspex prisms that diffracted the light into the hotel. This working concept led directly to the deign of the “Acrilica” light for O-Luce which is now held in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art, Philadelphia.
In the same year Colombo began a close and fruitful working relationship with the Italian plastics and modern furniture manufacturer Kartell, who still produce a number of his key products. His first design for Kartell was the ‘4801’ chair that was oddly made from interlocking plywood. After many years out of production, in 2012 Kartell reintroduced the ‘4801’ but now made of plastic, Joe would approve! Shortly after he conceived the important ‘4860’ or ‘Universale’ chair, the first plastic seat in the world to be injection moulded in a single piece.
Colombo designed for a world where functionality was paramount but always progressive and often futuristic (this was the 60’s, the decade of the Space Age). His ‘Boby’ trolley system of modular movable furniture is a perfect example and still in production today by B-Line unlike the ‘Tube” chair made of padded tubes that could be rearranged to suit any seating position.
As well as furniture, alarm clocks, watches, door handles, glassware and even smoking pipes received the Colombo makeover. His “Smoke” glasses for Arnolfo di Cambio have an offset stem to allow the drinker to smoke, eat and greet beautiful ladies without having to put it down.
Colombo’s ultimate conception was the reworking of the whole living environment. He proposed that we would live in large, open rooms (‘open plan loft living’ anyone?) in which would be integrated micro ‘living pods’ (bedrooms with integral TVs) and modular kitchens with built in appliances (sound familiar?). He was truly a man ahead of his time.
Unfortunately Colombo’s star was one that burnt brightly but quickly. He died on his 41st birthday, perhaps having enjoyed one skiing trip, one cigar or one glass of wine to many, but his designs live on and have influenced the very way we live to today.