Future in light: Artemide’s vision

by Editorial Staff

Compasses Magazine

Interview by:
Marco Ferretti and Ivan Parati
Image credits:
Courtesy of Artemide, Ferrari Ph and Luca Mallamo

EG Ernesto Gismondi (President of Artemide)
CDB Carlotta de Bevilacqua (Vice President of Artemide)
MF Marco Ferretti (Publisher of Compassesworld)
IP Ivan Parati (Design Consultant of Compassesworld)

During the opening of the Artemide showroom in Dubai (Building 6, Office 307A Dubai Design District) the editor of Compasses interviewed Carlotta de Bevilacqua and Ernesto Gismondi, Vice President and President of Artemide.

Interview by Marco Ferretti and Ivan Parati Image credits Courtesy of Artemide and Luca Mallamo EG Ernesto Gismondi (President of Artemide) CDB Carlotta de Bevilacqua (Vice President of Artemide) MF Marco Ferretti (Publisher of Compassesworld) IP Ivan Parati (Design Consultant of Compassesworld)

MF: We are very interested in understanding your company’s path, your evolution, both in terms of design and in terms of market and strategies. Then we would like to know more about the combination between Artemide and Danese, two companies that are now under the same umbrella. How much are they complementary, or vice versa is there any cannibalization effect?

CDB: They are completely different.

MF: You play various roles: academic, entrepreneur…

CDB: In fact, the course of life, mine surely, is often a journey full of encounters, discoveries and experiences that nourish our perspectives, changing and combining different roles. Thanks to my mother Franca de Bevilacqua, who worked as an architect in Milan, I started expressing in architecture my dream of designing. In the following years I turned it into business, thanks to the teaching of Ernesto Gismondi, founder of Artemide and companion of a lifetime, and the everyday experience with him.

MF: Among all these roles which one prevails?

CDB: In the fate of crossed paths the role that I have always tried to grasp is that of designing and creating the best life quality for humanity, for living beings. This thing seems militant, rhetoric, passionate, but it is true. This is the theme of my life. Any type of project aims to distribute cultural quality and everyone chooses his own. I chose architecture because it is the culture of doing: making architecture today means doing something for others, designing something in which humanity in all its forms – private, public – can live. Then life makes you come across personal stories, but also new research directions, that guide you towards the projectuality that you feel is most significant, both in terms of knowledge and of tool. Especially the great technological revolutions are the ones that have always created new opportunities for change and innovation. In particular, the century of electronics and quantum mechanics has changed humanity, creating a completely different dimension. Between late nineteenth and early twentieth century everything has been put into question, first from a scientific point of view and then from an industrial one. Edison’s light bulb, Freud, literature breaking down, Joyce, Nietzsche, are all part of an extraordinary moment: reinforced concrete and industrial discoveries generate a new possible quality of life; electricity, communications, products distribution with a more widespread delivery range and so on. Then the century of electronics gives way to the century of photonic. What I think can bear witness to my life is that I had the good fortune to intercept changes. When I was 27 I met this gentleman, Ernesto Gismondi. I had graduated a few years earlier, I had done apprenticeship in the studio of my mother – an extraordinarily cultured woman, daughter of the Milanese culture of brave architects – and at the same time I was already on my way. Those were the years of the cultural and political militancy and right then I met him and light in architecture, an issue that has always been fundamental, because there is no space without light and no light without space. Meeting Gismondi has meant to have more passion for the light theme, but at the same time to maintain my independent paths as an architect and a teacher. In the end business, design and culture coinciding together with the strong relationship between research and communication makes it possible today for business to truly change the world. We are ambitious and somehow try to do so. Of course since his debut he has been revolutionary, because he was a pioneer of the relations in the culture of the project (the one among the architects of the Fifties-Sixties such as Ponti, Aulenti and Magistretti), and later he has discovered new technologies, getting closer to the design of Richard Sapper and other major international architects; finally, going on still today in researches in fields such as electronics. Given a certain generational distance, in meeting him I gave a boost to innovation, today with a vision of the light phenomenon, not only as visible spectrum, but also as a corpuscular phenomenon.

MF: Which products show it more clearly? Since when can we identify this influence?

CDB: It is difficult to say. The actual moment of true changing took place when we decided not to produce lamps but to design light. This occurred with the “Metamorphosis Collection”, in the early 1990s. At one point we imagined that the form was less interesting because an important freedom of interaction on light – in that case it was the part of the light in terms of perception, which has a very important physiological and psychological effect on us – was developing. According to light entrepreneurs’ legacy, there was a clear separation between decorative and functional aspects in workspaces. Let’s say that the onset has been imagining a light that would put man at the centre of the project, so that, wherever he is – at work, on the street, at school – he would be entitled to a good light. This of course has been the principle, but somehow it has also led to a change on the formal aspect: design simply means a designed object, conceived to do things and at the end return us empathy. In the end we need form and craftsmanship, but this must be the final outcome, where eventually if you have talent you have emotion. To me form is the expression of limits and technological opportunities, it is not an item end in itself. Designing light is not just drawing a shape, but investigating and managing both the more technical aspects and the ones of performance, however, always placing great attention to man, to his needs and well-being. Technological innovation must be confronted to a vision, must be filtered by the values of a new humanism that relates man to the necessities of life and its spaces, but also confront itself to the community and the future of the planet, with values and ethics.

MF: What do you mean by ethics?

CDB: Designing light is an ethical gesture, in fact light is like air and water: humans and nature cannot live without it. It is therefore a key element in contributing to life and its quality. Artemide is a company that has always paid great attention to sustainability. Being a “company of light” it is very careful to the life cycle of a product, both “upstream” – raw materials, energies that are used during production – and “downstream”, through a long life of the product, but also during the phase of usage, because light is energy. This long life means respecting resources. Ernesto has always cared very much about this issue. Tizio has been created in 1972, Tolomeo in 1986, but even today all the products designed and made aspire to a long life service. As Michele de Lucchi said: «Tolomeo was created with an Edison light bulb, then it became a family, then a world». In the many versions in which it has been produced over the years it has been able to evolve in order to accommodate different light sources, from the traditional incandescent and halogen ones, to fluorescents, up to the LED tunable white. A world capable of including variants that are extremely democratic, as the versions with a traditional E27 Edison screw or highly sophisticated ones fitted with integrated LED circuits capable of varying intensity and colour temperature. It is therefore an ethical product for sustainability, accessibility and ability to provide answers to human needs in different spaces, to the point that the Politecnico of Milan tested it with excellent results for the LCA (Life Cycle Assessment). It is the same also for Tizio’s history: technological and mechanical innovation of the source. If you look at Tizio what is the first thing you see? When they asked me I didn’t notice. It doesn’t have the wire, this is the first major innovation. In 1972 Gismondi found out that in cars they have used a very small 12 Volt bulb: he was already determined to make a light that went as far as possible in spatial extent and therefore he began working on this with Richard Sapper. It was the first time it was used a 12 V light bulb: and so he takes the transformer, which becomes the base, the arm sticks, that conduct electricity, the press-studs, that are connection and joint, and thanks to the lightness of the bulb, it is possible to bring light in space without any balancing problems. This shows that the form does not produce the project, but innovation does. After the LED revolution, still ongoing, we are confronted with a new interpretation of light in its photonic sense, as a medium that is able to also manage the production, distribution and control of data. This means that we will have an increasing number of products capable of interacting with man in a smart way, not only through sensors to which we passively undergo the reactions, but also turning us into actors of interactive scenarios. Our life has changed; it requires freedom in rhythms, spaces and activities, in a flexible and open way, with a greater awareness in the use of the planet’s resources. All our day-to-day is evolving into a dynamic and ethic interface of our lives, where the individual is the protagonist, increasingly free to choose and create his own environment, connected to the world. Today, projectuality must therefore offer a better alternative to what we already have, an “interactive design” between technological frontiers and contemporary humanities. Light today is the protagonist of the century and by light we mean photonics, which can now carry data, signals. We are now in the so-called “Internet of Things”: this is a theme we are investigating, because it means that we can write the intelligence of light, we can make sure that it interacts bidirectionally, giving us messages. These intelligences that we attribute to objects are designed through what I call the parametric design. Therefore, starting from the qualitative values that we attribute to them, we can also give interaction. This means that it is possible to act in real time, unplanned, to be truly flexible and be able to give great support, both from the point of view of experience and emotions and for our rhythms of life, even in important issues such as health.

MF: In fact in some passages you speak of physiological and psychological well-being.

CDB: Yes, because light can be interpreted in two ways that are not in contradiction: this is the great fascination of light. As wavelength – therefore as perception of the visible spectrum by our nervous system, which means colours – light is measured in nanometers and we perceive them from 380 nm to 780 nm, starting from blue, then violets, then red. But light, again, is a phenomenon that can also be interpreted in terms of quantum, which means the energy amount, and it can carry data. This to me right now is the most exciting project that may change the world.

MF: How does LED change the way of designing?

CDB: LED should not be interpreted as a traditional source, but as the phenomenon of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics basically says that the atom is no longer seen as it was, but the electrical charges that the electron receives modify it and make it go from one orbit to another. At first scientists believed this would have changed the structure of the atom, thus it remained configured that way. Not only Einstein, but an amazing group of people, has worked so hard on this issue saying: «no, the electron returns into its original position, so if it has been loaded positively, it loses energy going back», the famous quantum leap. In this way electronics was born, because in this way we are able to manage the electric charges of the electrons with the famous microchip. At that point, however, all the energy released in this quantum leap is thermal energy. After the war, in the late ’50s, some Japanese and American scholars began to imagine that this lost energy could not only be thermal energy, but also light energy, that is photons. Therefore the LED is a light phenomenon totally different from traditional sources.

MF: So, in terms of benefits for your business, does LED give you a greater flexibility?

CDB: The fact is that you have no alternative, it is the present and the future. It’s as if we wanted to return to the CRT after the flat screen, it doesn’t make sense, for many reasons: the LED lasts ten times longer, consumes ten times less. It’s an irreversible path that will not stop to the LED, but will go on. And this has changed the way we design, so now you have no limits, you can really go and re-design light-making.

MF: May all this passion for quantum mechanics derive from the fact that your father is a chemist?

CDB: I believe that quantum mechanics is absolutely philosophy. If I were 18 years old today I would enroll in Physics. Instead I didn’t study Physics, I have a strong humanistic culture, I am an imprecise humanist.

MF: Do you speak of Humanism to overcome the decadence?

CDB: Yes, absolutely. We must above all have a vision, a vision made of shared-values, whatever professionalism you have. Let’s say I believe you have to have vision and passion, but at the same time it is important to research, study – mainly technological and material researches – and then proceed to manufactory, to doing, to doing well. I want to congratulate you on your magazine, to me it is central because we live in space – inside, outside, private, emergency – and it is this great passion for it that makes us think of light.

MF: What are style and decoration to you? How do they deal with technology?

CDB: I’m a bit militant. I am against style, for me it is a negative word. I think in the end what a project expresses, also through form, is the talent to put together all this knowledge, intelligences, values, costs, manufactories, and so on. Whether it is an architectural project or any other project, it should give us a thrill. I think this is the talent of a designer: to be able to move someone, not because he has a style, but because he has a sense that he expresses in forms. I am quite opposed to the abuse of the expression of style, regardless of a reason you find in this or in all times of decadence. Instead I believe it is very important to carry out LED technology, which through the optoelectronics innovation allows us to be actors of our light, to be free to interact.

MF: How do you feel about the theme of light pollution?

CDB: The theme of light pollution depends on the legislation for the application of outdoor lights, with different variations for each country. However, I also believe that the issue of outdoor, urban lighting has significantly changed. The impact of legislation is not as important as the new interpretation of urban space: light is much closer to buildings, buildings themselves become, as in New York, the city lights.

IP: I would be interested to know an aspect of the company, which is still rooted in the Italian territory and run by the family. How is this projected in a global situation? Maybe it gains momentum starting from Dubai, with influences and contaminations from a completely different culture. How can you balance between these two realities, between one that is more deeply rooted in the territory, probably more free and at the same time more limited, and a more global reality, which is less free, therefore more restrictive from a possibilities point of view?

EG: Already in the first post-war period there has been a phase – the Italian Rationalism – of intellectual growth, of ferment in the field of architecture. I founded Artemide with Sergio Mazza with the idea of making something important. We had the idea to involve the architects who were the protagonists of the cultural revolution, to pass it on also through new ideas and projects in the field of furnishing light. The question is local, Italian, but especially based in Milan. The roots of Italian design sprout from this coincidence of men, creative energies, cultural and university realities, designers, enlightened entrepreneurs and places of know-how. The link with the territory has been crucial because not only we had the chance to design but also to create what we designed. Artemide had a very artisanal startup, the first catalog had only six lamps, but from the beginning we decided to do things seriously, in a structured way. We also realised that to grow we should have had to increase exports. Those were golden years in which we started to introduce our products abroad, along with other major Italian companies: first in US, then in Asia and Japan, where we were helped to design new pieces by the ideas of internationally renowned architects. Even today we bring into the global market products by designers and architects from all over the world, but with a know-how, a manufacturing rooted in our territory, Made in Europe. The main factory is still in Pregnana, then we have two more production sites in Italy (one in Venice for the blown glass), one in France and one in Hungary (also one in Canada, but to follow the different standards of the American market).

This article appeared on Compasses issue 24.

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