The new Fondazione Achille Castiglioni exhibition “The Rules of the Game”, pays homage to Castiglioni’s meticulous but ironical approach with a hugely varied provision of artists linked to this exceptional figure.
The son of a sculptor and brother of Livio and Pier Giacomo, Achille Castiglioni travelled the design world and the history of Italian lifestyle inside and out as an adventurer and a mallard.
With his overflowing but strongly disciplined imagination and the unbridled and uncontainable exuberance of a street urchin, Castiglioni drove design and industrial production for 60 years, dipping endlessly into his bottomless pit of surprise inventive. Ever in search of new areas and different forms, he constructed lamps out of fishing-rod rings and car headlights, stools out of bicycle and tractor seats, bedside tables out of old dressmaker’s drawers and hats out of cake moulds. This approach to invention was his panacea. He liked nothing more than to climb the gangway for a trip to the most far-off landscapes he could imagine and then shine a spotlight on “anonymous objects”, as he liked to call them. Set against playful backgrounds, all were totally lacking in pomp and affectation, no ostentation or vagary whatsoever. “Start from scratch every time, humbly and patiently” was his programmatic admonition. The object he was most proud of was a simple switch which he liked to place close to his ear to hear it click. A flower in the wind, his pollen fertilised generations of artists.
Wonderful memories of Achille Castiglioni’s creative genius abound in his Milan studio at 27 Piazza Castello (turned into a family museum with the backing of the Milan Triennale in 2006). It is the ideal place in which to rummage metaphorically in the tool chest of this great visionary designer, steeped in its original, vibrant ambience. An eternal Sunday-feel seems to hover in the air, more a scattering of thoughts than of products, and the poetry never wanes. Until 11 April, it is the venue of an exhibition produced by the Milan Triennale in collaboration with the Fondazione Achille Castiglioni. Even the title, “The Rules of the Game”, pays homage to Castiglioni’s meticulous but ironical approach with a hugely varied provision of artists linked – some more, some less – by an umbilical cord to this exceptional figure. The Triennale’s Artistic Director, Edoardo Bonaspetti, deserves the credit for having seen the Studio Museo Achille Castiglioni as a sunny space where this remarkable contemporary-art project could flourish like a lush vine, adding foliage to the already well-deserved laurels. The curator Luca Lo Pinto was tasked with coordinating all the possible/impossible geometries.
Like a fanciful à la carte menu featuring spaghetti, eel soup, serpent in brine, oat bran, fried bees and apple cake with vanilla ice cream, all the vigour of this exhibition lies in its erratic nature, in the way it unravels and drifts undirected, like a water-diviner. Subject to the force of gravity on Planet Castiglioni, the works exhibited sink into the effervescence of the Studio Museo, like candied peel in a rice pudding or twigs in a forest, dangling and liquefying with chameleonic ease amid bookcases packed with magazines and registers, coffee-coloured files piled high on mile-long shelves, frosted white prototypes (the “zero issues”) and others become acknowledged icons of contemporary design – such as the Phonola radio with its Bakelite casing dated 1939 (designed by Livio and Pier Giacomo with Luigi Caccia Dominioni), the Sella stool of 1957, the Sleek spoon for jars of 1962, and the Spiral ashtray of 1971. It is like a lost-property office where the leitmotif centres on obscure elective affinities and highly subjective preferences. Allusions, metaphors, inspiration and legacies.
Like two winking cynical-red and acid-green traffic-lights, Charlotte Posenenske’s Minimalist and modular aluminium sculptures are an explicit comment on the relationship between mass production and craft, to which Amalia Pica responds by planting two knitting needles in a potato to produce an elementary TV aerial (a jokey homage to the forest of fake broadcasting/receiving antennas the Castiglioni brothers scattered across the roof of the RAI pavilion for the International Milan Fair of 1958). Placed at the entrance, between a stack of chestnuts and a tin of paintbrushes, Stefano Arienti’s Libro Argento is an invitation to place your signature somewhere in the river of unsure, elegant and infantile handwriting but it is with Achille Castiglioni’s name that Emilio Prini ennobles anonymous expense entries recorded on a notebook page, lost in a swarm of loose newspaper clippings with high-sounding headlines (“Tragedy was born with Achille”, “Silence, Achille is speaking”), photographs, drawings and postcards.
“Illuminating” interventions come from Céline Condorelli (incandescent bulbs flashing poignant words of friendship), Thea Djordjadze (a wall lamp made from the back of an old cinema seat), Christoph Meier (a failed copy of the Arco floor lamp that belonged to the artist’s grandparents), Lisa Ponti (a drawing featuring a rhythmic recurrence of the Splügen Bräu ceiling lamp, designed by the Castiglioni brothers for the eponymous beer house in Corso Europa in Milan) and Riccardo Previdi, who tests the industrial procedure for the production of the Taraxacum, Viscontea and Gatto lamps and – revolving around himself like candy-floss on a stick – transforms himself into a pupa.
More “breakaway”, one instinctively thinks, are the proposals by Alek O. (a broken glass) and Martino Gamper (a shattered mirror), invested by conceptual inspiration that, however, is completely lacking in Carol Rama’s docile canvas and cardboard sculpture, as soaked in magic and seduction as a rum baba, like Olaf Nicolai’s fallen black meteorite. An impenetrable mystery seems also to colour Richard Artschwager’s surreal mahogany receptacle (the finest work in the exhibition), a Pandora’s box containing “four approximate objects” in shiny chromed steel (an egg, a cone, a cylinder and a sphere), “born in the darkness and out of otherworldly perfection”, to quote the artist, “as if generated by numbers, although their origin is that of a glacial pebble that rolled for hundreds of years until every flaw was eliminated. In this case, the hand reads better than the eye.” A similar fingertip touch is the aspiration of Max Lamb’s batch of prehensile aluminium, copper and brass pieces, all produced by honing a car bodywork die; meanwhile, Mandla Reuter’s topographic models are anchored to the first bold architectural exercises churned out by a young Castiglioni while at the Polytechnic: a drawing of a “room for a student” (published by Domus in 1940) and a model of the Fascist Centro Rionale building made from sweaty slices of cheese, today showcased under a glass dome in a room of the Studio.
A tall and only slightly curved mirror ingeniously positioned by Castiglioni to see beyond his shadow cones reflects a tilted blue image of his daughter Giovanna enveloped in the most sought-after Trussardi outfit ever: Giovi, a spacesuit in soft laminated black/silver fabric that Patrick Tuttofuoco cut out zealously on her figure. With a radiant smile and an excitement that pushes her onto the tiptoes of her red and black-clad feet, Giovanna, a geologist by training, is like a pilot fish as she steers visitors through the carillon of time and that mineral stratum of memories that was her father’s studio for more than 25 years and is now the epitome of the “memory-object”. Also floating in a floundering memory exercise is Jason Dodge’s work, as imperceptible as the bat of an eyelid, all crouched in the ably hatched tale of some geese that seemingly roved and cackled freely inside the Studio Museo for a few hours, leaving only a trail of feathers and excrement behind them. Somehow, Dodge convinces himself that his undomesticated gesture assumes the grandeur of a legend but, most importantly, says the artist, “It is a reminder that a studio is a live place.”