This article was originally published on Domus 1084, November 2023.
The name of the Pipistrello lamp (meaning “bat”) neatly describes the wings of light that open above the extendable metal body. The lamp itself originates from a project that Gae Aulenti (1927-2012) created for Olivetti’s Paris store in the late 1960s. From the 1950s, the Ivrea-based company was giving a new, international look to its shops, entrusted to BBPR in New York, and to Franco Albini with Franca Helg in Paris.
In 1967, Aulenti was invited to renovate the shop in Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré. Defining a continuous space, she connected the historical, bustling outside with the welcoming and modern showroom, thanks to the choice of materials such as plastic and chrome-plated steel. The store was conceived as an Italian piazza, a place to stop and marvel, whose perimeters were defined by white laminate walls and gentle curves, on which leather cushions were placed, and punctuated by architectural elements with distinctive shapes. The orange-red pillar and a staircase by the large window accommodated products, while the African wooden sculpture, like a disquieting muse by Giorgio de Chirico, represented an inhabitant of Italy’s piazzas.
The pages of Domus highlighted the centrality of light in the showroom layout: “The general lighting, with hidden sources, is aided by the fantastic ‘bat’ lamps on the various floors” (Domus 452, 1967). The Pipistrello was therefore a complementary element of an integral and calibrated interior design, which also included the construction of an inviting ambience.
The drawing in the archive, which is now directed by the architect’s granddaughter Nina Artioli, shows the careful engineering of the “table and reading” lamp, with its extendable telescopic neck and light sources concealed by “very clear white” opaline Plexiglas, as well as Aulenti’s attention to the proposal of materials, stem colours (chrome-plated brass and nickel-plated) and finishes (“very dark brown”).
Produced by Elio Martinelli – a courageous experimenter of the most ingenious lighting solutions – Gae Aulenti’s bats sat on the steps and floor of the Parisian showroom like faux-discreet presences, which instead have the power to build a unique and memorable sensory experience. The success of the lamp was immediate: the Pipistrello continued its fortunes after its Paris adventure and remained a permanent fixture in the Martinelli Luce catalogue, which today proposes a “Pop” version with a yellow base, a bright, cheerful colour with character, in the spirit of Gae.