Gino Sarfatti was in awe of light, but obsessed with the light bulb. Through the designer’s long line of innovations, from the slender aluminum floor lamps of 1956 to the bowl-shaped wall sconces of 1970, this obsession holds sway. Even in his most whimsical designs, like the 1953 Lollipop Chandelier that has a palette worthy of a Calder mobile, each feature defers to the light source. “The most important element is the shape of the bulb itself,” Sarfatti told Jean-François Grunfeld in 1984, in the last interview he gave before his death.
Though celebrated during his lifetime, Sarfatti’s contribution to lighting has gone surprisingly unexamined. Only one monograph of his work, an exhibition catalog published by Galerie Christine Diegoni and edited by Frédéric Leibovitz, exists, and it’s easier to find him mentioned in showroom press releases than in histories of mid-century Italian design.
But as a 2003 article by Gilles de Bure subtly suggested, this may have something to do with Sarfatti’s own aversion to art with a capital “A.” He saw himself as technician and craftsman, interested in “innovating rather than prettifying.”
Born in Venice in 1912, Sarfatti belonged to a storied family that included feminist critic Margherita Sarfatti, notorious for being Mussolini’s mistress and an enemy of fascism. He began studying aeronaval engineering at the University of Genoa, but did not finish due to family financial problems. Instead, he took a sales job at a Milan glass company, a twist of fate that undoubtedly informed his ultimate career path. Sarfatti designed his first light fixture in 1938 and founded a small workshop called Arteluce in 1939. Though he would flee to Switzerland during the Second World War, he would rebuild the workshop when he returned to Milan in 1945.
Arteluce began experimenting with Plexiglas as early as 1951, and pioneered the of use halogen in light fixtures in 1971. It won the Compasso D’oro Sarfatti for Table Lamp Model 559 in 1954, and again in 1955 for Model 1055. It also became a regular haunt for some of Italy’s most exciting young designers, among them Franco Albini, Gianfranco Frattini, Vittoriano Vigano and Marco Zanusso. But award-winning and connectedness aside, it was Sarfatti’s almost clinical preoccupation with the working of bulbs, cords, and stands that set him apart.
Certainly, an interest in bare-bones technology wasn’t unique among mid-century designers, but most aimed to create objects that were a sum of their parts. Sarfatti fixated on the parts. In Floor Lamp 1063, a model made in 1954 and now included in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, a vertical fluorescent tube is the light source, and a transformer on the floor provides both energy and balance. Each element feels wholly autonomous.
Twelve years later, Sarfatti made Lamp Model 600P, a metal and leather table fixture that presents the light bulb as if it were a baseball peeking out of a strangely elegant mitt. In 1971, just two years before Sarfatti sold Arteluce to the lighting company Flos, there was Model 608, a pair of wall sconces that look like little red bulb-bearing dishes, the cords hang down like tails. Like all of Sarfatti’s most engaging work, they’re unpretentiously elegant products of fine-tuned curiosity. And, of course, they’re all about the bulb.