On Wednesday, October 18, 2023, Cambi Auction House’s Live Design 200 Auction returns. A not-to-be-missed event for fans of auteur design that, with a unique collection of furniture items signed by the great masters of the 20th century, tells the story of the design world.
Among the authors up for auction, the genius and creativity of Gae Aulenti, pseudonym of Gaetana Emilia Aulenti, considered one of the best architects and designers of her generation, leaving an indelible mark on the history of international design, stands out.
Particularly dedicated to the theme of architectural layout and restoration, working on numerous squares, she won numerous awards during her long career, including the prestigious Imperial Prize for Architecture awarded by the Japan Art Association in Tokyo.
Born in 1927 in Palazzolo dello Stella and the daughter of Aldo Aulenti, of Apulian descent, and Virginia Gioia, a Neapolitan of Calabrian descent, Gae Aulenti graduated in architecture from the Milan Polytechnic in 1953, where she also qualified as a professional architect.
Gae Aulenti trained as an architect in 1950s postwar Milan, where Italian architecture was engaged in the cultural-historical quest to recover the architectural values of the past and the existing built environment that would flow into the Neoliberty movement. In her major works Gae Aulenti willingly embraced this style, which contrasted with the prevailing rationalism through the recovery of the artisanal dimension and the compositional search for detail, which occasionally took up elements of Art Nouveau: it is precisely to that period that Gae Aulenti’s famous Pipistrello lamp and then the Sgarsul rocking chair can be traced, as well as the floral theme underlying the renovation of the Musée D’Orsay in Paris.
D’Orsay Museum in Paris
She began working in a war-torn Italy, where the contribution of architecture was more than ever focused on the historical recovery of the past, which is also why, at over 80 years old, she would say that she still hated rubble.
She used to say of herself that she saw her architecture in close relationship and interconnection with the existing urban environment, which becomes almost her generating form, seeking, with this, to transfer into her architectural space the multiplicity and intensity of elements, which go to define the urban universe. And it will be the stylistic hallmark of Gae Aulenti’s entire prolific career as a designer and architect, that awareness that “it is from form that communication passes” and that in no case can the historical tradition and potential of the places themselves be disregarded.
Gae Aulenti in the Olivetti store in Paris; Domus 452 July / 1967, photo by Marchi Rolly. Interior page view
From 1955 to 1965 she was part of the editorial staff of Casabella-Continuity under the editorship of Ernesto Nathan Rogers, who would transmit to her the importance of an international outlook. “For me it was fundamental to leave for Buenos Aires and take the time to go through Che Guevara’s Bolivia, knowing Paris meant knowing Europe and so on… I never stopped.” Gae Aulenti recounts. On the university front she was assistant first to Giuseppe Samonà (from 1960 to 1962) at the chair of Architectural Composition at the University Institute of Architecture in Venice, and shortly after (from 1964 to 1969) to Ernesto Nathan Rogers himself at the chair of Architectural Composition at the Milan Polytechnic. During that period she met the young Renzo Piano, who was engaged in conducting research for Rogers’ professorship.
Rogers also teaches her that the architect must be “first and foremost an intellectual,” and Aulenti will not miss an opportunity to place deep literary, historical, artistic, and even musical research alongside her architectural designs, succeeding in her intent to gracefully modernize and create an organic system of decoration and structural layout, in continuity not only with the past she enhances but also with the potential of the future.
“The architect,” he said in an interview, “must be able to read the context because very often the roots are hidden and underground. Knowing how to recognize them and make them appear is the great work of historical reinterpretation of a place.”
Olivetti store in Buenos Aires, photo by Erich Hartmann; Domus 466 September / 1968. Interior page view
Gae Aulenti’s professional training continued with none other than Olivetti, ranging from interior architecture, furniture and design to showroom, exhibition and stage design. His famous Pipistrello table lamp, designed as site-specific for the Olivetti showroom he made at the same time in Paris, dates from 1965. Soon after, he would design the Buenos Aires showroom for the same Olivetti. The collaboration with the well-known typewriter company gave her a certain notoriety, so much so that shortly afterwards Gianni Agnelli called her to entrust her with the renovation of his Milanese apartment in the Brera area. A lifelong friendship was born between the two, and for Agnelli Aulenti would conceive numerous projects.
In 1972 he participated in the exhibition Italy: the new Domestic Landscape organized by Emilio Ambasz at MoMa together with many other emerging designers and architects, including Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper, Joe Colombo, Ettore Sottsass, Cesare Leonardi, Gaetano Pesce, Archizoom, Superstudio, Gruppo Strum and Gruppo 9999.
From 1974 to 1979 she was a member of the editorial board of Lotus International magazine, then she gained artistic experience and from 1976 to 1978 she worked with Luca Ronconi in Prato at the Laboratorio di Progettazione Teatrale. In 1979 she was given the artistic direction of Fontana Arte, with which she had collaborated in the past. Lamps and furnishing objects still in the catalog today are produced, including the Giova Lamp (1964), Tavolo con ruote (1980) exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, and Tavolo Tour (1993).
Locus Solus Series, Prod. Poltronova, Italy, 1967, at auction by Cambi in the catalog “Design 200”
Two table lamps mod. Tugboat, up for auction at Cambi in the “Design 200” catalog
Two table lamps mod. La Ruspa, up for auction at Cambi in the “Design 200” catalog
Prominent collaborators include Piero Castiglioni, Pierluigi Cerri, Daniela Puppa and Franco Raggi. She had a long relationship with Carlo Ripa di Meana, from whom she will distance herself because of his closeness to what she will call “deleterious Craxism.” In 1984 she was appointed correspondent of the National Academy of San Luca in Rome, while from 1995 to 1996 she was president of the Brera Academy of Fine Arts. In 2005 she formed Gae Aulenti Architetti Associati with Marco Buffoni, Francesca Fenaroli and Vittoria Massa.
“Needle, Thread and Knot” in Cadorna Square
Every place is “first and foremost a conceptual fact,” and whether it is creating a new access to the station of Firenze S. Maria Novella, or renovating the Spazio Oberdan, the Cadorna station and the forecourt in its adopted city, or designing the new waste-to-energy plant in Forlì or the Musée d’art moderne at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, each planning work will necessarily have to combine an analytical part of organic understanding of the context with a synthetic counterpart, which if well done could even become “prophetic,” that is, capable of “giving indications that can apply to others, that must serve others to learn other things, as a kind of teaching of positive will. Architecture must leave a mark, a message.”
There have been countless and well-deserved awards for the works of Gae Aulenti, an architect who let places define her projects and never the other way around – from the title of Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur bestowed on her by Mitterand to that of Chevalier de la Gran Croce, to the last one, the Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement, which she took great care to collect personally at the Triennale in 2012, in what would have been her last outing.
In an official note, President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano expressed condolences for Aulenti’s passing, remembering her as: “a leading protagonist in the history of contemporary architecture, highly appreciated worldwide for her creative talent and, in particular, for her extraordinary ability to recover the cultural values of the historical heritage and the urban environment.”
On December 7, 2012, the new large circular square located in the center of the Unicredit Tower complex in Milan was inaugurated and named after him.