Gino Sarfatti (1912-1985) lighting designer, industrialist

Born in Venice in 1912, Gino Sarfatti studied aeronaval engineering at the University of Genoa before moving to Milan. His first lamp design was a vase that he outfitted with a lighting fixture from a coffee machine. Inspired to create more lights, he opened the “Rational Lighting” workshop. Sarfatti worked closely with artisans to develop designs, learning all the technical details of lighting production along the way. This enabled him to design new and ingenious kinds of lighting.

In 1939, Sarfatti co-founded Arteluce, which was to become internationally preeminent for modern architectural lighting design. When Milan was bombed during World War II, he moved production to Brianza, and then fled to Switzerland with his family, fearing persecution because his father was Jewish. In 1945 he was able to return to Milan and resume charge of Arteluce. In the early part of his career, Sarfatti focused his attention on directional beams that could be adjusted in any position, as well lamps that had both an upward lighting and downward lighting source. After the war, he shifted his focus on creating more sophisticated lighting effects utilizing new kinds of light sources, wiring, switches, and reflectors, as well as experimenting with the shapes and materials of his designs, first using Plexiglass, for example, in 1951.

Arteluce became a forum for the Italian modern architectural movement and its leading designers. (The prestigious Milan shops were themselves successively designed by Marco Zanuso in 1951, and Vittoriano Viganò in 1961.) Among those Sarfatti commissioned to design lighting in the 1950s and 60s were Franco Albini, Cini Boeri, Livio Castigiloni, Gianfranco Frattini, Massimo Vignelli, and Vittoriano Viganò. Sarfatti himself continued designing throughout, as well as incorporating new technologies. Notably, he helped pioneer the use of halogen bulbs, designing one of the first halogen table lamps in 1971. This innovation allowed him to achieve designs of dramatically minimalist lines and proportions, the style of which continues to recognizably inform much contemporary lighting.

Sarfatti distinguished six different categories of light designs, or “light fittings,” as he called them (spotlights, reading lamps, wall lamps, chandeliers, etc.), assigning a particular number sequence to each category and individual design. Among Sarfatti’s more unexpected design elements are the use of craggy marble slabs for the base of a floor lamps, and attaching an ashtray to a lamp. He even added a walking stick to one. His most spectacular large-scale project was his 1972 lighting design for the Teatro Regio in Turin. The 18th century opera house had been destroyed by fire and was restored under famous Italian architect Carlo Mollino. Comprising hundreds of hanging Plexiglass pipes, Sarfatti’s lighting design is a focal point of the theater’s strikingly modern interior, and is fittingly called “The Cloud.”

Overall, whatever the scale or use of his designs, Sarfatti consistently maintained his rationalist credo and aesthetic that form be determined by function. He believed in designer and manufacturer working together and constantly utilizing technological innovations, working always towards making designs trimmer, lighter, stronger, more flexible, easier to disassemble, repair and maintain. Over his thirty-five year career, he created more than 400 different light fittings, typically manufacturing a few hundred examples of each.

In 1973 Sarfatti sold Arteluce to Flos, and retired to Lake Como until his death in 1985. Today, Flos still produces several Sarfatti lights. Many original vintage pieces, meanwhile, owing to their meticulous design and quality manufacturing, continue to function effectively and have achieved classic modern status. In 2012, a retrospective of Sarfatti’s work at Milan’s La Triennale Design Museum celebrating his birthday centennial, helped generate new interest in his work worldwide, rendering it all the more collectable.

La Triennale Design Museum, Milan, 2012
Sarfatti retrospective featuring 200 of his light fittings

Honors and Awards:
Compasso d'Oro, 1954 and 1955
Honorary Diploma of the Milan Triennale