Product + Furniture Designer (1930-1971)
Design Museum Collection
In his brief but brilliant career, JOE COLOMBO (1930- 1971) produced a series of innovations which made him one of Italy’s most influential Italian product designers. From the Universale, the first chair to be moulded from one material, to the all-in-one Boby Trolley, everything Colombo created was intended for “the environment of the future”.
When most designers discover that their work was been ripped off, they erupt in understandable fury; not Joe Colombo who would say: “We’ll just have to make it better.” And if a manufacturer didn’t show as much enthusiasm for a project as Colombo himself, he didn’t waste time arguing, but stopped work and found another company to make it.
Thanks to this energy and optimism Joe Colombo produced an extraordinarily broad body of work in his tragically short career. Not only did he die young – of heart failure at the age of 41 – but he also came to design relatively late having devoted his twenties to painting and sculpture. Yet in his decade or so as a designer, Colombo was exceptionally prolific. He created some of the most memorable products of the 1960s: from the Universale, the first chair to be moulded from a single material, to the futuristic all-in-one living systems which culminated in his opulent Visiona, the “habitat of the future”.
Born in Milan in 1930, Cesare Colombo – nicknamed Joe – was the second of three brothers. The eldest, Sergio, died as a toddler. The youngest of the three, Gianni, grew up to be one of Joe’s closest friends and collaborators. Their father Guiseppe was an industrialist who had inherited a ribbon factory from his father and turned it into an electrical conductor manufacturer. Encouraged by their musical mother, Joe and Gianni spent their childhood drawing and making Meccano models. Joe was even allowed to clear a large space in the family home to construct elaborate Meccano structures.
After switching from science to art at secondary school, he studied painting and sculpture at the Accademia di Bella Arti in the Brera area of Milan. There Colombo joined the Movimento Nucleare, an avant garde art movement founded in 1951 by his friends Enrico Baj and Sergio Dangelo. Like them, he experimented by painting abstracted images of fossilised organic forms. Colombo also sketched fantastical visions of a futuristic “nuclear city” where man would exploit advances in atomic science to create a new way of living.
He ventured into design by creating a ceiling for a Milan jazz club in 1953 and three open-air rest areas featuring “television shrines” in which TV sets were used to construct miniature theatres or shrines in the following year’s Milan Trienniale. Inspired by this, Colombo enrolled as an architecture student at Milan Polytechnic. When their father became ill in 1958, he and Gianni took over the running of the family firm. Colombo abandoned painting, but used the factory as a playground by experimenting with the latest production processes and newly developed plastics such as fibreglass, ABS, PVC and polyethylene.
In 1962, Colombo opened a design studio on viale Piave in Milan where he worked on architectural commissions, mostly interiors for ski lodges and mountain hotels (together with jazz and cars, skiing was one of his passions). He also continued his experiments in product design to which he applied the same love of bold, folding, curvaceous forms – and hatred of sharp corners and straight lines – that had characterised his paintings and sculpture.
This was a rich period for product design, especially in Italy. During the 1950s, eminent Italian designers such as Achille Castiglioni, Gio Ponti and Ettore Sottsass had proved to manufacturers how effective design could be in helping them to market products internationally. The development of new technologies and materials, like the plastics that so excited Colombo, created new possibilities for designers: at a time when consumers were tantalised by the space race, the Pop Art movement and the promise of new ways of living.
Colombo saw his role as a designer as the “creator of the environment of the future”. Throughout the 1960s, whenever he wrote or lectured, his emphasis was on change and the possibility of harnessing new technologies to produce new design solutions. “The possibilities presented by the extraordinary development of audiovisual processes are enormous,” he opined. “The repercussions on the way in which humanity lives could be considerable. People will be able to study at home and carry on their own activities there. Distances will no longer have much importance.”
In retrospect, Colombo turned out to be correct: as he was when he predicted that: “Traditional families are tending to give way to small groups created on the basis of affinity. We will have, in short, the natural tribal society … These groups living and working in common will require a new type of habitat: spaces that can be transformed, spaces conducive to meditation and experimentation, to intimacy and to interpersonal exchanges.”
In his mission to furnish this “new type of habitat”, Colombo applied new production processes and materials to existing types of furniture. After the 1963 Elda armchair, the first to be made from fibreglass in such a large size, he devised the 1964 Small Armchair With Curved Elements, which is produced by slotting together three pieces of curved plywood, and then the 1965 Universale chair. Obsessed by making a chair from a single material, Colombo had begun with aluminium, then ABS and, finally, polypropylene. Stackable and easy-to-clean, the Universale is also adjustable because its legs can be unscrewed and replaced with longer ones. He struggled for two years to perfect it for mass-production and finally succeeded in 1967.
Rather than simply modernising existing types of furniture, Colombo was intent on reinventing them as new concepts which would be better suited to a mobile, fluid late 1960s lifestyle. One of his obsessions was storage. As early as 1963 he had designed a Combi-Centre container consisting of cylindrical units to store books, drinks or tools, which slot on top of each other in a wheeled unit. The following year he produced the Man-Woman Container, a futuristic version of a 19th century trunk, in which rails, shelves, drawers and mirrors are stashed inside two cupboards: one for a man, the other for a woman. These experiments culminated in the 1970 Boby trolley, a mobile ABS unit of rotating drawers and shelves, which is still in production today.
Colombo also reinvented seating. In 1967, he unveiled the Additional Living System consisting of moulded polyurethane cushions in six different sizes which could be pinned together in different configurations according to the users’ wishes. Two years later, he took self-assembly a step further in the Tube chair composed of four ready-made upholstered semi-rigid cylinders which, once again, could be put together into any shape the user desired. The final futuristic touch was the packaging. Colombo insisted that the cylinders of each Tube chair were sold “off-the-shelf” in a drawstring bag of his design.
Other innovations included the 1964 Ragno outdoor light in a squat, spider-like form which doubled as a seat, the 1966 reversible Two-in-One drinking glasses with two goblets that also act as bases and the 1970 Linea 72 in-flight service tray for Alitalia where the dimensions of each compartment are measured so precisely that there is minimal movement of the crockery and cutlery in the air. There was a self-indulgent edge to many of Colombo’s innovations. His 1964 Smoke glasses marked a departure from conventional symmetrical shapes but also enabled the drinker to smoke at the same time by clutching the glass with their thumb, leaving the fingers free to hold a cigarette. The heavy-smoking Colombo also loved pipes and designed the 1969 Optimal as a self-supporting pipe which did not require a stand.
The previous year he had designed a relaxation area for the Trienniale Exhibition in Milan consisting of a hemisphere filled with upholstered armchairs and chaises each equipped with headphones, ashtrays and glass holders. Colombo had also devised the Box 1 “night and day facility” in which the contents of a conventional bedroom were contained within a series of interlocking boxes which divided to become a bed, wardrobe and shelves.
In 1969, he created a more luxurious version of Box 1 in Visiona, his visionary “habitat of the future” in which the contents of an entire house are contained within a series of mobile elements in a space with no dividing walls. He then developed the 1971 Total Furnishing Unit in which all essential living spaces – kitchen, cupboard, bed and privacy and bathroom – are contained in a single unit in Colombo’s signature colours of white, yellow, red and black.
The Total Furnishing Unit was exhibited at the Italy: The New Domestic Landscape exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1972, but Colombo did not live to see it there. As exuberant and energetic in enjoying his private life as he was in his work, Joe Colombo died of heart failure on his birthday – 30 July 1971 – exactly 41 years after the day he was born.
1930 Born in Milan where his father Guiseppe ‘Mario’ Colombo owns an electrical conductor factory.
1951 As an art student at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Brera, he joins Movimento Nucleare, an avant garde art movement founded by Enrico Baj and Sergio Dangelo.
1953 Designs the ceiling of Santa Tecla, a Milan jazz club.
1954 Creates three open-air spaces with benches and “television shrines” for the Milan Trienniale exhibition. Enrols in the architecture faculty of Milan Polytechnic.
1958 When Mario Colombo fell ill, Colombo and his younger brother Gianni are left in charge of his factory. Sets up a studio to experiment with product design.
1961 The brothers withdraw from the family business to concentrate on design and art respectively.
1962 Opens a studio on via Piave next to Gianni’s. Designs the Roll armchair and chair.
1963 Launch of the Elda, the first large fibreglass armchair, as well as the all-in-one Combi-Centre mobile storage unit and a miniaturised kitchen for Boffi.
1965 Completes the first two versions of the Universale stacking chair which, in ABS, will be the first chair made from a single material.
1966 Designs the Two-in-One drinking glass combined two goblets each of which can be used for drinking or as a base.
1967 Develops the Additional System self-assembly armchair which will form part of his Relaxation Area at the next year’s Milan Trienniale.
1969 Launch of the self-assembly Tube Chair sold as a kit in drawstring bags, and of the Visiona series of mobile, customisable “habitats of the future”.
1970 Co-writes New Form Furniture: Japan with fellow designers Pierre Paulin and Sori Yanagi. Unveils the Boby Trolley, an all-in-one ABS storage unit, the Linea 72 in-flight service tray for Alitalia and Birillo series of bar stools.
1971 Completes the design of the Total Furnishing Unit to be exhibited in the following year’s Italy: The New Domestic Landscape show at MoMA, New York. Joe Colombo dies of heart failure on 30 July, his 41st birthday.