“I want to make light bulbs when I grow up,” she said as a child. Interview with Giovanna Castiglioni

“If you’re not curious, forget about it” – anecdotes about her father Achille, the Foundation dedicated to him and an inherited passion for design. The editorial staff of Archiproducts meets the 20th-century master’s daughter

A treasure trove of stories about her father, Achille. Giovanna Castiglioni – this year on the jury of the Archiproducts Design Awards 2022, together with the most influential personalities gravitating around the world of international design – wanted to share them with the Archiproducts editorial staff in a brand new interview.

Giovanna’s passion for design began at a very young age, leading her to inherit the innate irony and attentive curiosity that has always distinguished the ‘Castiglioni Method’ from her father – the 20th-century master and creator of iconic and emblematic Made- in-Italy furnishings.

“I was always a practical, dynamic child. I loved taking objects apart – like radios and lamps – and putting them back together. When they asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up when I was between 6 and 15 years old, I would say that I wanted to make light bulbs. With a father like mine, it was impossible not to think about light!”

With a degree in geology, Giovanna has been vice-president of the Castiglioni archive since 2005. Together with her siblings, she is the precious soul and ‘guardian’ of the cherished heritage of ideas and projects that her father Achille left to the world of design.

“Opening my father Achille’s studio to the public is a challenge that my mother Irma and my siblings left to me. How could I say no? For me, Achille was a funny, ironic, playful, affectionate, caring father, and not very much that ‘great master of design’ known to the world”.

 The interview with Giovanna Castiglioni

When you were a child, how did you answer the question ‘what do you want to do when you grow up’? Did you ever imagine that you would become president of a foundation named after your father? Did you have other plans?
When asked, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ between 6 and 15 years old, I used to answer that I wanted to make light bulbs. Naturally, with a father like mine, I wanted to think about LIGHT. I was a practical, dynamic child and loved assembling and disassembling objects, radios and lamps. Over time, I realised that it came naturally to me to engage in such activities, even more so today. As a child, I would never have imagined myself in this job. Today, I love explaining the objects in the Foundation and recounting Achille Castiglioni’s design process. It fascinates and amuses me. But above all, I like to see people’s reactions when I tell them about him. What is certain is that when I got my degree in geology, having studied geological stratifications on my academic trips, I would not have thought I would go into the design discipline within a few years of graduating. Today I am working on the stratification of the Castiglioni archives, and I am thrilled! It all adds up! In any case, my resume ends with the phrase, “and she still doesn’t know what she’s going to do when she grows up!”… Curiosity is my driving force and who knows where my heart will take me! 

Giovanna Castiglioni_photo Nayla Ghazzaoui

A memory or an anecdote from Castiglioni. If you close your eyes and think of him, what is the image that comes to mind?
The incredible harmony created every time we were out and about together. Whether it was a trip for leisure or business, Achille found everything that came his way amusing and exciting. With the curiosity of a small child, he was always asking, “why?” and “how does it work?”. I can tell you that in every shop my father would go into, he would touch everything. He was curious about how the shelves, the displays, the lights and everything else were built. He was never still. Sometimes the shop assistants would look at me in astonishment, embarrassment and sometimes even annoyance! I used to smile when Achilles would say – as justification – ‘… the little girl just wanted to understand…’.

What moment of your time with him holds the most power in your memory?
I had the privilege and good fortune to have a very present, sweet, and funny father. There are so many moments that I keep alive in my mind. If I had to pick one, I would tell you about the time we went to Florida for a lecture and I, as a teenager, accompanied him as his ‘assistant and translator’. I didn’t know how to do either of those things, and I was too engrossed in that fantastic experience. Achille did everything he could to carve out a moment to take me to Epcot Center, one of Walt Disney World’s parks, which, for us Italians, was absolutely futuristic. At the time, it was highly unusual to see so many attractions all at once. He was there for inspiration on lighting and cutting-edge technical and technological solutions, and I felt like I had gone to heaven because everything was so much fun when I was with him.  

Curiosity, playfulness, and irony are words that often return in Achille Castiglioni’s story, both as a master designer and as a person. What value does irony have in design today, and what has changed compared to a few years ago?
Yes, these are words I just used myself in our chat, and I think that nothing would change if only people would learn and not take themselves too seriously!

Giovanna Castiglioni_ph Stefano Guindani

What was the philosophy of the Castiglioni studio when designing a new product?
Indeed, the ‘Castiglioni method’ always drew on solving a problem, giving form to function, and taking inspiration from anonymous objects whenever possible. Objects have their own intelligence and a particular function beyond their form. Achille was a great collector of such things, and he left us this passion. We always return from every trip with an interesting anonymous object that I then refer to in some lecture or on a guided tour of the Foundation.

Is there something in the Castiglioni studio that has never been produced that you prefer among the many?
Certainly, his last project that you awarded at the 2021 Archiproduct Design Awards. CENTO3 is a writing set – a 2001 project by Achille Castiglioni and Gianfranco Cavaglià that was not produced for 20 years and has now come to life with a company born during the pandemic period and now entering the world of design. I am talking about the Bologna-based Ego.M that manufactures and assembles everything in Italy but distributes worldwide. Of course, the Castiglioni archives always have surprises in store, and I can tell you that there is another unproduced project in the pipeline right now!

What moral legacy do you think your father Achille left to the world of design?
At the risk of being repetitive, let’s continue to share this slogan, which is increasingly topical, especially now that technology is in danger of extinguishing creativity in young people:  “If you are not curious, forget about it! if you are not interested in others, in what they do and how they act, then design is not for you”.

Imagining the evolution of design in the long term, do you think that 100 years from now, design icons will be mere museum pieces or will they still be part of our homes?
When I think of objects from 1962, such as the Arco, Taccia, Toio, Ventosa and Relemme lamps, and again the Sleek spoon and the Giro chair, I would say that only two of these have not gone out of production after 60 years. The others are still in production, between Flos and Alessi. I hope that the work we are doing with the Fondazione Achille Castiglioni also serves to keep the memory alive, but also attention towards objects that were not born to be fashionable or, worse, ‘design’. Since my father passed away (in 2002), but even more so since 2006 (when I started working at the Foundation), my brother Carlo and I have focused intensely on re-editions. We have been engaging in dialogue with companies and trying to give new life to no less than 35 objects that are still highly functionaltoday, in our opinion. I will not be here in 100 years. Still, I try, in my own small way, to convey this to the 7,000 visitors that I welcome every year in Piazza Castello 27 in Milan so that they can take away a piece of history and carry it forward as a design legacy for everyone.

Studio Museo Achille Castiglioni, Milano 

In your view, what is the winning approach to creating a good design product?
We must continue to respond to needs that change every day. We have seen how habits, situations and requirements change abruptly according to historical periods. If design continues to answer only to marketing needs, I don’t think we will have objects that will remain in production for a long time. We need a broader vision,  and we also need to believe in today’s designers and not just be enchanted by a big name (whether designer or company). It would be interesting to develop projects with the right mix of expert designers (and by this, I do not necessarily mean archistars or masters) and those from the new generations. I recall the couples of singers who appear at the Italian music festival at Sanremo, who got together despite having different styles. I think it’s essential to create a challenge between designers willing to put together a vision of the future and experience a team game without competition and stimulate artisans and companies. Achille used to say to his studio, ‘For us, design research is not a moment of isolation, but rather a joint effort of many people who put their specific skills on the table. Skills from different disciplines and interests come together in the designer’s project – a  moment of expressive synthesis in a great collective effort”.

What advice would Achille Castiglioni give to young creative students and future design professionals today?
I cite and quote a phrase from the book “Di – Achille Castiglioni” by Gianfranco Cavaglià, which I like very much. It inspires my communications work at the  Fondazione Achille Castiglioni. “A good project is not born from the ambition to leave a mark, but from the desire to establish an exchange – even a small one – with the unknown person who will use the object you designed”.® is a registered trademark of S.p.A
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