He was a designer with no conventional training in arts and architecture. He was a designer who had plans of becoming an aeronautical engineer. He was a designer who came from an affluent background but had hard times fall on him when his family’s business failed, forcing him to quit university and take up a job as a salesman to make ends meet. He was a designer who became one not by design, but by accident when a request by a friend to turn a glass vase into a light led him to design his first ever lamp.
It was perhaps his background or the lack of formal training that led Gino Sarfatti to chart an unconventional path in the way he perceived and created “design”. While his peers sketched models of their designs and rarely got involved in the manufacturing process, he worked closely with artisans in developing his creations. That’s when he learned to improvise and find clever and creative ways to construct lights.
Born in Venice in 1912, Sarfatti had to overcome odds to find success. Not only did he suffer financial hardships, but he was also virtually uprooted from his home in Milan when it was bombed during World War II. Fearing persecution by the fascist Italian regime owing to his Jewish roots, he had to abandon his company Arteluce, whichhe had set up in 1939 and which had already become an international stage for the modern architecture in lighting movement, and live in virtual obscurity and penury in Switzerland.
However, he returned to Milan soon after Liberation, taking charge of Arteluce once again and doing what he did best – designing lights. During the three decades he was professionally active, Gino Sarfatti designed and produced over 400 lighting products. In addition to retail productions, Arteluce also undertook export operations and large scale projects which included the Michelangelo and Raffaello cruise ships and the “cloudlike” Nuvola installation for the Teatro Regio in Turin. But his contribution to the lighting design industry was far more significant as he continuously and tirelessly experimented with new materials, production techniques, light sources, and design aspects. He designed the first lamp to use halogen bulbs back in 1971.
Meanwhile, his company Arteluce became a meeting point for some of the leading lights of the Italian design industry of the time and was instrumental in shaping the modern Italian architectural movement. Sarfatti’s work saw him and Arteluce win many prestigious awards including the Compasso d'Oro in 1954 and 1955 and the Honorary Diploma of the Milan Triennale. The ownership of Arteluce changed hands in 1973 when Sarfatti sold it to FLOS. The Italian lighting company incorporated many of his designs into their product range including the award-winning MOD 1063 free-standing floor lamp, the spectacular 2097 chandelier, MOD 548 table top lamp, MOD 1095 floor lamp, MOD 2129 droplight ceiling pendant, and the MOD 607 table lamp.
Some of the lamps were designed as far back as the late 1950s, but they display a finesse and modernity not seen often in products of that time. These lamps are classic examples of Sarfatti’s technical prowess and his ingenious, and forward-looking approach to design.
Sarfatti retired while he was still at the peak of his career, choosing to lead a quiet life at his lake house in Griante. The maestro breathed his last on March 6th, 1985 leaving behind a rich legacy of creative, inventive, and functional lighting products. His genius continues to illuminate the lighting design industry even today.