Franco Raggi. For me, light is all about shadow

Flûte Magnum
Flûte Magnum FontanaArte, 1999

For LUCE, I met Franco Raggi, the gentle master of Italian architecture and design. We talked about light, design and human relationships. And of Milan, his city of birth and life

Franco Raggi
Franco Raggi photo© Giovanni Gastel

Irony is a very useful and serious way of not taking yourself too seriously. It is a positive attitude that will remind you that what you are doing may not be true.

Let’s start with the introductions. Who are you, Franco Raggi? And what is light for you?
To the first question I answer that I am an architect, perhaps an artist, and by chance a designer. As to the second question, I cannot answer, as light is whatever each person wants it to be. For me, it is the shadow. I see it more negative than positive; I see it as something you have to manipulate, filter or change, manage and transform. There is no absolute light. There are endless lights, that of the Mediterranean Sea, that of a snowy meadow without sun, that of a forest, the artificial ones, or that of the moon, etc. The lights are atmospheres, and knowingly constructing them is the architect’s job; today they call him lighting designer. And in my opinion, this should have little to do with the lighting standards, quantities and regulations. I would like to start a movement against the regulations, to free us from dimensional requirements that only serve to protect us from ourselves and from our distraction. We should learn to know our limits and ourselves, and then perhaps there would be no need for regulations. I have never thought about light except as a consequence, so since I started designing lamps I have always designed them from an emotional point of view. I have imagined objects telling stories, no matter if they were lamps, a suitcase or a vase, a lighting installation or a house. 

  • OZ Tavolo
  • Oz sospensione.

Fontana Arte, Artemide, Barovier&Toso and Luceplan. Tell us about your collaboration with these big companie
Principally, I worked with Fontana Arte and Barovier&Toso. For Artemide I designed Trifluo, using a technology patented by the company, and which Ernesto Gismondi had called some designers to interpret. It was a RGB system with fluorescent lights of three colours and managed with a remote control that allowed you to mix the colours obtaining infinite chromatic possibilities. The Trifluo lamp was created around the layout dictated by the 6 light sources, so it was a thin object with a micro-prismatic diffuser that allowed you to read the colours and to spread a homogeneous coloured light. It had only one flaw, it was expensive. I proposed to Gismondi to make one with a chromatically fixed light, more affordable and easier to use. However, it is vital that a company has visions and tries new ways of research and experimentation even if, in the end, certain products will not be a commercial success. 

With Fontana Arte and Barovier & Toso, there has been a more continuous relationship over time. If I were an entrepreneur, I would not look for the big names, but for someone with whom to engage in a long-term dialogue, even on issues unrelated to lighting or design. I would talk about art, politics or philosophy, because making products is not just a relationship between a client and a designer, it is something more complex and multifaceted. I started working with Fontana Arte in 1980, when Gae Aulenti became the Art Director. I met her thanks to my work at the Venice Biennale as a coordinator of the exhibitions in ’76, and then as editor of the Modo magazine. I think it was my way of telling and writing that was of interest to her. The fact that the great Aulenti called someone like me, who had never designed anything, has always seemed to me an act of generous unconsciousness and farsightedness together. And from there a collaboration with the company started, lasting thirty years. A remarkable team had been created around Gae and Carlo Guglielmi: Gae Aulenti, Piero Castiglioni, Pierluigi Cerri, Ettore Sottsass, Daniela Puppa and myself. Thanks to everyone’s work, and to the continuous dialogue with Aulenti and the company, Fontana Arte became, once again, one of the most prestigious Italian brands. It was them sold and everything changed, they widened the horizon and involved many designers on call, with spot collaborations that worked for the marketing, but which damaged the image coherence of the brand’s collection. A story similar to that of Luceplan, grown thanks to the close relationship between Riccardo Sarfatti, Paolo Rizzatto and Alberto Meda. Then again everything changed and the relationship turned off and the innovative tension too. With Jacopo Barovier it was a different but equally casual meeting, it happened after having heard me speak in 1981 at a conference on the design of useless and of appearance, and on the banality of marketing. Together, we redesigned the image of the company confirming it as a leader in the production of classic Murano glass and its evolutions in the modern sense. Also in this case a professional and cultural relationship of exchange and friendship was created that went beyond work.

La Classica, 1976.
La Classica, 1976. Collezione Design Centre Pompidou dal 2015 / Since 2015, part of the Centre Pompidou’s Design Collection

As journalists linked to the world of design, we tend to associate a lamp or an object with a name and vice versa. In our case it is Oz. Would you tell us more about it?
Oz was born in 1980, in the same year I was working with Alessandro Mendini, Daniela Puppa and Paola Navone at the exhibition on post-modern design for the Venice Biennale, alongside the Strada Novissima by Paolo Portoghesi. Since design was not present in homes in 1980 as it is today, we decided to do an exhibition using anonymous objects. Our reflection started from the fact that the buyers of a design object were a niche, cultured and intellectual, while the great mass of consumers happily bought anonymous objects, between banality and kitsch. We therefore thought to display forty “normal” products, without any apparent quality, showing a cynical view of the world of objects. The exhibition featured products that we had bought in supermarkets or on our travels, but that told a concrete and uneven material culture; whether they were beautiful or not did not matter. We decided to decorate these objects with fluorescent pins that at night, under the light of Wood, would shine, showing their essence/absence. To illuminate the objects, I designed a “precious” glass lamp: an opal glass cone, cut and bevelled, and with a sloping crystal plate that crossed it. In short, it was a both precious and stinging object. Fontana Arte created it for the occasion, and then it entered the catalogue also in a table version, resting on a transparent crystal base.

Looking at your work I noticed three possible design approaches. The first one is the use of primary forms (Flûte and Oz), the second is the research (Trifluo), and the third is the innovation (Mood and Domo). What do you think, am I right about these approaches?
I do not know. I can say that in my work I like to explore extremes. Let us take for instance “to do little”, and the Flûte lamp. It was minimal, in transparent borosilicate glass and aluminium; the glass served only as a support and did not have the function of filtering the light. The beauty of borosilicate is the possibility of combining the shapes without moulding, the perfect transparency and the possibility of cutting holes in it without chipping. The funnel derived from the classic shape of the “flask” that is flame annealed to the neck. The diffuser was in aluminium, suspended in the glass structure thanks to three rods. Flûte explored a subject that has always fascinated me: the subtraction. I tried to work on a lamp not as a decorative element, but as an essential element, and therefore made up of a few elements whose quality was in their essence. If there is little, there is little that ages. I have already told you about Trifluo. With Mood and Domo, for Barovier & Toso, we innovated by changing the way in which pieces of classic chandeliers were placed in space. In the Venetian chandelier, the cups, arms, glasses and leaves, blown in immutable shapes by the master glassmakers, are typically assembled to compose a galaxy of parts revolving around a centre. The process was to take these pieces and arrange them in a different way in a sort of “glass-and-lights” ikebana. Then I decided to show the electrical cables and mechanical parts that were usually hidden. Both Mood and Domo were a different way of making an unusual order in the iconography of the Muranese chandelier.

Trifluo Artemide, 2006
Trifluo Artemide, 2006

Irony is an element found in many of your projects, such as On/Off or Cap or in your Esperimenti. Would you like to talk about it? 
Irony is a very useful and serious way of not taking yourself too seriously. It is a positive attitude that will remind you that what you are doing may not be true. Irony is also a way of facing the world without too much certainty; because certainties, apart from mathematics and science, are a bit dangerous. Practicing irony is like instilling a bacterium that changes your perspective and makes you smile. Irony presupposes an attitude to smile, and it is also a form of knowledge, because it reveals our and others’ weaknesses and invites us to be vigilant about rhetoric and banality. For me it is fundamental, it is a non-aggressive form of criticism and communication of thought. Following these reflections, On/Offwas born for Vistosi and then edited by Luceplan. It was conceived by taking as a creative cue a technology theft: the gravity switch, that of the lids of the freezers, as it were. I find it interesting to take a component that belongs to a certain world and see what happens if brought into another. It was a perfect lamp, removed from the catalogue for obscure reasons; if it had been properly communicated, it would probably have had a place among the market and design icons, such as the Parentesi. Without comparing ourselves to the Castiglioni brothers, together with Santachiara and Meda we created a perfect object, which, strangely, was the son of three fathers, each one with its own poetics, however without bearing any sign of the three. And who knows, perhaps for this reason it really worked out well. 

As a Milanese and an architect, what do you think about the latest transformations of your city?
In the last twenty years Milan has had an interesting boost, linked to its way of being a strongly dynamic city. I am very perplexed about the architectural result of some operations like CityLife. It is a formally wrong urban choice, the creation of a piece of city within the city, even if use and time will mitigate this unhappy graft. As an architect, I have to say there were better projects presented for the area. As a Milanese citizen, I saw that it was the most rewarding project that won, and there were no architects in the jury. Considering the historical trend of a city, what are some tens of millions of euros compared to the fact that these buildings will remain visible for many years within its urban fabric? In this case the choice was determined by money, and as a citizen I consider that Milan, in this case, gave up the governance of its urban forms for economic reasons. The finance and the economy, which are positive energies if well regulated, have become prevalent compared to the collective strategy for the public good. As an architect and as a citizen, I love Milan and I consider it the only truly European city in Italy, a city always moving and in which there is often a virtuous partnership between private and public. Another example of why I like Milan is that, notwithstanding the regulations, my studio was built in an area of large disused industries that the PRG, the urban master plan, had foreseen, years ago, for small craft and commercial activities in the district. As a matter of fact, it was the “creative tertiary sector” that came to reside there (architects, photographers, designers, showrooms, loft houses, art galleries, clubs, etc.). Finally, the vitality of the real economy has managed to change the PGT’s, or the Government Territory Plan’s, forecasts and settlement patterns. Everybody eventually realised that inside a city, in transition from an industrial economy to a service one, many urban areas are freed, which will later be occupied by growing productive realities, and that urban planning must understand, favour and regulate these transformations. For Milan, it was fashion and design.

Domo. Barovier&Toso - 2009
Domo. Barovier&Toso – 2009

Is there a perfect lamp?
Well, there are the “right” lamps. As we said before, they could be On/Off or Parentesi. Right in the sense that they state an idea and a constructive and aesthetic principle in a clear, light and non-rhetorical way. 

So, where is the design going?
I do not know, maybe it goes towards a self-celebration that becomes self-extinction. Fortunately, design continues to grow commercially, but how much this growth is a good thing to respond to our human or philosophical needs in general, I do not know. We miss the figures like Enzo Mari or Ettore Sottsass, but they will reappear when we will get back to the pleasure of finding meaning in things without the marketing dictatorship. Now and then you can do something that does not sell, but that gives you the emotions that a bestseller does not give. For example, the Java, Mari’s sugar bowl in melamine for Danese; it is an object that contains a truly unique genius, rigor and ethics. If I had to explain to a student what design is, I would tell him to study Java, to understand its every detail and then to redesign it “by heart”.

This article was originally published on LUCE n°327, 2018