Joe Colombo was a brilliant sculptor, architect, painter and a remarkable industrial designer. He was very talented and a versatile artist who was interested in exploring the diverse aspects of materials and thinking out of the box in order to create unique inspirational designs. Colombo’s original name was Cesar Colombo yet he was more popularly known by his nickname Joe. Born in 1930, Colombo died in 1971 of a heart failure at the age of 41. In his twenties, Colombo studied sculpturing and painting at the Accadimia di Bella Arti in Brera, Milan. During his studies he joined the movimento nucleare (an art movement) in 1951. In 1953 Colombo returned to the art field and created ceiling for a Milan jazz club. In 1954 he designed three open areas which were named “television shrines” for the Milan triannale. He enrolled as a student in Milan polytechnic the same year. After the death of his father in 1958, Colombo and his little brother Gianni, who was Colombo’s best friend and co-worker, took over the family business. Along the years their father had transformed a ribbon factory to an electrical conductor factory. The space in the factory allowed Colombo to experiment and work with the latest materials and the newest of technologies. He got the opportunity to work with the kinds of plastic he was fascinated by and make progress in the product design. In 1962 Colombo and his brother opened their own design and art studio in Milan.
Some of Colombo’s exceptional works along the years are; roll chair (1962), Elda armchair(1963), all-in-one Combi-Centre mobile storage unit (1963), superleggera (1964 ), the Universale stacking chair (1965-7), ‘additional system’ (1967), tube chair (1969), ‘multichair’(1969), Co-writes New Form Furniture(1970 , Boby Trolley(1970), an all-in-one ABS storage unit(1970), service tray for Alitalia(1970 ), Birillo bar stools(1970), Total Furnishing Unit (1971).
Since early in his career, Colombo was interested in blending materials. He expressed his unique approach to materials and design through the use of shapes and lines which brought the qualities of the material to maximum utilization. Use of new materials in innovating ways, contrast between materials (by texture, stiffness level, technologies that are combined) along with many other aspects helped him create superior designs. Another characteristic that is shown in his work is the use of round shapes. Round and curvy edges, shapes, and lines in his furniture and lights help soften the harder modern materials that he chose to use (plastic, aluminum, wood…). It helps create a smooth surface that looks modern and indicate movement which is transmitted by his repetition and rescaling of the round shapes. The curves set a calm mood and continuity which helps develop optimism in his design.
Colombo’s Acrilica Table Lamp would be a good example of a design that gives a sense of hope. In this piece he truly uses the qualities of the material. The round shape he gave to the plastic causes it to refract the light in such a way that it can be used and also serve as an art piece; it may even seem like “the light in the end of the tunnel”.
Few key characteristics in Colombo’s designs are multi-functionality, adoption to spaces, functionality, and self assembly. Towards the end of his career, he became more interested in “complete living units”. He created chairs that had no defined shape. He gave his customers complete products but with no instructions for how to assemble. The consumers had to be involved in the work and use their home space and creativity to finish the product on their own. Colombo created a product that is mass produced yet has the qualities of a hand crafted one since it varies from one to another. His designs had the ability to not only be a part of but adapt and blend in the space by fitting perfectly yet standing out due to colors, lines and use of material. This is a very efficient product which allows for a constant change according to the desire of its owners. By creating such pieces Colombo gave a life to his designs; constantly in motion, changing and conforming to the surroundings in order to reach maximum beauty and comfort. His objects could conform to spaces, stackable, serve multi functions which indicate Colombo’s concern for the right use of space, and its conservation.
The multi-functionality expressed by Colombo was intended to select the most used or necessary features and combine them into one in order to achieve perfection. His designs were very minimalistic yet served much more than a nominal purpose and took into account comfort which is just another feature of his superior designs. He was very motivated to create futuristic designs. An interesting thing about Colombo’s interpretation of the future is that even today when we use his wonderful designs they could still be looked at as if they belonged to the future. Even though Colombo started as a painter and a sculptor, most of his work was not only beautiful and brought the artistic part of him to life but also thoughtful, functional, and comfortable which helped create (especially in his interior design pieces) a feeling of a cozy, inviting home.
One of Colombo’s top works is his Elda armchair (which is named after his wife). In this chair Colombo repeats lines and shapes. The repetition helps create a sedate feeling of comfort since it gives the sense of familiarization. The chair “wraps” the person who sits on it which gives a sense of warmth and relaxation. This chair not only indicates motion by its repeating round shapes in leather curving lines and “never ending” back and sit that looks like it expends to the space, but it actually combines motion in its base. The wheals even though not present, are hidden in the base of the chair. As a part of his design Colombo considers conversion of space by adding the function of rotation. He allows for the chair to be used when interacting with different spaces of the house while keeping convenience at maximum (functionality).
Colombo’s choice of materials was very interesting too. For the exterior of the chair he chose to use fiberglass, a tough material that is not very comfortable to sit on yet it has a very silky modern look that is easy to maintain and produce (first time to be used in such a large scale). This was an interesting choice of material since he chose to combine it with very different interior, leather, an old fashion material which is natural and soft and conforms to the body and changes over time (get wrinkles). The chair is very symmetric and geometric which gives a sense of stability. The lines used are round and go inward and outwards by the use of stitches in fabric. The very bold “crack” located in the center of the fiberglass from the bottom surface to the cushioned part separates the back and seat, even though the chair is composed of only one piece of fiberglass. The chair is very uniquely designed since it is functional and serves a purpose. It is very appealing and beautiful. Easy to operate, the chair has a very good use of materials and technology and a “hidden feature” (spinning), implying that it does not reveal everything by its looks but also by operation. It has a feel of the future. Colombo did not want to make something for the moment; he wanted to create something that did not belong to the present, something that only the future can hold. He was trying to be a fortune teller through his art which I think gave a feeling of superiority to his consumers.
The important features in design for me are; attractive and appealing, turn one thing into something it is not commonly seen as (in order to attract interest in the way it is used. Including; materials, shapes, technology), turn one thing into a multi-functioning unit while considering the relations between the things that are being coupled, functionality, outstanding in comparison to other products of the same family (careful not to overdo or create a negative impression), smart material use and continuity, friendliness, and sustainability. Colombo in his work had fulfilled many if not all of the concepts I desire to achieve in my design. I see the use of new materials, effort, dedication, experimentation as well as the courage to create something new out of the ordinary and follow the inner motivation and belief as the things that allow a designer to be open minded, being different from the rest and succeed in a way that will allow to him conquer a generation of design and influence others.