Achille Castiglioni liked to play with objects. One of the greatest passions of the Italian master was collecting pieces of ordinary and anonymous design, objects without brand or precise author. Some of them became the inspiration for his own designs, while some were just a way to get in touch with the ingenuity and skills of unknown but bright minds. The shrine of that attitude and curiosity is Fondazione Achille Castiglioni. Hosted in the former Milanese studio of Achille, it treasures the traces of his work through archives, prototypes and his personal collections of such objects.
2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Castiglioni’s birth and the celebrations start with “100×100 Achille,” an exhibition that is as playful and design-saturated as he would have loved. This is not simply a display of objects, but the result of a long-term activity carried on by Giovanna and Carlo Castiglioni—who run the foundation dedicated to their father—and curated by Chiara Alessi and Domitilla Dardi. They asked 100 international designers to send Castiglioni a birthday gift. The only rule of this game was that the gifts had to be anonymous, cheap, compact and accompanied by a greeting card.
Over the course of several months they received all sorts of gifts. Some of the objects are immediately understandable in their function (like the paperclip sent by Philippe Starck), while others are mysterious and reveal their nature only after being explained (that’s the case of the juicer from Barber & Osgerby). Some are items easy to find at any hardware store (for example, the mousetrap gift from Ingo Maurer) and others are dedicated to very specific professional tasks (like the profilometer from Patricia Urquiola). Some are global icons (Marcel Wanders sent a paper festoon) and some others are typical of specific cultures (the hat of the shepherds of Northern Italy, a gift of Alessandro Mendini).
Giovanna Castiglioni, Chiara Alessi and Domitilla Dardi were generous enough to give Cool Hunting an exclusive preview of the exhibition. Pointing at the different objects they kept asking, “What do you think this is?” “Do you remember this?” “Did you have this as a child?” “Guess who sent this?” Part game, part exhibition, the preview also offered an education surrounding the under-appreciated aspects of contemporary product design.
Going through the 100 objects is a journey into personal memory as well as the history of design and innovation. But of course, it’s mainly a celebration, as Giovanna Castiglioni explains, “My mom always told me that when you go to a birthday party you do not have to bring an expensive gift, as to not embarrass the host. And this is exactly what we asked. Then we realized that this is a very human project, that made us discover unusual aspects of the life of the designers, many of whom are bound by a sincere affection for my father. It was also a way to find out how their life is deeply tied to the stories of anonymous objects. For example, Giuseppe Arezzi brought us a shovel obtained from an old pan, explaining the story of his grandfather and Sicily, where this object belongs to tradition.”
“At times it has been difficult to convey the concept of anonymous design to the invited designers,” continues Dardi, “In some cases, the gift is a citation of their own works that started from anonymous objects. Others have worked by assonance with their elective materials. In the end, each object is a kind of self-portrait, but also a way to say that they have leaned something from Achille Castiglioni, from his approach to research and project development.”
“Some objects are precious, rare and unique,” adds curator Alessi, “Like the Swiss army leather backpack that Riccardo Blumer sent, which still contains the soldier’s helmet, mess tin and drinking bottle. From the everyday object to the rare one, what we see here are a hundred different interpretations of the concept of anonymous design, coming from a hundred minds from all over the world.”
On a wall next to the objects are the 100 greeting cards, all made by hand on a card provided by the foundation. They range from simple birthday wishes, to elaborate illustrations, questions, confessions and declarations of love. They’re hanging from common office paperclips—another everyday masterpiece by an anonymous designer.
The collection of gifts is displayed in camping wardrobes designed by Calvi Brambilla. Lightweight and easy to carry, they are the perfect solution for an exhibition meant to travel. “Very soon the exhibition will go to other places in Italy and abroad,” concludes Giovanna Castiglioni, “But most of all we wish this could just the first step for a permanent museum of anonymous design objects, provided by famous designers and common people, something that would be amazing to have here in Milan.”
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by Corraini Edizioni and it runs 19 February to 30 April at Fondazione Achille Castiglioni, 27 Piazza Castello, Milan.
Images by Paolo Ferrarini