Anne Watson looks at Vico Magistretti's role as an architect and industrial designer, and his passion for new materials and mass production that lead to collaborations with many of the world's leading design factories. Vico Magistretti once said he ‘detested’ the word style. No doubt he would also have taken exception to the description of his work as ‘stylish’ in The Guardian’s obituary following his death in September 2006. For Magistretti, who saw each design project as a unique problem-solving challenge, stylishness was anathema. Today the legacy of his long career as an architect and industrial designer is reflected in the longevity of many of his designs whose ‘timelessness’ has defied the fickle demands of changing fashions.

A lifelong resident of Milan from his birth there in 1920, Magistretti graduated from the Milan Polytechnic in 1945 and joined his father, Piergiulio’s architectural practice. Like many of his contemporaries his early career was stimulated and defined by the dynamic social and cultural ideologies shaping Italy’s post-war reconstruction – ideas expressed in the work of architects such as Franco Albini, Gio Ponti and Ernesto Rogers, all of whom Magistretti knew and admired. In the 1950s he designed (with Mario Tedeschi) a circular-plan church for the experimental QT8 development project on the outskirts of Milan and a number of residential buildings, including the multi-storey Torre al Parco apartment block. Magistretti’s early concern for applying an innovative design vocabulary and new technologies to the creation of buildings or products that benefitted and improved the lives of those who used them was an abiding modernist tenet central to his subsequent career.

However, while architectural projects created constant challenges throughout the remainder of his career, it was Magistretti’s work as an industrial designer that defined his international reputation. In 1959 he designed the Carimate chair, produced by Cassina from 1962 as the ‘892’. A cheery red-painted reinterpretation of the traditional rush-seated country chair, the Carimate provided the opportunity for the first of a number of long and productive collaborations with some of Italy’s most innovative manufacturers.

Arguably the most technologically progressive of these was the plastics manufacturer Artemide, the company for whom during the 1960s Magistretti designed the spherical Eclisse lamp, the undulating Mezzachimera light and the stackable Demetrio table, as well as the landmark Selene chair. Injection-moulded in a single process from ABS plastic, the elegant and stackable Selene was, and still is, a model of the successful union of mass production technology with a strong functional and aesthetic agenda – the end product of a fertile dialogue between manufacturer and designer. “I like technology”, remarked Magistretti “because it’s what allows mass production... what I really like is teamwork, not with other architects but people in the manufacturing firm. Collaboration seems logical to me.”

With the temporary decline in plastics manufacturing during the 1970s and the emergence of a more conservative design climate, Magistretti’s ability to adapt to new market demands was nowhere better demonstrated than in his luxurious leather-upholstered Maralunga armchair and sofa in 1973 for Cassina and the perfectly poised Atollo lamp for Oluce in 1977. Collaboration with both companies continued into the 80s and 90s and new partnerships were formed with Kartell and De Padova, amongst others.  While versatility was Magistretti’s hallmark, his special contribution lay in a unique inventiveness that added a new dimension to many of his designs: the aptly named Eclisse lamp whose rotating shade could literally eclipse its light source, Maralunga’s elegant and much copied adjustable arm and headrests, and the Sinbad chair’s witty and colourful recontextualisation of a simple horse blanket.

A renowned teacher at a number of major European design institutions, Magistretti was the recipient of many internationally recognised design accolades – including two Compasso d’Oro awards. His work, the subject of numerous exhibitions throughout his life, is held in design museums worldwide and in March 2010 the Vico Magistretti Foundation re-opened his Milan office as a museum with a changing exhibition program exploring the designer’s wide-ranging output and the creative processes that gave it form.

Magistretti continued to design and teach well into his 70s and was a much sought after commentator on design issues. Despite the accolades and the evidence of his long and highly successful career he was nevertheless self-deprecating to the end. Asked in an interview in 2000 to describe himself he listed ‘uncertainty’ and ‘laziness’ as his chief personality traits. ‘Humility’ and ‘dedication’ might perhaps have been more accurate!