A champion of fresh ideas and material research, Achille Castiglioni took familiar shapes and transformed them into some of today’s most sought after design icons. It says a lot about Achille Castiglioni that when asked to nominate his proudest design achievement he chose an electric switch designed in 1968. “It was produced in large numbers ... but no-one knows who did the design,” he said. With a career spanning half a century, Castiglioni could have nominated any number of his now iconic designs – the Mezzadro seat (1957), the Arco floor lamp (1962), the RR 126 stereo system (1965) – to name just a few. But for Castiglioni, from an era when the current-day concept of the ‘superstar’ designer was unheard of, the anonymous success of a simple product was a career highlight.

Born in Milan in 1918, Castiglioni was of a generation of Italian designers who forged flourishing careers in the fertile climate of post-war Italy. Like Ettore Sottsass, Vico Magistretti, Marco Zanuso and many others of his time, Castiglioni benefited greatly from Italy’s particular ability to meet the worldwide demand for consumer goods in the post-war ‘reconstruction’ years. Italy’s unique network of small manufacturing companies, their aptitude for forming productive, lasting relationships with individual designers, and the focus of many architects on the design of objects rather than buildings, created a unique set of circumstances that, by the mid-1960s, had helped establish the country’s design and manufacturing pre-eminence and transform its economy. These were the years that saw the launch of the Vespa motor scooter, the first one-piece plastic chairs and the arrival of stylish Italian café culture.

Like many of the designers who contributed to Italy’s surging post-war design reputation, Castiglioni, the son of a sculptor, studied architecture at the Milan Polytechnic. His surviving student work, including a model for a ‘Fascist Cultural Centre’ made from blocks of cheese, reflect the pared-down modernism – not to mention the sense of irony – that was to characterise much of his subsequent design work. Graduating in 1944, Castiglioni joined his brothers Livio and Pier Giacomo at the Milan design studio they had established before the war. With the departure of Livio from the studio in 1952, Achille and Pier Giacomo were to collaborate on an extensive range of design projects up until Pier Giacomo’s death in 1968.

One of Studio Castiglioni’s most consistent and no doubt sustaining commissions was for the design of the National Radio and Television Exhibition installations in Milan and other displays for the Italian Broadcasting Corporation from 1947 to 1980. An aspect of Achille’s career that has perhaps been eclipsed by his more well-known product design, the photographic records of these and other exhibition design work give a fresh perspective on his graphic and spatial design skills, as well as documenting the stylistic sources at play in his work over a 30-year period.

If style was important in creating an exhibition environment, it is much less evident in the numerous products – furniture, tableware and particularly lighting – that Castiglioni designed (with Pier Giacomo to 1968) over his long career. Castiglioni was the first to admit this lack of ‘stylishness’, remarking: “There is no such thing as a Castiglioni style, there is only a Castiglioni method.” Perhaps his most defining ‘method’ has been the references to ready-made objects or industrial components that appear regularly in his work and that make it so hard to categorise stylistically.

The Mezzadro and Sella seats of 1957 are obvious examples: the first re-contextualising the humble tractor seat; the second a Duchamp-like bicycle seat supported on a metal column on a circular rocking base.

But it is Castiglioni’s numerous lighting designs – simple, functional and sometimes quirky – that so consistently embody this minimalist industrial quality. This is nowhere better illustrated than in a series of lights designed for Flos in the early 1960s: the Taccia table lamp, the Toio standard light, even the elegant Arco floor lamp, are all domestic products with a style-defying industrial look that has also proved to be timeless. All lights are still in production today, perhaps even more popular now than they were in the 60s.

Exhibitions, furniture and lighting may have been Castiglioni’s mainstay, but his long career encompassed almost every conceivable kind of product design, from washing machines to ashtrays. Standouts include the ‘way-ahead-of-its-time’ plastic-cased Spalter vacuum cleaner of 1956, tableware for Alessi and beautiful glassware for Danese in the 1980s.

Achille Castiglioni, the ‘grand old man’ of design, died in 2002, but his creative genius lives on in his many designs still in production.

Not short of accolades, he was awarded the prestigious Compasso d’Oro no less than seven times and was the subject of many monographs and exhibitions. Castiglioni is also remembered for his innovative and highly popular teaching methods and for his writing, particularly his reflections on ‘How to be a good designer’.