Working alongside his wife and two sons, Carl Gardner reports that Ernesto Gismondi remains the driving force behind this remarkably enduring and innovative company.
I first interviewed Ernesto Gismondi about 23 years ago for Interior Design magazine in the UK, long before I even thought of making a career in the lighting industry. Yet, throughout those years, Gismondi’s company, Artemide of Italy, has remained my favourite lighting manufacturer, for the quality and stylishness of its products – and the risks it sometimes takes in putting quirky (some would say, wildly eccentric) light fittings on to the market. Gismondi, now into his 80s, is still at the helm of the company he founded back in 1960.
Back then, Gismondi had astutely realised that after 15 years of the Italian post-War industrial miracle, when furniture (and light fittings) were mainly made from wood, in the ‘neo-Liberty’ style of the early 1900s, younger Italian consumers were craving something more contemporary in terms of style, technology and materials. “In 1960, architect Gio Ponti was designing the Pirelli Building in Milan and I asked him if he had found any suitable lights,” Gismondi recalls. “He said ‘there are no good products around – everything dates back to the 1930s.’”
Gismondi got the message. Artemide wasn’t the first Italian company to exploit this gap in the market – Flos and Arteluce had been formed in the 1950s – but it was soon one of the most successful. Right from the beginning, Gismondi turned to the leading designers of the day for his luminaire designs. The first fruit of this policy was Vico Magistretti’s ‘Omega’ lamp in 1961, followed in 1967 by the same designer’s witty bedside lamp, ‘Eclisse’, which won the Compasso d’Oro design prize and is still in production. Throughout the 1960s, the roster of designers working for Artemide represented a ‘Who’s Who’ of Italian design – Mario Bellini, Ettore Sottsass, and Michele de Lucchi for example.
However, it was a German designer, Richard Sapper, who created Artemide’s all-time classic, the ‘Tizio’ table-lamp in 1972, which put the company on the global map. This designer icon is still in large-scale production after more than 40 years – and features in almost every museum design collection in the world. “Sapper had just left Marco Zanuso’s studio at the time and was free to work for us,” says Gismondi. “He brought us the idea and we did the development work.” This is still Artemide’s preferred method of working with designers – and it is particularly important in the age of the LED. “We understand the optical and technical problems to do with LEDs,” Gismondi adds.
Even before the ‘Tizio’ breakthrough in 1972, Gismondi himself had moved from commissioning to actually designing new luminaires himself. “I wanted to see things from the other side of the table and understand more about the design process,” he explains. “Initially, I didn’t use my own name, I used the name Ernie Urwin on my designs, because I didn’t want to be seen to compete with other designers.” Gismondi’s first product was the simple ‘Sintesi’ uplighter, which was followed by ‘Aton Terra’. Today Gismondi’s designs constitute a substantial part of the Artemide portfolio.
One of the systems that Gismondi pioneered in 2000 was the ‘Metamorfosi’ polychromatic lighting unit, initially using dichroic filters, offering colour-change capability across a number of products within the Artemide range. “We were the first company to do colour-changing,” Gismondi claims, “and the first to recognise that the human being is at the centre of lighting, not the product.” This insight developed into the company’s ‘Human Light’ philosophy, which as well as recognising and working with the emotional impact of light, also encompasses sustainability and energy-efficiency in production.
Artemide had a global turnover of about 140 million euros in 2012, with over 60% of that coming from abroad. Gismondi realised early on that “we were kings in one village and had to export to survive”.
Today Artemide has partners in more than thirty countries and has diversified production out of Italy. “Internationally, we see a very good future in English-speaking India, where we have set up a new outlet,” Gismondi continues. However he is less impressed with the prospects in China, despite having offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai. “There is no design culture there and they don’t respect design – they buy one piece and then they copy it.”
Gismondi still has a majority share-holding with only 35% of the company in the hands of outside investors – and when he retires, he has substantial family back-up. One son runs Nordlight, the company Artemide bought in 2008 to give themselves more LED expertise, and another son is a lawyer with the company. Gismondi’s wife also works as a designer for Artemide.
One key to Artemide’s success is its ruthlessness in pruning products that aren’t doing well enough in the marketplace. Only half-a-dozen products date back to the ‘60s and ‘70s; most products were designed within the last twelve years. This is both a stylistic issue and a result of rapidly changing technologies. On the design side, Artemide’s range of designers has expanded enormously in the last two decades.
Artemide still works with the latest generation of top Italian designers, such as Carlotta de Bivalacqua and Michele di Lucchi. However, reflecting the need to create more broadly based designs for international markets, many of its current collaborators are from Europe and further afield – Karim Rashid (Canada), Zaha Hadid (Iraqi-born UK citizen), and Ross Lovegrove (UK). The most recent design collaboration is with Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake (the ‘In-Ei’ series of luminaires).
As his parting shot, Gismondi underlines his continued ambition for the company in economically parlous times: “I am still interested in making sure that Artemide is around in 100 years… in the current climate only four or five lighting companies will still be making profits. The rest will go under or be bought out.”
Carl Gardner is a lighting designer and former editor of the UK’s Lighting Journal.
The full version of this article was first published in Indesign magazine issue #55.