Originally written as an essay response in early 2016.

In this essay I am going to be focusing on the Italian industrial designer Joe Cesare Colombo, whose work was most prolific during the conclusive decade of his career (1960’s), before his tragically early death in 1971 at the age of 41. I will be fixating in particular on a quote by Colombo who saw his role to be more than just a designer; he quoted himself as being the ‘creator of the environment of the future’ [1]. I will further explore this theme in regard to a designer reflecting the period in which they live.

Colombo’s work, although brief, was broad in innovation, forward-thinking and remains influential on present day designers (Falvio Manzoni [8]). The beginnings of Colombo’s desires, his ‘environment of the future’ can perhaps be traced back to his early education. He switched from studying science to art in secondary school, prompting an early interest in my opinion of the world and of space and physics. He later joined Movimento Nucleare, an avant garde art movement at the Milanese Brera Academy of Fine Art in 1951 [2,6]. Here Colombo explored cultural anxiety and consternation of the atomic bomb. He’s known to have sketched and painted visions of a future ‘nuclear city’ – this further concretes Colombo’s interest in design for the future and reflects the social and political concerns at the time around nuclear weapons and the cold war.

Furthermore, Colombo’s furniture and product design during the 1960’s paralleled the Sci-fi interest at the time. The Elda Armchair Colombo designed in 1963 for example, wouldn’t look out of place in Stanley Kubricks 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Manufactured in 1965, it was the first large-scale fibreglass chair of its kind with a swivel base and space age curved design. Often exploring themes of portability and efficiency he would draw on his experimental lust of using innovative materials, which at the time, certainly in Italy, were plastics.

Reinventing existing types of furniture was Colombo’s main goal. In comparison, I believe that Verner Panton was more successful in achieving this through his self-titled Panton Chair designed in the late fifties and manufactured in 1968 [3]. The chair was made fully moulded in one piece and had no rear legs, only a curved piece of plastic which came to stabilise the whole piece. Similarly to Colombo, Panton was also fascinated with exploring the new opportunities that plastics provided. Also known as the ‘S-Chair’ he wanted to create a chair that was comfortable and could be used anywhere [4]. The design was indeed curvaceous and revolutionary prompting a glance at what new materials and production techniques could provide in a near future. I consider this product to be more successful than Colombo’s more rational approach of the earlier 1965 Universale Chair, this is because it still resembled the form of a chair. Although referred to as the first all plastic chair, it needed to be made from two separate parts.

Both Colombo and Panton continued to question their ideals of what furniture should look like in an increasingly mobile world through their work designing furniture and visions of future environments. Panton was certainly influenced by the era of youth culture, of drugs, sex and rock and roll during the sixties and seventies. This can be seen in his pop inspired environment created for the 1970 Visiona 2 exhibition held in Cologne [5]. Alternatively at the same exhibition Colombo seemed to have reined it in with an approach focusing on the living of tomorrow. His ‘habitat of the future’ was intended to create a debate regarding open-plan living concepts. He predicted that “Distances will no longer have much importance; no longer will there be any justification for the ‘megalopolis’… Furnishings will disappear…the habitat will be everywhere… Now, if the elements necessary to human existence could be planned with the sole requirements of manoeuvrability and flexibility…, then we would create an inhabitable system that could be adapted to any situation in space and time. [6]”

Additionally Colombo sought after designing for this concept and produced work that looked as if it came from a spaceship or a James Bond set. For instance his Visiona 2 exhibition environment in 1970 and his Total Furnishing Unit designed in 1971. This was not only reminiscent of space age design but also responded to cultural challenges facing Italy post-war. At the time Italy was encountering a North-South rift in economic and industrial expansion [7]. This lead to mass migration moving from the South to the cities of the North: Turin and Milan. In response to the social and political crisis within his era, Colombo designed the Mini Kitchen in 1963. Intended for the many Italians living in small domestic spaces as a result of the housing crisis; a portable box, it contained everything you needed to cook and prepare food. This clearly shows his attempt at inducing his vision of “a new way of living more consistent with the reality of today and tomorrow [6]” and the awareness of design aiding real-time, real-world issues.

Likewise at present we find similar challenges facing an ever growing society. Influenced by Joe Colombo is Falvio Manzoni, the design director at Ferrari. Taking from Colombo’s ability to anticipate the future through design and as part his fandom for Sci-fi, he designed LaFerrari Spacecraft concept in 2015 [8]. Manzoni designed the spaceship in response to the crisis of over-population “since there will be less and less space available on the ground. [8]” His designs may be viewed as radical and far-fetched but so were Colombo’s forthcoming ideas during his time.

Although decades have passed since Colombo’s work, does the idea of creating for ‘the environment of the future’ still stand? I believe so, but in another form, in a digital, technological, rapidly advancing world, which indeed hosts parallels with the era of Colombo. The ambitions of looking to the stars still remains today, designing for a new age of private and commercial space travel is perhaps not far from the ideas of the sixties. Entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, although not a designer, is the man at the centre of today’s commercial space race for orbital and sub-orbital human spaceflights. Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport in the Mojave desert designed by Foster & Partners embodies the mystery of spaceflight and serves as a model for the future, a future that will present a new way of life [9].

To conclude, on the face of it, it may be easy for some to regard Joe Colombo’s work and the era in which he was most prolific: the sixties, with its space age design and youthful pop culture to be somewhat superficial or outrageous (take Colombo’s 1969 Tube Chair for example). But in some respects we are revisiting similar ideas today and tackling similar challenges (mass population) through design and desire of the future. What remains constant seems to be the hardwiring of human nature to explore, experiment, to aid today and design to improve tomorrow. The traits clearly expressed during Joe Colombo’s life are a lot clearer once you analyse the enigma of a man behind the designs. The ‘environment of the future’ is constantly evolving, although we never got to witness what came next from Colombo, he certainly would have thrived in the current commercial space race that could lead to a new ‘habitat of the future’. What proceeds, remains to be seen.


[1] High End Weekly. 2012, Conceptual Designs by Joe Cesare Colombo. Available from: http://www.highendweekly.com/conceptual-designs-by-joe-cesare-colombo [Accessed: 10 April 2016].

[2] Design Museum. Joe Colombo. Available from: http://design.designmuseum.org/design/joe-colombo.html [Accessed: 10 April 2016].

[3] Vitra Design Museum. 2014, Visiona 1970. Available from: http://www.design-museum.de/en/collection/100-masterpieces/detailseiten/panton-chair-panton.html [Accessed: 10 April 2016].

[4] Vitra. Panton Chair Classic. Available from: https://www.vitra.com/en-gb/product/panton-chair-classic#t/tab-product [Accessed: 10 April 2016].

[5] Verner-Panton.com. Spaces, Visiona 2. Available from: http://www.verner-panton.com/spaces/archive/121 [Accessed: 10 April 2016].

[6] Socks-Studio. 2013, Joe Colombo, Total Furnishing Unit (1971). Available from: http://socks-studio.com/2013/10/16/joe-colombo-total-furnishing-unit-1971 [Accessed: 10 April 2016].

[7] Hauffe, T. 1998, Design A Concise History, Laurence King, London. P. 112.

[8] Formtrends. 2015, Ferrari Design Director Creates LaFerrari Spacecraft. Available from: http://formtrends.com/ferrari-design-director-creates-laferrari-spacecraft/#.VUsgs4tUShd [Accessed: 09 April 2016].

[9] Virgin Galactic. Spaceport America. Available from: http://www.virgingalactic.com/spaceport-america [Accessed: 09 April 2016].


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