Portrait of Italian architect and designer Gae Aulenti

Gae Aulenti

Italian designer and architect

“The moment it’s loudly announced that red is in fashion, I want to dress in green.”

Gae Aulenti

Gae Aulenti (born December 4, 1927, Palazzolo dello Stella, Italy–died December 31, 2012, Milan, Italy). Gae (or Gai) Aulenti was a prominent postwar Italian designer and architect who lent her fluid approach to media and material to some of the most important architectural and interior designs of the late 20th century. Aulenti attended Politecnico di Milano in the mid 1950s and established her design practice in the same city shortly after graduation. She rose to prominence while serving as the art director for Casabella, a leading avant-garde architectural journal of the era. It was during these early years that Aulenti’s unique design philosophy emerged, one that centered on the ultimate freedom of the designer from the limitations of practice to a singular medium.

Rather than selecting one style and imposing it upon a space, Gae Aulenti believed instead that the space and its inhabitants should inform the design around them.  What resulted was a body of work that spanned all realms. From smaller furnishings designs to her larger architectural projects later in the century, Aulenti defined her style as one that was untethered to a specific aesthetic or method. This novelty resulted in her rapid creative recognition and success, a point echoed in the bevy of international exhibitions that showcased her work between the 1960s and 1970s. read more

Important light designs by Gae Aulenti:

In 1979, Gae Aulenti became the artistic director of Fontana Arte, one of the premier Italian makers and marketers of furniture and lighting, and revitalized the company by centering it back on glass making and collaborating with the most important Italian designers of the time, such as Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, Pierlugi Cerri, Daniela Puppa (Prima Signora, lamp, 1992), Franco Raggi (Velo lamp, 1989), Umberto Riva (Metafora lamp, 1980), and Renzo Piano (Teso furnishing systems). During her tenure at Fontana Arte, she also designed, with Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, the popular Parola lamp in 1980.

Important furniture by Gae Aulenti:

Among his most important furnishings designs are the Sgarsul rocking chair (1962) and the Locus Solus chair (1963) for Poltronova; the April folding chair (1964) and the Sanmarco table (1984) for Zanotta; the Giova lamp (1964), the Tour table (1993), and the Tavolo con Ruote table (1980) for Fontana Arte; the Jumbo coffee table for Knoll (1965); the Pipistrello table lamp for Martinelli (1966); and the Pileino lamp for Artemide (1972).

Jumbo coffee table by Gae Auleni
Jumbo coffee table designed by Gae Auleni for Knoll in 1965

Gae Aulenti’s main contributions to architecture:

Over the 1970s and 80s, Gae Aulenti gained acclaim for the sheer versatility of her designs, but it was her larger-scale projects in the 1980s that secured her status as a preeminent architect and designer. Between 1982 and 1986, Aulenti became a pivotal contributor to the evolution of the interior design of the Paris’ Musée D’Orsay; from an industrial train station into a contemporary and functional art museum with a unique personality within the Parisian museum environment. For this transformative project, Gae Aulenti directed scenographers and architects Italo Rota, Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, and Richard Peduzzi in creating a diversity of volumes unified by the stone coverings of the floors and walls. During that same period, she also led crucial renovations at the nearby Centre Pompidou (1980–1985), and in the adaptation of the Palazzo Grassi as a space dedicated for art and archeology exhibitions (1983).

Musée dOrsay designed by Gae Aulenti
Interior of the Musée dOrsay designed by Gae Aulenti

The following decade, Gae Aulenti reenvisioned the Florentine Santa Maria Novella train station (1990) and the Piazza Cadorna of Milan (1999); restored, along architect Antonio Foscari, the La Fenice theatre in Venice (1999) after a fire in 1996; renovated and brought up to standards the Papal Stables in Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome (1999).

Close up of Gae Aulenti drwaing
Gae Aulenti’s architectural drawing of the 1994 Guggenheim Museum exhibition “The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943-1968.”.

In 1994, famed curator Germano Celant curated and opened at the Guggenheim Museum the seminal exhibition “The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943–1968.” For this exhibition, that covered the entire visual arts of Italy, Celant assigned the challenging task of designing the exhibition to Gae Aulenti–who excelled at her design in spite of the imposing challenges of the Guggenheim and working with the large group of artist and curators involved in such a monumental project.

Awards and exhibitions honoring Gae Aulenti’s work:

Aulenti was celebrated in her lifetime for her contributions to the fields of architecture and design by renowned institutions around the globe. In addition to being awarded the designation of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, Aulenti was the recipient of the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic and was also elected as an Honorary Member of the American Institute of Architects before her death at the age of 85.

Following her death, on February 2013, the Tiennale di Milano museum prepared a solo Gae Aulenti exhibition that featured a selection of her most iconic design objects made from 1962 to 2008. From February 2020 until November 2020, the Museum Vitra Schaudepot will have a solo exhibition to honor and review Aulenti’s contribution to design, “Gae Aulenti: A Creative Universe.

For additional information on Gae Aulenti, please visit:

Gae Aulenti,” FontanaArte.

Oliver Wainwright, “Gae Aulenti obituary.” The Guardian, 5 November 2012.

Walter Smith, “Aulenti, Gai.” Oxford Art Online – Grove Art Online.

Last updated: September 16, 2020

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