Italian designer and architect
Joe Colombo (born July 30, 1930, Milan, Italy–died July 30, 1971), born Cesare Colombo, was an important Italian designer and architect who started his artistic and creative interests as a painter and sculptor. Renowned for his embrace of modern technologies and for the potential he saw in modular furniture and designs, Colombo created a body of furnishings that spoke to the energy and excitement over the potential of the Space Age.
Colombo was born and raised in Milan. His father was a curious and industrious individual, and his mother was an artist who encouraged the young Colombo to pursue his creative instincts from a very young age. Given his upbringing, it is not surprising that Joe first decided to pursue an artistic career enrolling in Milan’s Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera.
But after a couple of years at the Accademia, he transferred to Politecnico di Milano, where he studied architecture and graduated in 1954. During his studies at the Accademia, he befriended artists Sergio Dangelo and Enrico Baj, who had been influential in the creation of the avant-garde Movimento Nucleare, a group whose aim was to transform the art of painting in response to the tensions of the modern nuclear age. Until 1958, Colombo worked mainly as an Abstract Expressionist painter and sculptor and thrived on the Movimiento Nucleare group’s energy and intensity, which fueled in his work a fascination with an almost futurist aesthetic.
In 1959, Joe Colombo’s father died, and he decided to run the family electrical appliance business while experimenting with new manufacturing methods and materials. This new and unexpected experience influenced him to switch from painting to architecture and design, where his fascination with futuristic themes not only remained intact but found a new invigorating venue. In fact, one of his first design projects was a series of installation works made from television sets that were assembled in the form of shrines; the work was exhibited at the 1954 Triennale di Milano. Colombo decided to open his own design studio in Milan in 1962, entering the busiest phase of his career as he designed furniture, lighting, interiors, and glassware.
Also in 1962, Joe and his brother Gianni designed for Oluce the Acrilica lamp, an elegant and innovative table lamp that made use of a curved acrylic attached to the light source and that encapsulated the sensitivity of the time. In addition to numerous architectural projects, Colombo lent his design expertise to several now-iconic furnishings, such as his No. 4801 chair produced for Kartel (1963–64), which consisted of three pieces of plywood inserted into one another; the Elda fiberglass chair produced for F.L. Longhi (1965–67); the Additional Living System produced for Kartell (1967), which was a modular and versatile design created by individual slices of upholstered metal and foam that could create a number of seating arrangements; and the Tubo lounge chair produced for Capellini (1969), which was constructed from a series of tubes and helped to secure Colombo’s status as a leading figure in modern Italian design.
Colombo’s emphasis on curved forms, use of bold color, and reliance on emerging material made his designs their own meditation on the Modern age and thus incurred a remarkable number of fans. His sudden death at the age of 41 from heart failure cut a brilliant career too short, but his importance has lived on. Recent years have witnessed a growing interest in his work, with larger exhibitions and retrospectives featuring his work around the globe.
Last updated: March 22, 2019
For additional information about Joe Colombo, please visit:
“Joe Colombo.” Art Directory.
Pila Viladas,”Modern Man.” The New York Times, 4 December 2005.
Let us know if you have suggestions to improve this article by correcting errors, adding updates, or filling important omissions here