In conversation with Michele De Lucchi

“I designed the Tolomeo in 1986. Perhaps I ought to say that I invented it, as in point of fact the idea for a new mechanism came before the lamp was created.”


Brought out in 1987 and designed for Artemide by Michele De Lucchi with Giancarlo Fassina, the Tolomeo was an immediate bestseller, consolidating a working relationship that continues to this day. Inspired by traditional balanced arm lamps like the famous Naska Loris, his challenge was to combine an iconic and “domestic” form with innovative technologies and materials, adapting it to a wide variety of uses and settings. Today it is a well-known symbol of the modern object, commonly seen in houses, offices and hotels, on the desks of architects and on photographic and even film sets. The first table version has multiplied over the years into an endless range of variations, the most recent of which is the Tolomeo Micro Gold, photographed by Pierpaolo Ferrari. 


Gaia Piccarolo: Winner of the Compasso d’Oro award in 1989, Tolomeo quickly became an icon of design and the aura surrounding it never seems to fade. When it was designed in 1986, at the beginning of your collaboration with Artemide, it was daring to try to challenge the celebrated Naska Loris.


Michele De Lucchi: I’d say that it was even more of a challenge because at Artemide it had to contend with Sapper’s Tizio, which had redefined the image of the table lamp just a few years earlier. There was a very simple reason for the choice of a spring mechanism for the Tolomeo: I wanted to make a lamp that would work with incandescent bulbs and not just with halogen ones. The Tizio had no wire, whereas I had the problem of having to run a wire through it. I didn’t want the wire to be visible, but to be integrated into the lamp. Once there was a tube to conceal the wire, it could also conceal the spring, so I looked for a mechanism that would fit completely into this little tube. In reality the idea for the mechanism came from watching anglers fishing with a line. When an angler uses a fishing line he always has to support the tip of the rod. That is true, for example, of the trabucchi, those old fishing machines used mostly in Puglia in which the arms that support the net are held by a series of ropes. It seemed a clever idea to use a small lever arm and a length of wire to suspend a rod to which something could be attached. That was what I had in mind when I designed the Tolomeo.

Gaia Piccarolo: The contribution made by Ernesto Gismondi and above all Giancarlo Fassina of the Artemide research center, who worked on the project with you, played an important part in the development of the product. Can you tell us how the project went, how much time it took and whether there were variations and second thoughts?


Michele De Lucchi: In the beginning, when I was designing the Tolomeo, I thought I would make it entirely of aluminum. These were the years of Memphis and on the one hand I had in mind this avantgarde design with all its colors, decorations, laminates and shiny surfaces, and on the other the Artemide of Ernesto Gismondi, who had commissioned the design from me, as well as my collaboration with Olivetti, which had a serious, production-oriented, technological character, something you didn’t fool around with. It seemed to me that the lamp I was designing for Artemide ought to belong more to the world of Olivetti. So I had made an all-aluminum prototype, but it didn’t work well. The project got bogged down for a while as a result, until it occurred to Giancarlo Fassina to replace the aluminum pulleys of the steel cable with nylon ones. The nylon not only got rid of the noise that was produced when the steel slid over the aluminum, but provided the right friction between metal and plastic and as a consequence a smooth and pleasant movement. 

Out of this contrivance came the Tolomeo, which was not what it was called at the time, as the name was only decided on the night before it was presented at the Salone del Mobile. Every year Ernesto made a list of names, and Tolomeo [Ptolemy] seemed the most suitable figure to represent the lamp, because he was an astronomer, a mathematician; in short it was the name best suited to the idea of a scientific mentality.

In a subsequent phase I solved the problem of the shape of the shade and the central pivot. Everyone liked the flowerpot shaped head, but it posed a series of problems. As it was conical, it was necessary to distort the surface in order to place the bulb horizontally to the shear plane, and this was hard to do. What came out was something difficult to make and to mold. In the end we decided to let the bulb enter the conical surface at a right angle to the conical plane instead of the shear plane. That was a detail I had to think a lot about. Often we go on pigheadedly looking for forms without questioning our aims. In that case, it was precisely by reexamining the objective that we found a much simpler as well as more natural, relaxed solution. The central pivot was another problem, because in the first version it was not possible to fold the two arms of the lamp completely, and so the packaging was much larger and more complicated. In the second year of production we fitted a strut onto the lever arm to permit the complete closure of the lamp. It was a great success from the very first year, with the result that Artemide decided to invest a lot in the system of production. Today there is a whole factory devoted exclusively to the Tolomeo that turns out around half a million lamps a year.


Gaia Piccarolo: Of course the system of production of the Tolomeo has to be fairly complex and flexible in order to be able to make the vast range of variants and models that are launched on the market every year. Out of the first table version has sprung a whole family of lamps that cover everything needed from a “task light,” that is to say a specific lamp for specific applications.


Michele De Lucchi: I’d say that rather than a lamp Tolomeo is a formula, a philosophy of the product. One of the aspects that has guaranteed its success is that each of its components can be turned into a lamp in its own right; for example the head by itself, with a clamp or hung from the ceiling, becomes many other lamps.


Michele De Lucchi: It was undoubtedly a big step when we designed heads in the form of lampshades made of paper or fabric. This version made it better suited to household use and adaptable to different settings. In general it’s a lamp that has a very pliable personality. It can be used in offices but also in homes, and this flexibility is one of the reasons for its popularity. It’s a product that fits perfectly well into both traditional and classic settings and innovative and unconventional ones. It is available in different forms, for the table, the floor, the ceiling, the wall. You can put it anywhere and you can move it easily.


Gaia Piccarolo: Without losing the recognizability of its iconic form, the Tolomeo has also gone through a process of evolution as a result of technological innovations in the field of lighting, adapting to the advances and changes in light sources. What have been the most important stages in this evolution and what does the future have in store? 


Michele De Lucchi: This is a very important question. In recent years lighting technology has undergone a radical modification. Not only has the light source been replaced, but the whole mode of its conception has changed. And this is precisely what makes it so surprising and almost miraculous that the Tolomeo has been able to adapt to these changes. Originally it was designed for the traditional incandescent bulb, but then we made numerous other versions, with halogen, gas discharge, energy-efficient bulbs, compact fluorescent bulbs with long tubes, etc. As light sources emerged that seemed to have potential, we tried to adapt the head of the lamp to the new kind. The latest is undoubtedly the LED bulb, which produces highly concentrated and direct light, and it was not easy to find a diffuser that would distribute the light correctly. Among other things, recent advances in LED bulbs have made it possible to obtain white light in many different color temperatures. Twenty years ago the color of light was not even taken into consideration, whereas today it has become central. Environmental quality is increasingly the focus of our attention. We are becoming more and more conscious of its importance and light, along with sound, is its fundamental element.

With Artemide we are devoting a great deal of study to the possibility of combining the quality of the light and the acoustic properties of the setting. Carlotta often asks me to design a new Tolomeo, but today we work on lamps in a very different manner. With LEDs the starting point for the design of a lamp is no longer the bulb, but the effect of the light in space. It is no longer sufficient to place a single bulb at the center of a room. Many lights are needed to create a blend of atmosphere and functionality.

Gaia Piccarolo: Light sources change and our way of designing and conceiving the lighting environment is changing, but the Tolomeo survives as an object precisely because of its form. My impression is that in this lamp the technology and the engineering are almost overshadowed by the object’s extreme immediacy and simplicity.


Michele De Lucchi: I believe that the lamp is by far the best combination of progress in technology with lifestyle, with the idea that every age has its own ambience for life. The lamp, at least in my eyes, is the most beautiful thing to design, because it combines contemporary sensibility with the theme of the object and its symbolic value. Sometimes we forget that lamps exist even when they are turned off, but it is important to remember this. When we design objects, be they chairs, lamps or drinking glasses, we are always focused on their function, but we forget about their symbolic significance in space. At this moment I have seven unused chairs in front of me. They are seven chairs with no one sitting on them, but they have a value owing to their presence in front of me. They are not important just because they are comfortable, but for their significance within a certain space.