'Dear Joe Colombo, You Taught Us About the Future' Is An Exhibit That Honors an Industrial Design Pioneer

A new exhibition of the great designer's work opens in Milan.

Chair in Gallery

Teo Finazzi

An exhibition at the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in Milan is showcasing the work of Cesare "Joe" Colombo, an Italian industrial designer who has long been an influence on Treehugger, even though he died in 1971 at the age of 41. His exhibition is appropriately titled: "Dear Joe Colombo, you taught us about the future."

Colombo was a pioneer of what we call transformer furniture. As Treehugger's now-associate editorial director Margaret Badore described it in an earlier post on Colombo's work, "He believed that everyone should have access to good design for their homes. Inspired by space travel and telecommunications, his designs often have multiple configurations and can be transformed to suit the user’s needs."

Tube Chair
The Tube Chair by Joe Colombo.

Teo Finazzi

As an example, Badore describes the Tube Chair: "This piece can be arranged in a huge number of different ways, thanks to detachable clips that hold the tubes together. When the chair isn’t in use, the tubes can be nested inside of one another for storage."

Storage Unit
The container-cart Boby, designed by Joe Colombo is a classic of 1970s design.

Teo Finazzi

Every architect probably owned one of these BOBY units—they were simply the best rolling storage units. It's from 1971, but Colombo recognized we would not need storage for drafting tools for much longer. He noted at the time: "So, designers will no longer just draw with a pencil, they will create in partnership with technicians, scientists, professors and doctors and, in the fairly near future, even electronic brains."

Joe Colombo, Multichair per B-Line srl, 1970.
The original multichair transformable system by Joe Colombo is composed of two cushions filled with polyurethane foam and covered in elastic wool fabric.

Teo Finazzi

According to the statement from the gallery, "The exhibition layout beings with his early experiments from the 1950s when he joined the Nuclear Art Movement and made his first design for a Nuclear City that included a residential city and an underground city complete with cars, utilities, warehouses, and an underground railway."

The statement further reads:

"His love of mechanics, his sense of freedom from the constraints of special architectural contexts that he envisaged on a much smaller and more transformable scale, together with his studies into ergonomics and psychology, resulted in him designing such radically innovative projects as the Programmable System for Living, multifunctional mono-blocks like his MiniKitchen for Boffi and Box 1 for La Linea, even going so far as to propose Future Habitats like Visiona 1 for Bayer, the TotalFurnishing Unit for MOMA and even his own house in Via Argelati in Milan."
Mini Kitchen
The Minikitchen for Boffi.


Colombo's MiniKitchen is not in the exhibition, but it has been an inspiration on Treehugger before in our post "11 Small Kitchens That Grow, Move, and Change the Way You Think About Kitchens." The Total Furnishing Unit, seen here on the Wayback Machine from when Treehugger was young and the pictures were small, was a big influence on Treehugger founder Graham Hill's LifeEdited project.

Living System Box
Living System Box.

Margaret Badore

After moving my daughter in and out of apartments when she was in university and seeing all the waste when students just threw out their IKEA furniture, I thought we needed a new version of the Living System Box that Badore saw in New York. It looks like a lot of those cases that roadies pack equipment for bands in, so you can have all your stuff safely in the boxes, roll them into your new apartment, and—voilà!—instant furnishings and storage.

Badore writes, "In addition to being compact, the set includes a number of ingenious double-uses. For example, the desk chair can be flipped over to serve as a step-stool up to the bed. Similarly, the vanity’s top can be used as a bedside table when closed or flipped open to reveal a mirror."

Colombo with pipe
Joe Colombo.

Ignazia Favata-Studio

Colombo was an early adopter of plastics in furniture and believed that high-quality goods should be available to everyone at a reasonable price. He is quoted in the obituary of the New York Times.

“The situation now is the exact opposite of the past, when design was only sold in a few deluxe shops,” he said. “Clients do not exist anymore. Instead, there are consumers, and we have to think in terms of mass production.

He also took a realistic and mathematical approach to design. While he sat on an inexpensive molded plastic chair, he said, “I did not design this chair. I calculated it.”

Installation in gallery

Teo Finazzi

I am loving this installation and the juxtapositioning of the old and new in this gallery. While today we might look askance at the extensive use of plastics, there is so much to learn from the way he thought about design and his "innovative ideas for how life would be lived in the future."

More at GAM Milano.

View Article Sources
  1. "Dear Joe Colombo, you taught us about the future." Galleria d'Arte Moderna Milano. Press release.

  2. "Caro Joe Colombo, ci hai insegnato il futuro." Galleria d'Arte Moderna Milano.

  3. "Joe Cesare Colombo, a Designer of Furniture and Interiors, Dies." New York Times, 1 Aug. 1971.