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The Tizio lamp

Created in the 1970s, Artemide’s era-defining task lamp still shines a light on good design

Peter York | May/June 2015

My desk holds two pairs of tall, black task lamps, like pint-sized cranes on a miniature building site, or a convocation of giraffes at an African watering-hole. They’re useful, but they’re also important. Making a task lamp is the acid test of a modern designer’s ingenuity, in the way that making a chair was the test of an 18th-century apprentice. James Dyson was probably delighted when his son Jake went into lighting design, but you can bet he was even more pleased when Jake came up with a task lamp, the scaffolding-like CSYS. You’d probably also be safe staking your money that Jake first took a long, hard look at a Tizio.

The Tizio lamp has been visual shorthand for European high design practically since the day it was launched, in 1972, by the Milanese manufacturers Artemide. Sculptural and singular, it has a heavy, round base, two counterweighted rectangles that act as arms and a small, elegant head. The original is very Italian, finished in matt-black enamel spiked with five little dashes of orange-red plastic (one on the rocker switch on the base, four on the axles around which the arm sections pivot). But there’s more to it than la bella figura. The Tizio was in fact designed by a German.

Richard Sapper, born in Munich in 1932, studied philosophy, graphic design, engineering and economics at university before beginning his working life in the styling department at Daimler-Benz. In 1958 he went to Milan, specifically to the studio of Gio Ponti, the dolce-vita-ish maker of collectible drawing-room chairs, and followed this with a stint at the department store La Rinascente. Then, crucially, he joined up with an Italian architect and designer, Marco Zanuso. Together they produced a stream of innovations in home electronics that were far more than simple up-stylings: a hinged radio “box” that opened up to show its speakers and controls; the rounded, portable Doney 14, the first completely transistor tele­vision; and a telephone with a flip-up mouthpiece, an early version of the clamshell. So when Sapper started talking about task lamps with Ernesto Gismondi, the design academic and co-founder of Artemide, the expectation was that he’d create something both innovative and functional.

Which he did. The obvious innovation was the use of curved counterweights, as opposed to the three tension springs that hold an Anglepoise in place—though, simple as the weights are, in Sapper’s original blueprints they look like something thought up by Leonardo da Vinci. Less obvious, but perhaps more ground-breaking, was Sapper’s use of electronics. A Tizio’s light source is a tiny halogen lamp—in 1972 still a very new and industrial technology, more common in car headlamps than houses. The halogen enabled Sapper to provide an intense, focused beam of light using only a very small head, leading, in turn, to a smaller, neater set of counterweights. Then there’s the power. The electric current, reduced to a safe low voltage by a transformer in the circular base, travels directly through the two arms to the bulb. No wires—so the look is startlingly clean-cut.

The Tizio not only looks good, it works well. It’s fun to focus it on whatever you’re doing. The weighted ends mean it stays poised even if you align the arms very long and low, to make one big horizontal gesture. The small head doesn’t get in the way of seeing what you’re doing, even when you put it very close to the matter in hand. And the light is fabulously bright, even on the lower of its two settings.

There was already enough here to please the most geekish and Germanic of engineering nuts, the kind who, like Sapper himself, understood the play of mechanical forces involved. But that was before the 1980s got going. This was the decade that extended the reach of design beyond people who had studied the subject at art school—those who knew the language, the visual codes and references—to a new, wider audience who wanted to express their smart modernity. Well-paid, going-up-in-the-world people, cleaving to the new stereo­type of the yuppie. Metropolitan Home, a very yuppie American interiors magazine, called the Tizio “the status icon of the 1980s, replacing the Barcelona chair as the design must-have”. It turned up in commercials for Herman Miller furniture one week, hairspray the next. Mind you, until the 1990s—when Artemide made a minor adjustment, putting a slender lever on the front of the halogen-heated head—it also inflicted minor burns on thousands of manicured fingers.

Today, the Tizio stands at that point where innovation, design and elegance intersect with the world of the art museum, where objects are displayed in vitrines to be worshipped. One sits in the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Victoria & Albert museum in London and many others besides. It’s not too much to say that its launch marked the beginning of that elision of art and design that ended with the big-ticket “Design Masters” sales at Phillips auction rooms, and the insanely expensive design-art show PAD, where contemporary designers such as Ron Arad or Nigel Coates sell limited-edition chairs, tables and, yes, lamps for tens and hundreds of thousands.

What switched on that sensibility? The Tizio. 

artemide.com; from around £250

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