Gae Aulenti: maverick of Italian Midcentury design

A Gae Aulenti prototype Saint Moritz table for Pierluigi Ghiandi, never made for production, brought $9,195 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2019. Image courtesy of Viscontea Casa d’Aste srl and LiveAuctioneers.

A Gae Aulenti prototype Saint Moritz table for Pierluigi Ghiandi, which never went into production, brought €9,000 (about $9,195) plus the buyer’s premium in November 2019. Image courtesy of Viscontea Casa d’Aste srl and LiveAuctioneers.

NEW YORK — Like the notable 20th-century architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Eero Saarinen, who designed furnishings to complement their buildings, Italian architect Gae Aulenti (1927-2012) excelled at translating architectural principles into decor. As one of a handful of women in the postwar Italian modern movement, she stood out from the crowd. Her keen design acumen led her to design striking pieces of furniture and lighting that embodied the Midcentury Modern aesthetic.

She was renowned for her museum projects, including the Musee d’Orsay in Paris (1980–86) and the Contemporary Art Gallery at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and her furnishings were, and are, widely collected among the general public. While her name was little known outside her native Italy during her lifetime, she has had a lasting impact on interior design.

After studying architecture at the Politecnico di Milano, she first worked in industrial design before landing major architectural commissions. She also accepted furniture design projects for several Italian department stores, creating pieces for Italian companies and design houses such as Artemide, Martinelli Luce, Kartell and Fontana Arte as well as for Knoll in New York.

A Gae Aulenti Jumbo marble coffee table for Knoll achieved $13,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Vero Beach Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

A Gae Aulenti Jumbo marble coffee table for Knoll achieved $13,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Vero Beach Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

In furniture, she is perhaps best known for the Jumbo coffee table she originally designed in 1965 and which Knoll produced in marble in 1972. This massive table was heavy and a focal point of any room. A white-and-gray veined version for Knoll, measuring nearly 45 inches wide, achieved $13,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022 at Vero Beach Auction.

Also finding favor with buyers was her Locus Solus series of furniture, which was so popular it was reissued in 2016. The tubular metal framed chairs were clearly designed for outdoor use and have a classical shape yet espouse a sense of playfulness. A set of four chairs and a table from 1967 made $9,706 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021 at Cambi Casa D’Aste. She is said to have created this design in 1964 for the movie La Piscine (The Pool).

A set of four chairs and table from Gae Aulenti’s Locus Solus series made $9,706 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of Cambi Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers.

A set of four chairs and a table from Gae Aulenti’s Locus Solus series made €9,500 (about $9,706) plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of Cambi Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers.

She was bold in her life and in her design choices. Reportedly, she resisted her family’s plans to take her place as a so-called “nice girl” in high society, choosing to  study architecture instead. She was similarly unfazed by the harsh critical response to her design that transformed the Beaux Arts-style Gare d’Orsay railway station in Paris into a new showplace for impressionist art in the 1980s. The press may have blasted her use of industrial materials to hang the art, but tens of thousands of people lined up to see the redesigned station just after it opened.

Among her most inventive and bold pieces were her glass coffee table set on wheeled casters, an example of which is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and prototypes such as the Saint Moritz table for Pierluigi Ghiandi, which was never put into general production. The latter was a pine table with ebony filets, made in the 1970s for the St. Moritz home of Aulenti’s longtime patron Giovanni Agnelli. Produced by Pierluigi Ghiandi, it brought $9,195 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2019 at Viscontea Casa d’Aste srl; only two other Ghiandi prototypes are known to exist.

A pair of tall floor lamps by Gae Aulenti, dating to 1969, sold for $12,260 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of Cambi Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers.

A pair of tall floor lamps by Gae Aulenti, dating to 1969, sold for €12,000 (about $12,260) plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of Cambi Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers.

Aulenti also created stunning lighting designs, ranging from floor lamps to table lamps. Many had diffused lighting behind opalescent glass shades that contrasted with their lacquered metal stands and bases to great effect. An eye-catching pair of tall floor Oracolo lamps from 1969 sold for $12,260 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021 at Cambi Casa D’Aste. They were designed for Artemide in 1969. A reduced table lamp-size version was released as well.

Several of Aulenti’s table lamps were multifunctional, chief among them a series she designed for Fontana Arte in 1964 in which the bottom half was a lamp and the upper bowl could be used as a vase. A pair of such lamps, having chromed metal bases and crystal diffused shades, realized $6,130 plus the buyer’s premium at Cambi Casa D’Aste in May 2021.

Two Gae Aulenti table lamps for Fontana Arte, designed in 1964, realized $6,130 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of Cambi Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers.


Two Gae Aulenti table lamps for Fontana Arte, designed in 1964, realized €6,000 (about $6,130) plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of Cambi Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers.

Aulenti’s inventive designs and use of diverse and non-traditional materials cemented her legacy in the design world. More than 40 years after several of her most spectacular designs debuted, her work is still being produced and sought after by collectors and by those who invite her style into their homes.