The History of the Iconic Flos Arco Lamp

Sometimes it takes a genius to come up with the obvious answer. Which takes us on a direct line to Achille Castiglioni and the history of the iconic Flos Arco Lamp. The problem goes like this. Everybody has at least one table, and they all need to be lit. After all, if people are using them to eat at, they want to see the food. If they are using them for any sort of work, it is even more important that everything is visible. 

The conventional answer is to hang the lamp from the ceiling and, to be fair, that works in many circumstances. But not all. What happens if, for example, you need to move the table. You can hardly call in the electricians to rewire the room every time you need to shift the furniture.

That is where Achille Castiglione, together with his architect brother Pier Giacomo, came in. He always believed that one of the main jobs of a designer was to solve real-world problems, and this was right up his street. He reasoned that whatever people are using the table for, they don’t much like lighting coming in from the side. So was born the Arco Lamp, the best way to shine a light from above and still be mobile.

Looking at the history of the iconic Flos Arco Lamp, you can see it’s been around for over 60 years. The model has been so successful one estimate is that one in 10 homes in his native Italy have an example.

Meet Achille Castiglioni

All designers have a specialist field. It is the area where their particular interests cross with the demands of the real world. For some, it is chairs and comfort, others may be more concerned with issues such as storage. With Achille Castiglione, it was all across the board as long as it solved a real-work problem. His best-known creations, though, came in the field of lighting and other electrical goods.

He had the advantage of an artistic background. His father Giannino Castiglione was a sculptor with a studio in their home in Milan. That inspiration built art and design into the family environment. It was no surprise that the sons followed a similar path.

Thanks to the Second World War, he did not graduate from the Politecnico di Milano until 1944. He was soon, however, at work with his brothers Livio and Pier Giacomo in a design practice they had set up before the war.

The dry biography, however, does not do justice to the man and his restless energy, his sense of humour and his drive to innovate. “I see around me a professional disease of taking everything too seriously. One of my secrets is to joke all the time,” he once said.

Flos and the Iconic Arco Lamp

To take advantage of that drive to innovate, Achille Castiglioni needed the backing of a manufacturer who prepared to follow his intuition down whatever rabbit hole it ended up in. That’s where Flos comes into the history of the iconic Flos Arco Lamp. 

Probably the best explanation of the relationship between the designer and the company he did so much work for comes from his youngest daughter, Giovanna. Nowadays, she has a leading role in the Fondazione Castiglioni, the organisation devoted to boosting her father’s legacy and memory.

“It precisely pinpoints what I think is missing nowadays: today, the designer is hired by the company as art director and defines the project requirements in advance,” she said in one interview. “This somehow eradicates the creativity.” 

 I see around me a professional disease of taking everything too seriously. One of my secrets is to joke all the time.

Achille Castiglioni

“My father would have never worked as art director, because he just did not want to give his own approach. He was always happy to discuss the project, to talk to the workers, to think together with the engineers, with the company manager – working with everyone in perfect harmony, as part of a team.

“In the 1960s, this was possible because the entrepreneur was an enlightened businessman, who picked the right architect, at the right time: it really was the golden age of design.”

She added: “There was an open-mindedness from the higher-ups, and not only in financial terms: all they wanted was to work with the designer, not to create a one-off product, but a serial product. They wanted art to be accessible to everyone.”

Curiouser and Curiouser

Later in life, as a professor of design, Achille Castiglione would tell his students: “If you are not curious, forget it. If you are not interested in others, what they do and how they act, then being a designer is not the right job for you.”

It was certainly an approach that worked for him. Designs ranging from a beer dispenser, which won the Compasso d’oro Award in 1964, to chairs, radiograms, and even a hospital bed, which won the same prize 15 years later, flew from his fertile brain.

It was all driven by a relentless curiosity about the world around him. He coupled that with a drive to find answers to the difficulties he found in everyday life. It was a perfect match. 

When you take home a particular object or a piece of furniture, you know what you bought, you get attached to it, it keeps you company.

Achille Castiglioni

Not that he was naive about selling his products. His view was that people didn’t always realise there was a problem until he had presented them with the answer. It meant he did not get on with marketing departments, who find out what people want and try to get that to them, but he was meticulous about talking to the front-line salespeople. 

“Whoever sells the item must know what they’re selling,” Giovanna Castiglioni added of her father. “Achille considered that to be even more important than basic marketing, because people count, and retail shops still sell. In the end, he said, when you take home a particular object or a piece of furniture, you know what you bought, you get attached to it, it keeps you company. People do have to buy a design to use it.”

Solving a Problem

Here, the difficulty Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglione set out to solve in 1962 was how to light a table that doesn’t just sit in one place all the time. The solution and his growing connection with Flos as his main manufacturer gave birth to the Acro Lamp.

It is designed to be useful and mobile. Three simple components are core to the concept. First is an arched, pivoting telescopic arm. Second, a flower-like head holding a lightbulb and providing both direct and indirect light. Third is the counterweight, a 65kg (a little over 10 stone) block of Carrara marble.

The Design Process

When Achille Castiglione designed the Arco lamp, he was working closely with his brother Pier Giacomo, who sadly died six years later. The inspiration for both of them was a visit to Paris. The local style of streetlamp there struck them both. Together with Sergio Gandin, in charge of Flos, they decided to bring the concept into people’s homes.

The most obvious design feature is the semicircular arch which holds the height-adjustable aluminium shade. You can swivel the arch to suit your specific lighting needs, making the Arco a highly flexible product. 

The base of solid white Carrara marble comes from quarries in the Italian Alps. It’s a local stone sought-after in Italy throughout history. There is plenty of it and it looks good. That means it continues to be used in the most sophisticated of designs.

In 2012, to mark the 50th anniversary of the lamp, Flos added a low-energy version to the range complete with a dim switch. It all makes the Arco even more desirable than ever.

What’s in a Name

The major design innovation in the Arco lamp is the arch, which gives it its name. Now, arches have been around for at least 4,000 years, but it was the Italians who really made the most of it as a design element.

For a couple of millennia, various civilisations used the idea only in underground waterways. Then along came Roman engineers who worked out how to balance all the forces and make it a core part of their building works. Using the arch they could build higher and longer structures than anyone before.

Any trip to Italy will come up with loads of examples, from the Colosseum and triumphal arches in Rome to the many miles of bridges and aqueducts.

The word itself has ancient origins but comes to us in modern times through Latin, where “arcus” is the word for a bow. You can see other ways it has come down to us, with words such as “archery” (when people use a bow) and arcade (originally a structure supported by arches).

Given all that, the Castiglione brothers, brought up in Milan, would have seen arches all around them growing up. So when they were looking for a word to sum up their new design, they obviously went back to basics and the Arco Lamp was born.

The Iconic Arco Lamp

In engineering terms, the fundamental challenge was to find a way to support the high arch of the lamp. It had to be high enough for even tall people to walk underneath without bumping their heads. At the same time, it had to be mobile. You had to be able to move the lamp from spot to spot. After all, that was the main purpose behind it and Achille Castiglione focussed all his attention on making things that work.

The breakthrough in the history of the Iconic Flos Arco Lamp was being able to cut the weight of the arch and the light itself with its slim stem and the rounded lampshade, all in aluminium. That meant a heavy, but still moveable, base would be enough to keep it stable.

Stone was the obvious answer. Again, the Italian roots are obvious. It is a culture that uses marble, and has done so for over two thousand years. In many ways it has become the go-to material for any project like this where weight, strength and beauty are all required.

With a heavy enough weight at one end, Achille Castiglioni had the flexibility to produce the design he wanted. The arc is high enough to let even tall people pass below it. At the same time, the lamp can be lowered to the exact height you want. You can move it to where you want, as long as you have the muscle power. The iconic Flos Arco lamp has a long and illustrious history, but will never go out of fashion.

Invalid carousel name given < Back to all articles