Castiglioni: a true Pitagora!

Achille Castiglioni’s genius is celebrated in an extraordinary exhibition that also stars the only coffee machine to have won the Compasso d’Oro award and an early prototype of an espresso machine for family use

A century ago, the “father of Italian design” was born. Today, the Triennale di Milano celebrates Achille Castiglioni (1918-2002) with a major exhibition staged and curated by Patricia Urquiola (who was taught by Castiglioni at the Politecnico di Milano) with the collaboration of Federica Sala.
A Castiglioni, on show from 6 October to 20 January, is divided into twenty themed stations dedicated to projects by the designer who revolutionized 20th-century industry, transforming the everyday into the extraordinary with curiosity and irony: from A for Alessi to Z for Zanotta, via Flos, architecture and installations. “Castiglioni,” Patricia Urquiola remarked in a recent interview, “showed me the value of design when I still believed that architecture was a superior art, the pleasure of conceiving an object and the importance of irony, fun and not taking yourself too seriously, even when you take the things you do very seriously.”

La Pitagora

Achille Castiglioni, who won 8 Compasso d’Oro awards, as well as receiving a Compasso d’Oro for his career and 16 honourable mentions, also distinguished himself with his brother Pier Giacomo in the coffee world: indeed, the perfect fusion of “practical and aesthetic factors, designed together” earned him one of the eight Compasso d’oros with the Pitagora, the only professional espresso machine to have won this illustrious award.
The award was conferred in 1962 by Pinin Farina, who recognized in Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni’s design “a conscious effort to rationalize and simplify the use and maintenance of the device and the use of a new material in this specific field for the coating of the body, which itself is excellently designed from a productive and aesthetic point of view. The object is therefore original both in terms of the production method and in terms of the built-in worktop and cup holder surface, which seamlessly fit with the body. This product, although it still features formalist details, is a globally significant creation, especially in view of the responsibility of designing a product for collective consumption.”

Observing gestures

During those years, coffee became a pretext for daily socializing and the machine became a reference point for this activity. “The importance of details,” explains Giovanna Castiglioni, vice president of the Fondazione Achille Castiglioni, “which came from the observation of gestures that men used in the middle of the space, led my father and his brother Pier Giacomo to overturn the concept of the espresso machine. Consider Giò Ponti’s La Cornuta, which was very beautiful from behind; by contrast, the Castiglioni brothers eradicated the concept by deconstructing the machine body, bringing it before customers. With Pitagora, baristas prepare coffee with the machine body in front, on the counter.”

Form and functionality

Paradoxically, by deconstructing the machine they created one of the most significant Italian-made products. Compared to previous models, thanks to the modification of the hydraulic unit, Pitagora’s dispensing function was activated simply by attaching the filter holder. Its innovation was summed up by its slogan: ‘the machine that makes coffee by itself’. Equipped with the most advanced technical equipment, the new machine overcame the aesthetic and structural values that prevailed at the time. Copper and brass were abandoned and replaced by stainless steel and painted iron. The distinctive machine body design with gentle, rounded, swollen curves was also substituted by a pure, bold design with a rational, geometric shape, marking a sea change in coffee machine design. The colour of the body was now an identifying feature. Among the tested colours, red became particularly popular.

Italian-made industrial design

The Pitagora can undoubtedly be considered an example of industrial design, involving a close collaboration between technicians and designers, since a united team made up of Cimbali’s Experimental Department, Mr. Vittorio Cimbali and the Castiglioni brothers contributed to its creation.
“His relationship with companies, technicians and workers was fundamental for Achille Castiglioni,” affirms his daughter Giovanna Castiglioni, adding: “Even today, as a foundation, we do not limit ourselves to cataloguing, ordering, archiving, digitalizing and promoting the work of the Castiglioni brothers; we also study how to recreate a piece, putting it back into production with variations that are consistent with new needs and technologies, through a constant and constructive dialogue with the company in question.”

Dialogue and trust

A descriptive note from the time states: “The Castiglioni architects, who were asked to collaborate on this design, were included in the team that worked on this project, taking a systematic, analytical approach. The ‘conversation’, which mainly took place in the workshop, beside the production machines, had technological and functional premises, although it was formulated around some basic ideas of a purely formal nature. One consequence of this close collaboration is that the ‘technicians’ were sensitized to the formal problems and they designed the various parts of the product and the equipment with this in mind. (…) Naturally, the wide-ranging, analytical dedication that we required necessitated a long period of study and design (over a year), which was necessary to create a truly industrial design. The Castiglioni architects now know all the parts of the coffee machine and its relative processes.”

La Cimbalina

“My father always used to say: if you’re not curious, forget it,” concludes Giovanna Castiglioni. So, it should come as no surprise that a few years ago, one of the first coffee machines for domestic use was discovered by chance in a Gruppo Cimbali warehouse. The prototype dates back to 1960, when the Castiglioni brothers designed the “Cimbalina,” a coffee maker with a die-cast aluminium cup holder and bakelite handles, a porter filter spaced from the machine body to avoid heating the coffee powder during preparation and a “vapour pressure” operating system.
Yet another brilliant fusion of form and functionality…