Italian architect-designer Gaetana “Gae” Aulenti (1927-2012) was born in the town of Palazzolo dello Stella, near Trieste. Defying her parents’ wishes, she studied architecture at the Politecnico di Milano, graduating in 1954—one of only two women in a class of 20.
From 1955 to 1965, Aulenti was a contributor and Art Director for architectural magazine Casabella. During this time, she became an active proponent of the Neo Liberty movement and championed the revival of traditions motifs and individual expression, which had been discouraged during the years dominated by modernism. Through her wide-ranging work—covering industrial and exhibition design, furniture, graphics, stage design, lighting, and interior design—she became a leading voice of postmodernism as the 20th century progressed. Notably, her work was featured in MoMA’s landmark 1972 exhibition, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, which also spotlighted the work of pioneering talents like Mario Bellini, Joe Colombo, Ettore Sottsass, and Superstudio, to name a few.
Aulenti’s architectural career is remarkable for the fact that she salvaged and repurposed a substantial number of buildings that were neglected or even set for demolition. In 1980, she was offered the difficult challenge of reinventing the old Beaux-Arts-style Gare d’Orsay railway station in Paris, transforming it into the famous Musée d‘Orsay. In this project, she chose to bridge the architectural gap between the Louvre and the Pompidou Centre by creating a cavernous and expansive interior for the museum. When the Musée d‘Orsay opened in 1986, it was deemed too radical by many critics. Aulenti, however, was quick to point out the thousands of visitors who lined up each day to visit.
Soon after, Aulenti took on more large-scale museum re-designs, including the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou (1982-85); Palazzo Grassi in Venice (1985-86); and the new Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (1996-2003). Other architectural achievements include the new entrance for Santa Maria Novella Train Station in Florence (1990); Palazzo Italia at EXPO in Seville (1992); the restoration of the Scuderie Papali at the Quirinale in Rome (1999); the renovation of Piazzale Cadorna in Milan (2000); the Museo and Dante stations on underground line 1, alongside the redesign of Piazza Cavour and Piazza Dante in Naples (1999-2002); the Catalan Museum of Art in Barcelona (1985-2004); the restoration of the Palavela in Turin for the Winter Olympic Games in 2006; the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Tokyo (2006); and the restoration of Palazzo Branciforte in Palermo (2011).
In the areas of furniture, branding, and interior design, Aulenti was regularly commissioned by major international companies, such as Artemide, Banca Commerciale Itliana, Fiat, Ideal Standard, Knoll International, Louis Vuitton, Martinelli Luce
, and Pirelli
, among others. Iconic designs by Aulenti include the Pileino Lamp for Artemide (1972); the Giova Lamp (1964), Tavolo Con Ruote Table (1980), and Tour Table (1993) for Fontana Arte; the Sgarsul Rocking Chair (1962) and Locus Solus Chair (1963) for Poltranova
; and April Folding Chair (1964), and Sanmarco Table (1984) for Zanotta. Many of her designs remain in production today.
Aulenti won many awards over the course of her career, including the Ubi Prize for Stage Design in 1980; the Architecture Medal from the Academie d'Architecture, Paris in 1983; the Josef Hoffmann Prize from the Hochschule fur Angewandte Kunst, Vienna in 1984; France’s Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1987; the Praemium Imperiale for Architecture in 1991; and the title of “Knight Grand Cross” of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 1995.
Aulenti passed away in 2012 at the age of 85. She remains a significant architectural influence who made incredible strides for women in her profession.
*Images courtesy of Archivo Gae Aulenti, Artemide, Martinelli Luce, Zanotta