Defying the odds with intricate design
Originally posted by Dwell.
A daunting lighting design pushes a seasoned Italian craftsman to rethink the limits of concrete.
Two short, quickly scribbled words nearly put an end to the Aplomb before the hanging lamp even reached the prototype stage:
“It cannot be done.”
That fateful sentence is scrawled across the bottom of a faded sheet of fax paper dated June 6, 2008, below an original drawing for the funnel-shaped pendant by Paolo Lucidi and Luca Pevere. The designers had approached master craftsman Giovanni Piccinelli about producing the design in concrete for Foscarini.
Piccinelli, now 77, started working with concrete when he was seven, growing up in Valcamonica, a valley in the Italian Alps that he still calls home. In 1997, he started his own workshop, Crea Cemento, mostly working on large-scale building projects. But Lucidi and Pevere wanted him to execute a cast concrete pendant with thin 2 cm walls, hung by a slender cylindrical neck, also of concrete. The concept seemed ludicrous.
Carlo Urbinati, Foscarini’s founder and president, then took up the cause, asking Piccinelli and his two sons, Carlo, an architect and creative director of Crea Cemento, and Ottavio, its logistics manager, to reconsider.
When you’re being challenged, you’re probably in a good position to find something new. Often, the real meaning of ‘it cannot be done’ is actually ‘I’ve just never done that before.’
— Foscarini founder and president, Carlo Urbinati
Piccinelli went back to the drawing board and began crafting fiberglass molds for prototypes. He had made thousands of molds during his decades-long career, but they had been for pillars and staircases, not fancy pendants. The scale of Aplomb was entirely different. “Non fare.”
Meanwhile, the economic downturn of 2008 hit the construction industry hard. As Crea Cemento’s other business dried up, Piccinelli and his sons kept working of prototypes for Aplomb, spending more than two years perfecting the recipe of sand, cement, leveling compounds, and other additives to produce a mixture that was fluid enough to pour, yet would retain its shape without breaking. Making matters more complicated, Foscarini had certain requirements, such as a perfectly turned edge and a smooth finish unmarred by large pock marks. All of these elements could be thrown off by a simple change in temperature or humidity in the workshop.
Finally, the team hit upon a recipe that produces a pendant that is sturdy yet delicate. (The name “Aplomb” refers to the construction tool that uses gravity to determine a vertical line – a plumb bob – and also to having an attitude of poise or self-confidence.) In 2010, the pendant officially went into production.
“È possibile farlo.”
“It can be done.”
And that concrete recipe?
“It’s a secret,” says Urbinati. “Someone in Asia tried to copy it and the pendant broke. That’s why we never reveal the full ingredients.”
The elegantly industrial Aplomb suspension lamp is completely handmade through an incredibly-detailed step-by-step method in Italy.
1. Make the mold: Giovanni Piccinelli, founder of Crea Cemento, makes all of the molds for Aplomb from fiberglass. About 40 molds are in production at any given time, and each can be used about 350 times before wearing out.
2. Prepare the mold: Ndiaye Mamadou wipes the inside of the mold with oil – a release agent – and then seals it with several metal pins that clamp the mold in place.
3. Mix the concrete: The mixture of cement, sand, water, self-leveling compound, and other additives used to make Aplomb is proprietary, and varies according to the temperature, humidity, and presence/absence of colour pigments.
4. Cast the mold: Before filling the mold, Mamadou uses two vessels to decant the concrete to help eliminate large air bubbles, then lets it sit until the remaining bubbles rise to the surface. Then he slowly pours the mixture into the mold.
Photos taken by Jamie Chung.