By all accounts, the designer Gino Sarfatti was a functionalist. Even a cursory review of the classic luminaires he designed with the company Arteluce he founded in 1939 confirms this categorization. The wonderfully strange forms of the more than 600 lamps and light fittings that he developed are each derived from the technical requirements of the light sources he employed, the lighting effect he wished to create, and nothing more. There is no wasted volume in his designs, no elaborate decorative styling. Every stand, housing, shade, and connection is held to its barest minimum, doing its job in the most efficient way possible. This direct simplicity is the key to the understated beauty of Sarfatti’s creations. It is why his luminaires are cherished gallery pieces that fetch high prices from reverent collectors, and it is why many consider him to be Italy’s greatest lighting designer.
So it is a bit strange that Flos, which purchased the rights to Arteluce’s collection in 1973, has gone through the trouble of re-releasing some of Sarfatti’s designs outfitted with LED sources, instead of using the original lamp types that gave them their form in the first place. Piero Gandini, Flos’ chairman, admits as much. “It was a bit perverse,” he says. “Sarfatti, when you read his interviews, was, from a theoretical point of view, a functionalist. He was always starting from a source, and designing around that source. But many of the sources available to Sarfatti are not available now, or soon will not be. We had to re-edit and take responsibility to be a modern lighting company. So we were fitting LEDs into shapes and design pieces that were designed around different sources. In a certain sense, we were not respecting Sarfatti. If he was here, he would do something different for LED.”
But Sarfatti is gone, having died in 1985. And who could resist turning contemporary consumers and design aficionados on to his marvelous creations? The gallery market is a fine place to buy iconic 20th century designs, including light fixtures if you can afford it, but how else could one expect to preserve Sarfatti’s legacy for a future generation that might not even know what an incandescent lamp looks like? Last year, Flos gave a similar treatment to the esteemed Arco luminaire, designed by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni in 1962, re-engineering the fixture to function with LEDs in celebration of the fixture’s 50th anniversary. For the Sarfatti collection, the company carefully selected specific Sarfatti fixtures that had at least some functional relationship to the operating requirements of LEDs. Or, in Gandini’s colorful words, “We decided to select products that, because of the shame we felt, it was possible to keep the original design untouched, but make it work for LED.”
The collection, released this year under the name Edition No. 1, includes five classic Sarfatti fixtures—models 1063, 1095, 607, 548, and 2129. (Even in the names, you can see Sarfatti’s utilitarian approach.) In some, the transition from original source to LED was quite straightforward. In others, the engineers were challenged to design components that worked in the existing forms. In so doing, some look the same as before, but imbued with added functionality and improved performance characteristics only possible with LED technology.
The most natural, and easiest, transition from the original source to LED came with Model 607, a table lamp with a slanted parallelepiped aluminum base, the front of which features a switch/dimmer, and a rather large aluminum diffuser in a truncated cone shape. Sarfatti designed this fixture for a 55W halogen source. “I think he did such a big surface to stay a bit cool,” Gandini says. “If you touch the head you are not offended with your hand. Also, he was transferring a big spread of light on the table.” This large diffuser worked perfectly as a heat sink for the 15W LED lamp that the company specified.
Model 1063 was another of the easier fixtures to reimagine technology-wise, but it was also one in which Flos’s design team was able to add new means of control. The original fixture consists of a vertical aluminum tube that houses a 100W T12 fluorescent lamp, emitting either direct or indirect light through an aperture that runs up the side of the shaft. The base, which is meant to sit on the floor, is a rounded aluminum rectangular box housing the power supply, which is connected to the shaft via two steel rods. Flos replaced the fluorescent tube with a 35W LED strip, which fit handily within the aluminum tube. Similarly, the electronics that drive the LED array easily fit within the aluminum box that had held the fluorescent source’s electromagnetic ballast.
Adding this sort of functionality, however, meant putting switches or dials somewhere on the luminaire and altering its minimalist appeal. Luckily, in the original Model 1063, two screws were visible on the aluminum box housing. Flos turned these into controls, which allow the lamp to be dimmed and the color temperature to be adjusted from 2700K to 4000K.
The hitch in this beautiful arrangement arose when the team tried to figure out how to fit a heat sink into the small head that would keep the LED source running at a reasonable temperature. For this, the engineers came up with a solution that is as ingenious as it is unexpected. In the original design, the lamp base housed a toroidal transformer for the halogen lamp. The electronics that drive the LED source left enough room inside this capacious housing for additional equipment, specifically a closed-circuit water-cooling system. “When I looked at this proposal, I asked the engineer, ‘What did you smoke?’ ” says Gandini. “But after thinking about it for a while I came back to him and said, ‘Give me one of your cigarettes, this is interesting!’ ”
Flos isn’t the only Italian lighting company reviving classic fixtures for the contemporary market by redesigning them to use LEDs. This year, Foscarini released LED versions of four of its all-time best sellers: Caboche by Patricia Urquiola and Eliana Gerotto, Twiggy and Tress by Marc Sadler, and Big Bang by Enrico Franzolini and Vicente Garcia Jimenez. As with Flos’s Edition No. 1, Foscarini did not just switch out the light sources, but undertook a complete redesign of the fixtures to make them perform as well as, if not better than, before, all while preserving their original aesthetics. “For us, the main challenge was to replicate the light effect,” says Foscarini co-owner Carlo Urbinati. “We sell a kind of lighting that has emotion. To replicate that with an LED source is very hard. It’s not just replacing one bulb with another.”
Foscarini’s engineering team developed proprietary LED boards for these fixtures that replicate the same warm light produced by the original designs. They tackled the heat problem by using more LEDs per board and running less electricity through them, thus lowering junction temperatures.
Whether or not the reissue of these classic designs constitutes an improvement on the originals is an open question. In his day, Sarfatti remained on the cutting-edge of technology, working with many light sources—such as halogen and fluorescent—just as they were being released onto the market. Who can say what sort of fixtures he would have designed around LEDs? We’ll never know. But meanwhile, we will be able to enjoy his unique designs well into the future.