Around the world in interior design: Italy

memphig group interior

Continuing our journey around the world’s most influential interior design traditions: it’s time for some Italian style…

At Pooky our designs for lights and shades draw inspiration from right across the planet… not surprising really, since the best interior design is generally a glorious mish-mash of influences, from local to global. So in our new blog series we’re exploring some of the most important interior decor and design traditions and cultures around the world (see the first stop, India, here). 

It’s hardly controversial to state that, when it comes to design and style, Italy is hard to beat. From fashion to cars to furniture, in terms of design classics, Italy and Milan, in particular   is right at the top of the tree. And this applies equally to interior design. Not bad for a country that is less than 200 years old.

But why has Italy proved so consistently successful in building and maintaining its reputation for great design? Pooky has been looking into Italy’s interior design history and the work of some of its most famous designers. And we’ve picked out a few lighting products that will bring a little sprezzatura to your home.

Italian style – the origins


Gesso and wood cassone (marriage chest) c1490, Maestro di Marradi. 
Photo: Creative commons

It’s widely thought that the Italian love affair with stylish design and gracious living stems from the Renaissance and the ruling families of the great city states of Venice, Rome, Florence and Ferrara. 

The Medici, the Strozzi, the Sforza and the Rucellai did not believe in hiding their wealth; they commissioned the leading architects of the day to create splendid new buildings and opulent, palatial homes. But new build in Renaissance times meant drawing on the architectural principles of Ancient Greece and Rome and making them relevant to a new age.  

So, strictly speaking, we ought to take ourselves right back to Ancient Rome to see how deep-pocketed citizens liked to spend their denarii on decorating and furnishing their homes. 

roman interior

Roman interior, recreated at the Museum of London.
Photo: Kotomi_ via Creative Commons

Marble was widely used but was frequently painted or gilded and, from 150BC onwards, wall painting became increasingly popular. Plastered walls were painted to mimic masonry, with yellow, red, magenta and black featuring frequently, and trompe l’oeil imaginary views added colour and a sense of space. Intricate mosaic floors were another way of adding rich colour, as were cushions piled onto elegant couches, and lighting came in the form of bronze lamps. Furniture often featured veneers such as ivory or silver. With the spread of empire and colonisation, came the import of exotic textiles, including tapestries, silk wall hangings, and rugs. And bronze was just about everywhere in Ancient Rome.

These were the influences that Renaissance architects and designers drew upon, none more so than Andrea Palladio (1508-1580). Houses such as the Villa Godi and the Villa Capra (La Rotonda) were among the finest examples of neoclassical design and became a blueprint for stylish homes. Palladio’s work would continue to influence architects and designers worldwide for centuries to come, right up to the present day. 

villa capraInterior of the rotonda, Villa Capra - designed by Andrea Palladio.Photo: Creative commons

Italian design in the 20th century - and beyond

Italian design underwent a second renaissance in the 20th century, with the emergence of a new generation of designers, who were responding to the demands of a fast moving and rapidly changing industrial age. Here are some of the design giants of that era, along with a selection of their design classics.

Gio Ponti (1891-1979) was an architect, industrial designer, furniture designer, teacher writer and publisher. Founder, in 1928, of the hugely influential architecture and design magazine, Domus, Ponti designed some of 20th century’s most striking buildings, not only in Italy but around the world, such as the Pirelli tower in Milan and the Villa Planchart in Caracas. This was accomplished alongside a lifetime of designing furniture and household items, including glassware.

One of his most famous chairs, designed by Ponti for Cassina, was the Superleggera, so named because its extremely light weight (1.7kg) meant that a child could lift it with one finger!


Superleggera chair, 1955, designed by Gio Ponti. Image: Creative commons

Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988) was a Milanese artist and designer, who created over 13,000 works, mainly decorative objects and furniture, during his career. These included the distinctive Tema e Variazioni plates, based on the face of 19th century opera singer, Lina Cavalieri. Between 1952 and his death in 1988, Fornasetti produced almost 400 variations.  These immediately recognisable designs have often been copied and adapted. But, as the saying goes, “often copied…never equalled.”

fornasetti plate

Tema e Variazioni plate, designed by Piero Fornasetti.
Image: Creative commons

Austrian-born Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007) would become one of Italian design’s most influential figures of the 20th century. Sottsass could design just about anything—furniture, jewellery, glass, lighting, home and office wares, as well as buildings and interiors. Qualifying as an architect (in Turn) just before the outbreak of WWII, Sottsass set up his own design studio in Milan in 1947 before spending several years in the USA. On his return to Italy, Sottsass became an artistic consultant to the contemporary furniture company, Poltronova; the designs he produced for them would prove to be the seedbed for the Memphis Group, the studio he went on to found in 1980. (In the interim, he produced many designs for Olivetti, including the Valentine typewriter, which remains a sought-after classic.)

The postmodern, collaborative Memphis Group challenged what had previously been regarded as good taste; the approach was “radical, funny, and outrageous”, with designs influenced by Art Deco, Pop Art and 1950s kitsch. Colour–and clashing colour in particular—was king, rich and bold. This approach had its critics, inevitably, who dismissed the group’s work as a five-minute wonder. Forty years on, the Memphis influence is still very much with us and you can see examples of the group’s work in London’s Design Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

memphis interior

Sitting room, Ettore Sottsass, Memphis Group, 1980s.
Image: Creative commons

Architect and design pioneer, Gaetano Pesce (b 1939) is renowned for his inventive use of colour and materials. He has continued to research the function and form of everyday and decorative objects and his work offers innovative modern design, interwoven with wit and style. This striking combination of thoughtfulness and playfulness can be seen in many of Pesce’s seating designs, such as Feltri, which he created in 1987 for Cassina, and the UP series for B&B Italia.

UP 5 and 6 seating, 1969, designed by Gaetano Pesce. 
Image: Creative commons

Among the current generation of Italian interior designers, Cristina Celestino is a rising star. Cristina, like so many of the country’s outstanding designers before her, trained as an architect and, in 2010, set up her own studio, Attico Design in Milan. Her very modern designs, whether for luxury hotels, exhibitions, restaurants or private homes, are stylish, comfortable and draw on Italy’s rich design heritage. Take a look at the furniture collection Cristina designed for the Italian fashion house, Fendi here

We were rather pleased to learn that Cristina has a private collection of classic Italian design pieces from the 1950s to 1970s, most of which are… lamps. (Take our word for it, you can’t go wrong with a classic lamp.) Well worth a follow on Instagram: @cristinacelstino

Get the Italian-style look with Pooky lighting


Hernan table lamp

First up in Pooky’s tribute to Italy is our Hernan table lamp (above), with its nod in the direction of the industrial design for which Italy became so famous in the 20th century. Hernan is so versatile and robust; made of antiqued brass and bronze (so a hint of Ancient Rome as well) it will work anywhere in the house. But it’s rechargeable too (very 21st century) so you can take Hernan outside too. 

Italy was and remains home to some of the world’s finest chandeliers (you can read more about the history of chandeliers here), still designed and made on the Venetian island of Murano.

capuletCapulet chandelier

Get the classic look with the Capulet chandelier, with its echoes of Juliet and Renaissance Verona (above).

Or for something of the exuberance and fun that Memphis design represented try the Orb chandelier with it’s multi-coloured glass roundels—amber, emerald, fuchsia, grey, teal turquoise, and clear.orb

Orb chandelier 

But let’s finish with a mirror worthy of being hung on an elegant Venetian wall. Franco is an imposing, superbly carved wooden mantelpiece mirror, with an appropriately antiqued gold leaf finish. Perfect if you happen to be putting on your own ballo in maschera.

franco mirrorFranco mirror


Explore the Pooky blog for more interior design inspiration, and take a wander through our bellissimo range of beautiful, affordable designer lighting here.


See also: 

Around the world in interior design: India

Classic interior design styles and how to light them – Mid-century modern

Chandeliers: An illustrated history