AMONG THE MOST significant artworks that have come into my life have been a chair, a trash can, a child’s dress. When I look at them as art, I tend to think of them as sculpture. Why do I (sometimes) call them that? As when I bestow the name of art on other things, it’s because of how they prompt me to think about form, appearance, meaning. Usually, when people speak about things like this in some slightly grander way than as chairs, trash cans, dresses, they call them objects of design, which of course they are—but that slightly distracts from what fascinates me about them because of the premium it rightly puts on function. There is a pleasure inherent in certain everyday objects that is certainly not in contradiction to their functionality but by the same token is not limited to the appreciation of it. There is a free and independent sense of invention and of the integrity of a thing’s making.
Besides, most such functions could be fulfilled in an infinite number of ways. If fulfilling a use in a satisfactory way were all that counted, there would be no choosing among the thousands of chairs that are sufficiently comfortable while not being offensive to the eye. As far as wastebaskets go, I made do for years with old Jiffy bags—this was extraordinarily efficient, in my view, since once filled, the entire thing could be discarded. The only downside was that they did not stand on their own but had to be propped up between my desk and the wall; but since I did have a desk and a wall this was no real problem. As for dresses, well, there could be no better proof than their overwhelming multiplicity that things don’t need to be standardized to be equally useful.
Anyway, out of all these everyday things that have taken on special esthetic status in my eyes—these noticed (rather than found) sculptures—perhaps my favorite is a certain lamp I keep in my living room. I am not original in this: this lamp is renowned in the annals of design. I’m speaking of the Toio standing lamp, designed by Achille Castiglioni for Flos in 1962, one of which I’ve lived with for the last 10 years. Admittedly, there might be a special reason why an art critic in particular would become fascinated by this object, and not only because its self-evident construction and spare, stripped-down industrial appearance align it with modernist sculpture. More importantly, it might be because in making this lamp Castiglioni, whether consciously or not, offered a surprising twist on the concept of the readymade, which was just then undergoing a rediscovery in the art world thanks to figures like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in the United States, the Nouveaux Réalistes in France, and the adherents of Fluxus just about everywhere.
What is this Toio lamp? The best way to describe it might be to start at the top and work my way down. It starts with what lamps normally don’t show: the light source itself, in this case the headlight of a car—an ordinary, off-the-shelf object, although then again, in 1962 Italy, maybe not so ordinary as that. This type of headlight came from the United States, so it might have seemed a bit new and exotic despite its being so ordinary in a different context. Obviously this exoticism has little effect on me, since it is a kind of light that I am used to seeing. But there is another, more important aspect of de- or recontextualization at work here: the fact that something made to be used outdoors has here been inserted into the domestic interior. And this has not been done arbitrarily. The use of the automobile headlamp solves the big problem with lamps, namely that they need lampshades. In my view, this is as problematic as sculptures needing bases. It shows up a sort of inner contradiction in the very idea of the lamp: we need them both to shed light and to shield us from it. Facing the ceiling, the headlight, its lower portion silvered (normally to reflect its light forward, here upward), already shields us from any glare while reflecting light off the ceiling over a wide area. The headlight is displayed as an object for its own sake but also fulfills its function beautifully.
This recontextualization of an existing product is already a stroke of brilliance, a way of designing by not designing. But still there was the question of how to lift this headlamp above eye level. The rim that holds the headlamp is in turn attached to a slender hexagonal rod. Containing the wires are several loops reminiscent of those in a fishing pole—and in fact Castiglioni’s first prototype really was a fishing pole. So this is a sort of remade readymade. If you move the Toio, the rod sways like a young tree in the wind, as if to show its litheness in comparison with the heavy “head” of light it bears. But as it is metal, one has no fear that it will snap. It’s attached to a large clamp, lacquered red, that sits on the floor and holds the heavy transformer necessary to use ordinary house current for the headlight; this transformer is at once a counterweight stabilizing the whole construction and a quasi-decorative element in itself.
The Toio is made of existing elements—or adaptations thereof—with nothing added to beautify or stylize them, and nothing hidden. But it has incredible beauty and style. Yes, it performs the function of a lamp and does so with exemplary efficiency, but it does a lot more: It sheds light not only in the literal sense but also sheds light on the thinking that goes into making something. It values resourcefulness, the everyday genius of finding value in things rather than adding value to them. It talks to me about paradox and brio, and satisfies, most of all, Castiglioni’s declared desire “to communicate with the observer, to stimulate his power of understanding, his knowledge of the object, and to disregard formal appearances. This relationship could be described as one of mutual curiosity.” What could be a better account of what art should do? I’ll admit my Toio was fairly expensive for a lamp. But it was incredibly cheap for a sculpture.
Photo: Toio lamp. Courtesy Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany.