The biography of Joe Colombo by Bianca Killmann for TAGWERC

Biography of Joe Colombo

Cesare “Joe” Colombo is born on July 30, 1930 in Milan, Italy. Colombo sees the light of day on that historic day as the host Uruguay at the first soccer world cup in history beats the national soccer team of Argentina 4-2 in the final and becomes world champion. But it is also the year after the crash of the New York Stock Market Crash in October 1929 and the beginning of the global economic crisis with all its hardships and hardships in which little Cesare is born.

It is therefore not surprising that Cesare, who will later call himself Joe, will develop a taste for good food, fast cars and fine clothing. He spends his free time with friends skiing, playing jazz and visiting jazz clubs. He mixes fantastic cocktails and the tobacco pipe, which in painting is a moralizing symbol of excess or vanity, becomes his trademark. In his lifetime he would have a reputation as a bon vivant and one could no doubt call Joe Colombo a dandy, a virtuoso of the art of living and lifestyle.

Gianni and Joe

As the eldest son of an electrical retailer – his brother Gianni was born in 1937 – Cersare Colombo grew up in the initially simple conditions of an entrepreneurial household during the Second Great Depression. It is self-evident for the growing up Cesare to help out in the family business and when the father dies in 1959, the 29-year-old Colombo takes over the family business and introduces a number of innovations, innovative manufacturing techniques and modern materials. The family holds together and together with his younger brother Gianni, Joe introduces a self-developed lamp in 1962, which took advantage of the new, thermoplastic material, acrylic glass, and transmits and indirectly emits the light from the source: the 281 model. Very fast the table lamp gets the nickname “Acrilica” due to its processed material, under which it is still produced by the Italian lamp manufacturer Oluce. But 1962 is not only the year the Colombo brothers develop their first product. In the same year Joe opens a studio for industrial design and interior design in Milan. He sees his future in the (re) design of objects and living spaces.

Training and car trading

Colombo benefits from his creative training. Until 1949, he had initially studied fine art, i.e. painting and sculpture, at the Accademia di Belle Arte di Brera and then studied architecture at the Milan Polytechnic until 1954. In addition to Enrico Baj and Sergio Dangelo, Colombo is also a member of the design group “Movimento Nucleare”, an artist group that formed in 1950 in response to the atomic bombing of Japanese Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the arms race of the superpowers USA and USSR. In 1954 Colombo organizes a ceramic exhibition on the occasion of the tenth Triennial in Milan. After completing his studies, Joe Colombo earns his living as a sculptor and painter with a focus on “abstract expressionism” and in between as a car salesman – to ensure his livelihood.

Rocket-like ascent

Colombo’s creative period, which begins in 1962 and ends in 1971, lasts less than a decade. During this extremely productive period, a number of works are created, mainly commissioned works, because Colombo becomes the shooting star of the design scene. In the field of industrial design, cars, watches and the on-board service of the Italian airline Alitalia are created. Abet Laminati, Alessi, Bayer, Bernini, Boffi, Bonacina Pierantonio, Candy, ICF Industrie Carnovali, Kartell, Olivari, Oluce, Progetti, Rosenthal and Zanotta are some of the many clients who still produce Joe Colombo’s designs to this day. B—Line will reissue some of Colombo’s design classics, which will later no longer be produced, at the end of the 20th century. Above all, the “Boby” roll container, the “Multichair“, both from 1970, the “Ring” shelf module and the Crossed seat cushion, both from 1963, which he liked to use in his Milan apartment. In general, Colombo uses his private rooms as a showroom, in which he tries out his designs and, incidentally, subjects them to the best possible practical test.

Design approach and design concept

The multifunctional design approach and the special design concept of Colombo become clear from the example of the “Universale” stacking chair. Designed in 1964, the plastic chair could firstly be mass-produced by Kartell in 1967 due to the technology required. The stackable chair is characterized by a modular design: legs attached to a basic structure should be individually expandable to the desired height. In this way, Universale could not only serve as a kitchen and dining chair, but also as a bar stool. The material plastic combined with strong colours and organic shapes like in Colombo’s design drafts are in a way typical of the design of the 1960s. Striking shapes and multifunctionality are impressive and unusual. A bed is not just a bed, a shelf is not just a shelf.

Individual needs and changing residents

With “Ring”, for example, a single, cuboid basic element made of metal and wood, which can be multiplied and expanded into a decorative control system. Additional wheels give the shelf an unusual mobility. A completely new approach in times of built-in cupboards and wooden cupboard walls. The “Multichair” and “Tube Chair” armchairs follow exactly the same principle with practically unlimited possibilities of use. Colombo does not see the living space of the future as a fixed, immovable backdrop, but as a multifunctional, interactive unit that adapts to the individual needs of changing residents. In addition to Colombo’s own apartment from 1970, it is above all the “Visiona 1” installation at the Cologne Furniture Fair in 1969 that makes Joe Colombo’s visionary utopias come alive. Joe Colombo is said to have seen tremendous opportunities in the extraordinary development of audiovisual processes and distances have not predicted great importance in the future. Colombo believes that the need to live in a metropolitan area such as a large city will also disappear, as will classic furnishings, since the living space will simply be everywhere.

More efficiency – less ballast

The “Total Furnishing Unit” Colombos is shown for the first time as part of the Visiona 1 installation and is also exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York three years later. Colombo’s living unit consists of convertible furniture. At the Visiona 1 exhibition supplemented by a television built into the ceiling, a mini bar integrated in pivoting walls. The “Total Furnishing Unit” consists of furniture that combine various functions in individual units. The result: the facility interacts with the user, takes up much less space and supports an efficient life without ballast. If the elements necessary for human existence could now be planned with the sole requirements of mobility and flexibility, we would create a habitable system that could be adapted to any situation in space and time, says Colombo.

Working nomads and open kitchens

What still seems futuristic during Joe Colombo’s lifetime has now become reality: nomads who travel the world with little personal ballast and work here and tomorrow there, mobile furniture that is sometimes used as a bedside table, sometimes as a coffee table or as a shelf in the bathroom or open kitchens, adjacent to the living space or even integrated into the same – all ‘were actually the visions of Joe Colombo.

Driven by work

But Joe Colombo is not only a man of the world, but also a man driven by work. The extreme workload finally takes its toll and so the personal doctor advises Colombo to take something back. On July 30, 1971, Colombo goes for a walk. While Colombo is walking through Milan, the designer suffers a heart attack. Sudden cardiac arrest abruptly pulls Colombo out of life on his 41st birthday.

The Colombo Design Studio has been run by Ignazia Favata ever since. The Milanese has been Colombo’s assistant since 1968. In 2004, in collaboration with the Italian furniture manufacturer B—Line, Favata released the “Spinny” and “Spinny Fixed” shelves for the Joe Colombo Studio. Joe Colombo’s works are shown in changing exhibitions worldwide and are part of permanent design exhibitions, for example at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, USA.

Cesare “Joe” Colombo died early – but in his designs available at TAGWERC Design STORE, the visionary designer will live on forever.

Author of the biography: Bianca KILLMANN
The biography is protected by copyright.


  • 1962
    Table lamp Acrilica (together with Gianni Colombo) for Oluce
  • 1963
    Compact kitchen Mini-Kitchen for Boffi
  • 1964
    Smoke glass series
  • 1964
    Armchair Elda
  • 1965
    Universale chair
  • 1965
    Spider desk lamp for Oluce
  • 1967
    Coupé floor lamp for Oluce
  • 1968
    Floor lamp Spider for Oluce
  • 1970
    Boby trolley (today from B-Line)
  • 1970
    Tube Chair
  • 1970
    Optic alarm clock for Alessi
  • 1970
    Ciclope lamp
  • 1971
    Birillo bar stool


  • 1969
    Visiona 1 exhibition for Bayer


  • 1964
    Gold medal of the XIII. Triennial in Milan for Acrilica
  • 1964
    Silver medal of the XIII. Triennial in Milan for Mini-Kitchen
  • 1964
    Silver medal of the XIII. Triennale in Milan for Combicenter
  • 1967
    Compasso d’Oro award for table lamp Spider
  • 1968
    First prize at Tecnhotel for Universale
  • 1968
    International Design Award for Coupé
  • 1968
    BIO 3 award for Universale
  • 1970
    Compasso d’Oro award for Candyzionatore
  • 1970
    AIID International Design Award for Spring

Joe Colombo Design, manufactured by B—Line.

Mobile storage BOBY


Container module RING