Designed to Last

January 18, 2023

Foscarini releases a new colour hue, Anthracite, for its Aplomb collection. darc speaks with designers Paolo Lucidi and Luca Pevere about its production journey that began 10 years ago.

Foscarini’s well-known Aplomb pendant has received a new, “non-colour” finish: Anthracite, a neutral grey-toned cement, created in collaboration with a small, Italian family business Crea. Originally designed by Paolo Licidi and Luca Pevere and launched in 2010, the Aplomb’s sleek clean-cut shapes have made the piece a classic in the Foscarini range.

“The protagonist is a special cement developed to be pleasing to the touch, composed of an exclusive fluid mixture poured into a mould,” says the brand. “Aplomb is a re-composition of contrasts: Foscarini has transformed a hard, rough and only slightly pliable material into a lamp with minimal thickness, produced with a craft-based process by Italian experts in cement processing.”

Designers Lucidi and Pevere spoke with darc about the new design and its inspirations, giving an insight into the material choices and process. “The Aplomb concrete pendant has an imperfect surface that gives it an expressive, handmade quality,” describes Pevere. “The design idea was born more than 10 years ago at the end of a design experience in the outdoor field in which we learned to use natural materials such as terracotta, ceramic and natural-based composites. We mainly designed vases where the tactile and visual sensation of the surface was very important. In that period many industrial products were influenced by the first Apple products: smooth, basic, pure. Perfect. By linking the rejection of this homologation, which contaminated many product sectors, to the design experience that has just ended, the inspiration came: a lamp that did not focus on the lighting effect but on its mass when switched off. Its weight and its imperfection. Foscarini was the ideal partner.

“Aplomb is manufactured by family-run Crea Cemento in the province of Brescia. The fixture is part of Foscarini’s wide-ranging Maestrie project, which documents the craftsmanship and know-how behind its finished products. The aim of the project is to look beyond the brand in order to understand the values and culture that have made a particular object possible, the people and places that have gone into its creation. It is the expertise of these craftsmen and artisans that Maestrie showcases and celebrates. The development of the Aplomb lamp is indicative of Foscarini’s creative relationship with its production partners but also demonstrates the artisanal know-how that is the foundation of the success of so many of the high-quality furnishings of Made in Italy.”

The intentional decision to use a cement finish was aimed at “introducing a new material that is little used in the world of lighting”. The Aplomb is a “re-composition of contrasts [that] transformed a hard, rough and poorly pliable material into a lamp with minimal thickness”.

Ideally suited to contemporary interiors, the anthracite version of the Aplomb also features an aluminium neck piece that blends the cement and the cable, matching in a dark hue that aids the transitions of materials.

With regards to the design process, Lucidi explains that it was “tortuous, non-linear, and empirical. The [cement] production process was suited to large castings for architecture or useful for producing heavy elements with a low aesthetic value for common buildings; typically steps, balustrades, fences, manholes, sidewalks, etc.” This forced the design team to challenge the design process to be more flexible and suited to refined product production.

“Our intuitions always had to be verified in the laboratory and modified if the constraints did not allow their feasibility; the concept was immutable, the form was not. The team was so close-knit, passionate and stubborn that it ensured today’s Aplomb exactly fit our first design sketch.

“The original drawing for the funnel-shaped pendant was created back in June of 2008. We had approached master craftsman Giovanni Piccinelli, founder of Crea Cemento about producing the design in concrete for Foscarini. We wanted him to execute a thin, cast concrete pendant, hung by a slender cylindrical neck, all of concrete. But upon seeing the specifications, Piccinelli said it could not be done. Foscarini insisted on the project, asking to reconsider. ‘When you’re being challenged, you’re probably in a good position to find something new,’ Carlo Urbinati, Foscarini Founder and President, says. ‘Often, the real meaning of ‘it cannot be done’ is actually ‘I’ve just never done that before.’ Piccinelli went back to the drawing board and began crafting fiberglass moulds for prototypes. He had made thousands of moulds during his decades-long career, but they had been for pillars and staircases, not fancy pendants. The scale of Aplomb was entirely different.

“Meanwhile, the economic downturn of 2008 hit the construction industry hard. As Crea’s other business dried up, Piccinelli and his sons kept working on 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 pockmarks. 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.”

As mentioned, the first challenge the team faced was Piccinelli’s first response that it was impossible to make due to the fragility of the material in such a thin state. Further challenges they had to overcome included establishing a range of variability, a “standardised variation”, especially with regards to surface yield. Thirdly, longterm, the thermal shoches due to ignition broke the lamp.

Lucidi continues, walking us through the construction stages of putting the Aplomb together. “We initially walked the reinforced concrete road by incorporating wire and steel rod into the concrete. We soon realised that this involved flaws and breakages. Today the Aplomb is made of concrete, single material. Components made of other materials are assembled later and grant the tolerances and expansions it needs.

“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 or absence of colour pigments. Before filling the mould, Ndiaye Mamadou (from Crea) 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 mould. Sandblasting gives the Aplomb its soft exterior, yet won’t obscure the signature imperfections that are formed by small air bubbles during mixing. Each pendant is sandblasted both inside and out for consistency.

“On the one hand the final sanding does away with any brutalist effect on the cement itself, and on the other there is emphasis on the controlled irregularity of the material thanks to a grain size with pores open to various extents, making each lamp unique, just slightly different from the next.

“Foscarini’s certain requirements meant all of these elements could be thrown off by a simple change in temperature or humidity in the workshop. As Carlo Piccinelli said ‘We weigh the ingredients and mix them according to a special recipe, but the success ultimately relies on the sensitivity of the person doing the mixing.’”

With each Aplomb being made by hand and the assembly completed separately, the attention to detail is evident. “What is sophisticated and rare is the know-how and sensitivity of those who produce it,” adds Pevere. “The bricklayer’s plumb line effect was one of the sensations we wanted to retain throughout. A weight that stretched the self-supporting electric cable properly.

“It is a successful lamp because it does not just suit one specific sector but is very transversal: residential, contract, hospitality, corporate, etc. It can be used in assonance in warm and material environments or by creating a pleasant contrast in extremely minimal and pure environments.

“Aplomb is the first concrete lamp offered on the market with these technical specifications. As concrete is usually used in outdoor spaces and in large quantities like for floors or panels, Aplomb brings a lighter, minimalistic approach to concrete into an indoor space–making it a very unique focal point in any space. Aplomb is perfect for adding an industrial touch to a space without making it feel cold or heavy. Concrete is durable, versatile, rugged, authentic and has a natural aesthetic appeal–and paired with Aplomb’s intricate and delicate form of its funnel-shaped pendant, it adds a beautiful contrast to any room.

“Every new lamp that enters the Foscarini catalogue adds something new. Concrete was a new material for Foscarini, never used before in a lamp. It is a product designed over 10 years ago, and we think it is aging well. Not only in the panorama of Foscarini products but we also believe in the places it illuminates.”

Aplomb’s family of lightweight lamps is available in three sizes and various colours. Its proportions enable it to be used alone, e.g. on a coffee table, in linear configurations to light a surface, or in compositions at different heights. The built-in LED light source recessed into the body of the lamp sends a wide beam of light down towards the underlying surface.