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  • Provenance

    Ottica Randazzo, Palermo

  • Literature

    “Un negozio a Palermo,” Domus, no. 383, October 1961, pp. 23, 25-28, 31
    Ezio Bonfanti and Marco Porta, Città, Museo e Architettura: Il Gruppo BBPR nella cultura architettonica italiana 1932-1970, Florence, 1973, fig. 275 and p. A 100
    Marco Romanelli, "Negozio di foto-ottica, Palermo," Domus, no. 727, May 1991, p. 74

  • Catalogue Essay

    The Spectacle Shop: Casting light on Studio B.B.P.R.’s Ottica Randazzo
    By Luke T. Baker

    Show these handsome, square ceiling lights to any longtime resident of Palermo and it’s likely they’ll recall them from the elegant old camera and eyeglasses shop on Via Ruggiero Settimo—now long gone, che peccato. With its curious window displays and interior décor that crept out onto the sidewalk, Ottica Randazzo became a landmark store on Palermo’s principal shopping street when it opened in 1960. “‘Let's meet in front of Randazzo,’ has quickly become a common way to make appointments...a local idiomatic expression that’s become widely accepted,” Domus observed in a contemporary article on the store, designed by the Milan-based collective Studio B.B.P.R. Today, these ceiling lights are all that remain of Ottica Randazzo, a retail space that melded the warmth of a domestic interior with the drama of an exhibition, and incorporated experiential elements that—fitting for an optical shop—encouraged and rewarded the act of looking.

    These lights were designed as just one component of a total environment created for Ottica Randazzo’s flagship location. A comprehensive commission, the multi-year project included the store’s architecture, showroom interiors, administrative offices, furnishings, fixtures, as well as contributions by collaborators, including displays (by Bruno Munari) and the brand’s logo (redesigned by Roberto Sambonet). The shop was a rare retail design by Studio B.B.P.R., established in 1932 and named for the initials of its founding members, Gianluigi Banfi, Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, Enrico Peressutti, and Ernesto Nathan Rogers. The group is best known for its Rationalist-inflected architectural icons like the Cimitero Monumentale di Milano (1946) and Milan’s Torre Velasca (1958), or its elegantly geometric furniture and lighting designs for Olivetti, Arflex, and Arteluce. But Studio B.B.P.R.’s purview was wide-ranging (Rogers famously championed the Italian ambition and aptitude to design the world at all scales, “from a spoon to a city”), and the group’s collective approach cross-pollinated its learnings from designing buildings as well as exhibitions, products, urban planning, theaters, film sets, and commercial environments.

    Studio B.B.P.R. intended the Ottica Randazzo experience to begin on the street, where a public entrance vestibule and numerous elaborate window displays engaged strollers from the sidewalk and the pedestrian arcade abutting the store. With this second major retail project, the designers took the street-activating, recessed façade of their famous 1954 Olivetti New York showroom to a more extreme expression. By carving an octagonal-shaped exterior “room” from the corner lot and dressing the space with the same lighting fixtures and material language of the interior, Randazzo’s entrance vestibule served to blur the distinction between street and shop. This immersive gallery was ringed with glowing displays of high-end products and formed a sidewalk eddy where window shoppers naturally pooled to browse the wares. Peering beyond the artful installations of eyeglasses, binoculars, cameras, and projectors revealed glimpses of the activities taking place inside the store, vignettes made visible by removing select panels from the modular, olive wood backdrop that lined each of the displays.

    Inside the store, these ceiling lights illuminated an interior given over to the organic textures and patterns first encountered in Randazzo’s window displays and vestibule. A grid of olive wood paneling covered the walls and even the ceiling, enveloping the showroom within the honeyed tones and striking, marble-veined grain of this decorative local species. The floor, designed by Roberto Sambonet and inspired by Abstract Expressionist painting, featured drops of blood-red Sicilian marble splattered seemingly randomly upon a canvas of white Venetian plaster.

    Throughout the store, custom-designed displays evidenced Studio B.B.P.R.’s sensitivity for exhibition design and the presentation of objects, experience honed through their industrial design exhibition The Form of the Useful at the 1951 Milan Triennale, and the flexible museum galleries developed by the group for its coterminous renovation of Castello Sforza, in Milan. A series of freestanding glass display cases with burnished brass frames encouraged shoppers to peruse products in the round, while the removable wooden wall paneling allowed for the numerous recessed vitrines placed strategically throughout the store to be concealed or reconfigured to accommodate different merchandizing needs. At one end of the long photography counter, a backlit ovoid panel built into the surface created an interactive light table feature that aided patrons in taking a closer look at their negatives or slides.

    These custom-designed ceiling lights were a signature design motif of Ottica Randazzo’s interior as well as its exterior. Hung in neat rows, the fixtures not only created a brightly lighted ambiance critical for customers inspecting an expensive piece of optical equipment or squinting at an eye examination chart, but their subtle geometry also imparted the essence of Studio B.B.P.R.’s refined take on Rationalism. The lights’ softly squared shades echoed the rectilinear grid of olive wood paneling (itself akin to a photographic contact sheet), and the regularity of their placement every two panels along the ceiling provided a rhythmic foil to an interior swimming with the dynamic natural patterns of wood and stone. The Randazzo lights are also significant as they show Studio B.B.P.R. working at a larger scale than their previous lighting designs (a functional consideration, given their application in a retail setting), and they usher in a period of more expressive design for the group, including works such as the 2045 series of clustered circular ceiling-mounted lights from 1962.

    In keeping with the modular approach to the interior, Studio B.B.P.R. designed several variations of the lights for use within specific zones of the store. All were built around the eased square shape of the convex shade: the present example, mounted along the showroom’s central axis and inside its entrance vestibule, a version with a longer downtube that hung lower over the photography counter to bring the space to human scale, and a version that sat flush against the lower ceilings in the optical department and in the subterranean offices. Each of the two-dozen-odd brass and acrylic lights was hand-crafted by Piero Frigerio and Aldo Galimberti, artisans based in the Northern Italian city of Cantù, and skilled fabricators with whom the group had worked extensively in the production of many of its case goods.

    Ottica Randazzo’s sophisticated interiors by Studio B.B.P.R remained intact for nearly 30 years. By the late 1980s, photo processing technology had advanced, and the shop was expanded in a sensitive renovation by local architect Roberto Collovà, which preserved much of the original character and intent but saw the removal of the bespoke lighting fixtures. A later intervention by Studio di Santis in 2007 completely transformed the space, removing any traces of the Studio B.B.P.R. design, including the store’s distinctive public entrance vestibule, floors, and window displays. The remodel prompted a public debate in the pages of La Repubblica on the role of modern architecture, and sparked an outcry from Palermo’s more vocal preservationists, for whom Randazzo represented not just the proud legacy of postwar Italian design at its zenith, but a beloved character on the city’s streetscape, one engaged in a daily exchange with its fellow citizens.

25

Pair of ceiling lights

circa 1960
Painted metal, acrylic, aluminum.
Each: 21 in. (53.3 cm) drop, 17 1/2 in. (44.5 cm) diameter
Produced by Piero Frigerio and Aldo Galimberti, Cantù, Italy.

Estimate
$25,000 - 35,000 

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Design

New York Auction 9 June 2021