A look at one of the most enduring designs of the 20th century


Sputnik Lights  are one of the most enduring designs of the midcentury modern era. Versions remain in production today, and vintage exemplars continue to be a top selling category. With so much interest in the marketplace, you'd think that more would be known about the Sputnik's origins.

The name is most certainly a reference to the Russian satellite, the world's first, launched into space in 1957, kicking off the Space Race among the global superpowers. Furniture and decor around this time—from the 1950s to 1960s, give or take—often embraced a kind of Space Age style, as new, more plastic materials facilitated biomorphic and atomic forms. From George Nelson's Ball Clock (1949) to Olivier Mourgue's Djinn Chair (1965), undulating, radiating, and sleek silhouettes dominated the day and coincided with the height of Sputnik's Lights' production and popularity.

It's surprising to learn, however, that most design historians trace the Sputnik to design to Italian master of lighting Gino Sarfatti, who conceived of the first take on the form in the late 1930s, around two decades before the satellite went into orbit. Even more intriguing: Sarfatti studied aero-naval engineering at the University of Genoa before launching his legendary modernist lighting company Arteluce in 1939. Cool coincidence, right?

Sarfatti's first Sputnik is sometimes called Model 2003, other times Fuoco d'Artificio, Italian for fireworks. Even though the design dates to the 1930s, his company produced Sputniks in quantity only much later, particularly in the 1950s. Over the course of his career, Sarfatti designed literally hundreds of lighting fixtures, exploring numerous forms and materials along the way. Quite a few, though, iterate on the multi-armed, branching structure that defines the Sputnik. And then of course countless other designers and manufacturers created their own versions, especially in Italy.

Many of the names behind these surviving midcentury Sputniks have been lost to time. It's a bit unfortunate, but this anonymity and hazy history hasn't hurt the market for Sputniks, in all of their beautiful permutations, not one bit. 

Marco de Sautua of The Flaneur Gallery—a vintage dealer who offers a beautiful and diverse collections of Sputniks—sums up the enduring popularity of the design like this: "The visual power of a Sputnik Light automatically makes it the focus of attention and the protagonist of the space it occupies. The design is a real explosion of light that, like fuochi d'artificio, always fascinates us. The design's studied geometry leads us to see a different lamp with every point of view, every time we move and raise our heads to observe it. After almost 80 years, no other lamp has been designed with such influence and weight in the history of design. So timeless, elegant, surprising."


All images © The Flaneur Gallery