Gae Aulenti (born December 4, 1927) was an Italian architect, lighting and interior designer, and industrial designer. She was well known for several large-scale museum projects, including Musée d’Orsay in Paris (1980–86), the Contemporary Art Gallery at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Palazzo Grassi in Venice (1985–86), and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (2000–2003). Gae Aulenti was one of the few women designing in the postwar period in Italy, and created many elegant pieces.
Born as Gaetana Aulenti, a native of Palazzolo dello Stella (Friuli), Gaetana Aulenti (Gae, as she was known, is pronounced “guy”) studied to be an architect at the Milan Polytechnic University, Faculty of Architecture and graduated in 1953. She worked for the magazine Casabella Continuita.
Gae Aulenti worked for the design magazine Casabella-Continuità from 1955 until 1965 as an art director, doing graphic design work and later served on the board of directors for the renamed Lotus International magazine. During that time she became part of a group of young professionals influenced by the philosophy of Ernesto Nathan Rogers.
Gae Aulenti taught, after getting her doctorate, at Venice School of Architecture from 1960–1962 and at the Milan School of Architecture from 1964-1967. During that time she also designed for a department store, La Rinascente and later designed furniture for Zanotta, where she created two of her most well known pieces, the “April” folding chair which was made from stainless steel with a removable cover, and her “Sanmarco” table constructed from plate-glass. She then also served as vice-president of the Italian Association Of Industrial Design (ADI).
In 1981 she was chosen to turn the 1900 Beaux Arts Gare d’Orsay train station, a spectacular landmark originally designed by Victor Laloux, into the Musée d’Orsay, a museum of mainly French art from 1848 to 1915. Her work on the Musée d’Orsay led to commissions to create a space for the National Museum of Modern Art at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris; the restoration of the Palazzo Grassi as an art museum in Venice; the conversion of an old Italian embassy in Berlin into an Academy of Science; and the restoration of a 1929 exhibition hall inBarcelona as Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. In San Francisco, she converted the city’s Beaux Art Main Library into a museum of Asian art. In 2011, Aulenti oversaw the expansion ofPerugia Airport.
Gae Aulenti also occasionally worked as a stage designer for Luca Ronconi, including for Samstag aus Licht (1984). She also planned six stores for the fashion designer Adrienne Vittadini, including one on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. (She even designed the mannequins.)
Gae Aulenti worked in the post-war period of Italy while creating pieces that spanned across a wide variety of styles and influences. She did however always want the focus of the room to be the occupants, she believed the people make the room a room and to not overpower. She had a modest style, Vogue has her saying “advice to whoever asks me how to make a home is to not have anything, just a few shelves for books, some pillows to sit on. And then, to take a stand against the ephemeral, against passing trends…and to return to lasting values.”
Gae Aulenti passed away in Milan on the 31st of October, 2012, just weeks prior to her 85th birthday. She was suffering from chronic illness and made her last public appearance on 16th October, when she received the career prize at the Milan Triennale.
Gae Aulenti was given her first prize at the 1964 Milan Triennial for her piece in the Italian Pavilion. Her piece was a room with mirrored wall with cutout silhouettes of women inspired by Picasso. It was entitled “Arrivo al Mare”. She also served on the Executive Board for the Triennial from 1977- 1980. In 1991, she was awarded the prestigious Praemium Imperiale.