Illuminating Milan: a spotlight on local light designers

Lighting design and the city of Milan: interview with Lisa Marchesi and Jacopo Acciaro about light and its connections with the cultural environment of the Lombardy capital.



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Milan is globally acknowledged for its strong tendency to change, innovation, and experimentation alike: this is what allows the city to be a benchmark for both culture and creativity on an international level. From architecture to graphic design advertising, from industrial design to music, Milan gives you the opportunity to express yourself, and to do so in a stimulating and lively cultural context. And light, too, in Milan certainly finds an interesting designing dimension in contexts ranging from cultural heritage to contemporary architecture, passing through light art.

We met two Milan-based light designers who shared with us their personal point of view on lighting in Milan.

1. Lisa Marchesi and Jacopo Acciaro

The duo’s first approach to light dates back to their university days, in 2002, with their participation in the Lights for the Future international competition at the German Light+Building fair. Selected as the only Italians in the student category, they interpreted the recognition as a stimulus to continue working on the topic. After earning their degree and a master’s degree in light design and technology at the Milan Polytechnic (where they have supervised several teachings, up to today) they separate professionally by undertaking different paths: for 5 years, Carlo works in METIS Lighting, while Piero is in the Light division Management System of 3M, mainly dealing with film optical technologies. Over those years, despite their professional careers in different companies, D’Alesio and Santoro shared a continuous exchange and comparison on the theme of light, culminating in their first participation in the Salone Satellite in 2005, and then in the official birth of the D’Alesio&Santoro company In 2010. 

Lisa Marchesi

Graduated in Industrial Design, with a specialization in Lighting Design, at the Politecnico of Milan, in 2003 Marchesi began her professional career as a lighting designer working with architect Barbara Balestreri. As senior lighting designer and project manager she works on many lighting projects in different sectors such as cultural heritage, retail, cafés and restaurants, private homes, and temporary installations. In 2018, as a freelancer, she founded Lisa Marchesi Studio. She combines her professional activity with teaching and academic research in various schools: Politecnico in Milan, IED in Milan and Florence, IUAV in Venice, and various specialization courses including the Lighting Academy in Florence. Since 2000 she has been participating as a speaker at many lighting design meetings, and she routinely is the author of articles published on specialized magazines. In 2019 she became mentor for the Women in Lighting Association. She is member of AIDI.

2. Berluti via Montenapoleone. Ph. Stéphane Muratet

Jacopo Acciaro

Founder and owner at Voltaire Lighting Design, he graduated in architecture at the Politecnico of Milan and immediately developed a strong interest in the world of light. He is trained at Arch. Piero Castiglioni’s studio, with whom he collaborated for several years before founding Voltaire, a professional organization composed of architects and industrial designers that develops projects for interior and exterior lighting, as well as studying custom-made light fixtures. Over the years, the studio has built up its own know-how by working in large project teams and is able to develop all the planning steps in BIM within an integrated design process. Alongside his work as a designer, Jacopo Acciaro has been working as a professor at the University of Pavia and the European Institute of Design in Milan and teaches many courses in lighting engineering; he’s also a regular contributor for IoArch magazine and he writes articles for leading magazines specialized in lighting and architecture.

3. Corso Como Place. Development & property management by COIMA | Architectural design: PLP architecture | Landscape design: LAND | Ph.Donato Di Bello

How did Milan and the Milanese cultural environment contribute to your training and improvement as a lighting designer?

Lisa Marchesi«I was born in Monza, Brianza, and I have to admit that living in Milan as a commuter, since university, allowed me to look at this ever-changing city with a keen and curious gaze. I think back enthusiastically to those early fairs in the 90s, when I was a teenager studying at ISA in Monza (an Art school specialized in Design), and I was really impressed by this growing and developing design world. Milano always gave me a lot of opportunities in terms of personal betterment, thanks to the Politecnico and the city’s museums and cultural places, but also with a series of events connected to the fields of art, literature, cinema, theatre, and music, which have always served as strong creative stimuli. During my studies, when I began to delve into the world of lighting design, the great masters of Milan design were my essential points of reference: I was very fascinated by Achille Castiglioni, and I studied and followed all his installations, conferences, and projects. Those were also years marked by a strong cultural fervour, with visionary young people, and we were also witnessing the first technological discoveries and experiments with new lighting solutions that were very futuristic at the time: experiencing all the innovations in terms of light sources, colour temperatures, etc. was undoubtedly inspiring and turned out to be useful for my career».

Jacopo Acciaro«Milan has always been my city from an educational point of view; here I studied architecture at the Politecnico and developed a passion for the world of design. Milan also gave me the opportunity to pursue my career in lighting design at the studio of Architect Piero Castiglioni. In fact, his studio is where it all started, beginning from a piece of advice I received from Piero as soon as I joined his design team: “take the camera with you and walk around the city” to try to understand the lighting solutions of the Milanese urban fabric, their features, either positive or negative (abnormal colour temperatures, connections between materials and light that were not entirely consistent, annoying glares, etc.). This was my first approach to building my visual background; I had to learn to associate a luminous effect with a technical solution and Milan gave me a first response in understanding this fascinating and complex world of light».

If I ask you to think about one of your Milan-based projects linked to the specific cultural and architectural features of the city, what comes to your mind?

Lisa Marchesi«I find it hard to think of just one project, because in recent years we’ve been focusing on diverse projects, of all kinds. We have worked in the fashion district for luxury retails, with a whole array of very important flagship stores; we have created installations for the MDW, and temporary exhibitions in locations such as Palazzo Reale and Villa Necchi, or HQ, or private homes. Each project represented a great challenge: some due to their architectural complexity or a conservative/cultural aspect; others for the very short deadlines or the technological innovations we tested with them. In all these works, though, the common thread has always been the careful attention paid to the analysis of light with both positive and negative effects it can have on people, materials, objects, and environments».

4. Mario Negri scultore a Milano, Villa Necchi Campiglio, dal 30/10/19 al 26/01/20

Jacopo Acciaro«There are two recent projects which I find absolutely representative, because they are two lighting interventions on architectural works with opposing features: the building of Corso Como Place in via Bonnet, and the Palazzo Savonelli in Piazza Cordusio. The first one, newly built, was designed by the international architecture studio PLP Architecture; the second one is a historic building owned by Edizione Property S.p.a. Both share a design approach which is very respectful of the architectures, with lighting engineering solutions oriented towards the perception of volumes and features as well as a feverish attention to the integration of lighting fixtures into the whole architectural scheme, with utmost attention to direct and indirect glare control».

5. Corso Como Place

Do you think light can be a medium for urban renewal in Milan? Can you name any successful example?

Lisa Marchesi«Light could and should be a medium of renewal, but to date I think that the concept of urban lighting has been impoverished, meaning there is a real abuse of light. I think about illuminated sign boards, advertising LED Walls, as well as the public lighting interventions that have turned certain graceful and intimate atmospheres of warm light into an almost Surrealist film set (with a cold and super-bright light) and the question that comes to mind is: “Are we transforming our city with an invasive approach?”. I believe light should be apportioned very carefully, in an effort to illuminate the urban environment by applying ideas which are usually implemented in domestic environments or offices, where great attention is paid to people’s well-being. In my opinion, regenerating a city through light also means respecting the atmosphere, trying to create a luminous scenography that does not transform streets, parks, avenues, or canals into over-illuminated environments. On the other hand, it would be nice to be walking again around a romantic city, where lighting enhances every detail and creates evocative atmospheres, alternating semidarkness, shadows, and brightness».

Jacopo Acciaro: «Yes, absolutely; I think the topic of “light” still has a great unfulfilled potential at urban level. The city needs to be revived on a perceptive level, restoring a sense of safety in the users who experience it, but also expressing its own personality. Through a design-oriented approach to light, which could play a fundamental role in urban redevelopment, I believe that the renewal process could gain further momentum towards new, increasingly ambitious goals. Many interesting examples come to my mind, but I honestly think there is still a lot to do and we’ll have to wait a little longer for a great successful example to come».

6. Palazzo Savonelli. Development & property management by EDIZIONE PROPERTY SRL

How do you see Milan’s “luminous” future?

Lisa Marchesi: «I wish I could see it less luminous. If I could, I would turn off a good deal of the lights, making room for the moonlight and the stars and creating paths that guide people and make them feel safe, using a variable rhythm of light. It would be nice to create outdoor living rooms in which to set light installations that come alive by using alternative sources of energy, and which would serve as socializers and cultural conveyors. 

I believe knowing how to dose light properly is the most difficult task for lighting designers, but I also believe that there is an absolute need to make the most of the skills of specialized professionals, who are the only ones today able to come up with contextualized lighting concepts in regard to the various locations. I think Milan probably needs places where light is not so invasive but instead is able to envelop the environment while protecting nature, nocturnal animals, people, architecture, and the city itself».

7. Sole Studio via Sant’Andrea. Design: Fondamenta | Ph. Mikael Olsson

Jacopo Acciaro«I believe that Milan is ready to play an important role on the international lighting scene; but above all it is ready to express a robust project-oriented culture. We are living a time of frenzied activity in terms of architectural and urban development, and I think that lighting – and especially the world of lighting design – has to seize this opportunity to speed-up the process of spreading the culture of light in an all-round and cross-cutting way».

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