Architect, installation artist, lighting and interior designer and provoking theoretician Gae Aulenti (1927-) was born in Palazzolo della Stella, Udine in Italy. One of the few well recognized women working in Italy in the hotbed of postwar design, Aulenti made a name for herself with a broad spectrum of unfailingly elegant, innovative and exceptional work.
Aulenti was formally trained as an architect at the Milan Polytechnic, graduating around 1959. From the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s she worked doing graphic design for and serving on the editorial staff of the influential design magazine Casabella. She also served on the directorial board of the later Lotus International magazine.
During the early 1960s she was involved in a number of diverse projects in Italy. From 1960-62 she taught at the Venice School of Architecture and from 1964-67 she taught at the Milan School of Architecture. Like many of her contemporaries, she designed series of furniture throughout the 1960s for the department store, La Rinascente. Aulenti was awarded first prize at the 1964 Milan Triennial for her work in the Italian Pavilion. A distinctly feminine presence at the Triennial, her evocative "Arrivo al Mare" installation had mirrored walls decorated with cutout silhouettes of women inspired by those in the paintings of Picasso. She would go on to serve on the Executive Board of the Triennial from 1977-80. She was also establishing a long and successful relationship designing furniture for Zanotta. Two of her best known pieces for them, spanning her career, are the 1964 "April" folding chair which was stainless steel with a removable cover, and her 1984 plate-glass "Sanmarco" table. From 1966-69 she served as the vice-president of the Association for Industrial Design.
In the 1970s Aulenti began creating set designs and she worked from 1976-78 with the Prato Theater Design Workshop. In 1972 as part of the "Italy: The New Domestic Landscape" exhibition at the MoMA in New York, Aulenti designed one of the "environments," a divided room punctuated by pyramidal shapes at each corner. Her aim was to create furniture that would appear in a room as buildings on a skyline and remind the viewer of "the interaction between objects of design and architectural space." Aulenti also wrote the accompanying essay to the project, outlining her belief that the "conscious principle in this design has been to achieve forms that could create experiences, and that could at the same time welcome everyone's experiences with the serenity of an effortless development." Throughout her career Aulenti's public architecture and design is augmented by her keen theoretical studies of the work. However, she maintained a modest and very personal view of the elements of home design, believing that the inhabitant makes the space. In an interview in a 1970 issue of Vogue her "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."
Aulenti's work in the 1980s included several large-scale museum projects. For her layout of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris (1980-86) she was named Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur by the French government. She also designed the Contemporary Art Gallery at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (1982-85), the Palazzo Grassi in Venice (1985-86) and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (2000-2003).