We met last year at the Salone del Mobile in Milan. I was travelling with some team members from the Eames Institute who recommended a trip to the Achille Castiglioni Foundation,” says Llisa Demetrios, the 57-year-old chief curator of the Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity and youngest granddaughter of the American midcentury design duo Charles and Ray Eames. 

“We immediately created an energy, like fireworks.” “I have goosebumps even talking to you now,” adds Giovanna Castiglioni, 51, daughter of the Italian lighting-design legend Achille Castiglioni – co-creator of the Flos Snoopy table light and perfectly arched Arco floor lamp. 

Archive displays at the Eames Institute
Archive displays at the Eames Institute © Brian Flaherty
Castiglioni using a toy beloved of her father Achille Castiglioni
Castiglioni using a toy beloved of her father Achille Castiglioni © Brian Flaherty

The bond between the two is fused not only by the responsibility of managing two important design legacies, but also by their curiosity. “My father’s mantra was, ‘If you’re not curious, forget about it,’” says Castiglioni. To illustrate, she begins pulling out a selection of items from her desk: a sleek jar spoon and, her favourite, a magic bubble wand that changes shape as you blow into it – to demonstrate the beauty found in the everyday. 

Demetrios shares Castiglioni’s playful nature. “That’s part of the fun. Both my grandparents and her father knew there were all kinds of ways to learn,” she says. “Charles and Ray would often say toys are preludes to serious ideas.” She recalls her childhood at the Eames Office, the firm’s Venice Beach outpost, zooming around in toy cars that “you would turbocharge with your arms”. She remembers also building structures from their House of Cards – a pack of cards, first produced in 1952, that had slits along the edges to be slotted together to create new forms.

Demetrios and Castiglioni examine designs at the Eames Institute
Demetrios and Castiglioni examine designs at the Eames Institute © Brian Flaherty

“Learning by play is so important,” Castiglioni nods. At Piazza Castello 27, Achille’s original studio and the place where the Achille Castiglioni Foundation is based, “we share stories through objects. Visitors can touch everything – except the dog. The dog is not very cute,” she jokes. But the fact that there is a dog is testament to the way she has encouraged the space to feel less like a museum and more of a home since her father’s death in 2002. 

Both women steer away from the word “iconic” when talking about their heritage. “To me, ‘iconic’ means something that you put in a cage, on a pedestal, or in a museum just to look at,” says Castiglioni. “My father and Llisa’s grandparents designed objects to be used.” Form, of course, always followed function. 

Demetrios first visited the Achille Castiglioni Foundation last spring. It was an opportunity to observe her Italian “twin” communicate the stories around Achille’s objects, something she admired, both as someone who has to protect a family legacy and work as a curator. “I’ve thought of you often in the past year, just because of how you spent time in the studio,” says Demetrios. On the day the women were supposed to meet, Llisa’s plane was delayed. “Giovanna was so gracious. She let me come the next day when she was leading a tour with two groups of students. Watching how she engaged with them, listening to their questions, it resonates with everything I do.” 

A collection of spinning tops that inspired Ray and Charles Eames
A collection of spinning tops that inspired Ray and Charles Eames © Brian Flaherty
An Eames upholstered moulded plastic armchair with a rocker base
An Eames upholstered moulded plastic armchair with a rocker base © Brian Flaherty

There are several parts to each woman’s role within their respective institutions. “There is the archiving,” Demetrios explains. “I was doing this more myself for about 20 years,” and previously for the Mies van der Rohe collection at MoMA in New York. “But now there’s a team of seven of us working to digitise everything for online exhibits and printed catalogues, of which we’re currently up to about 10.” 

There’s also brainstorming new ideas to show her grandparents’ “working collection” of objects from pop-up exhibitions to guided tours. “People tend to enter the world of Charles and Ray through chairs, but they also created graphics and designed architecture,” she says. 

She’s excited about the recent opening of the Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity, which has a new home in Richmond, California. They will be showcasing up to 20 or 25 per cent of the collection, including one-of-a-kind prototypes and personal ephemera. Previously only 10 per cent of the cache was on display at the Eames Ranch nearby in Petaluma. She’s also itching to show her friend a Circus Mirror like the ones used by Charles and Ray for the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. Achille had a similar one in his studio when she came to visit.

Archive Eames designs at the Eames Institute
Archive Eames designs at the Eames Institute © Brian Flaherty

For Castiglioni, who trained as a geologist, finding new ways to share the stories around her father’s legacy is equally important. She relishes the “layers” evident in his work, built on collaborations with graphic designers, photographers and manufacturers. For Milan Design Week, the Foundation is preparing an exhibition based around Achille’s restaurant furnishings – and the idea of a cuisine à manger, in which every detail is designed to serve the customer and the space. 

Spotlighted are three of his hospitality projects, including the Splügen Bräu diner in Corso Europa, for which he created a selection of lamps, tables, chairs, bar stools and glasses, and some objects alongside his brother (and early business partner) Pier Giacomo.

Castiglioni, however, is anxious that this could be the last exhibition at the Piazza Castello address – over the past year the Foundation has been faced with the prospect of having to vacate the building by its owners, who want to terminate the lease. 

“We are trying to protect this place. We don’t want to move but I think it is inevitable,” says Castiglioni of the difficult decision-making process that’s part and parcel of running the Foundation alongside her elder brother – the more serious, moustache-wearing frontman – Carlo. “It’s really hard to be in charge of a project like this. It’s not just your patience you put on the line, it’s your money and energy… it’s the question of the future.” 

Crates of objects – with designs by Charles & Ray Eames and pieces that inspired them
Crates of objects – with designs by Charles & Ray Eames and pieces that inspired them © Brian Flaherty
© Brian Flaherty

Demetrios empathises with her situation. “My grandparents always said you have to teach children that there’s no instant gratification. You have to care deeply. There are a lot of unknowns in what we do – and no set template. But, at the same time, it’s led to beautiful things,” she says. Optimism – another quality both women share. 

“I would like to keep doing this job for the students, but also for me. It feels like my father is still alive,” says Castiglioni. Demetrios agrees: “I too feel like my grandparents are still here, and my mother, Lucia. And I love watching the ‘a-ha’ moment of my guests when they connect with materials.” Beyond physical objects and spaces, if there’s one thing to safeguard, for themselves as much as the next generation, it is a zest for life, for learning and the freedom to fail. 

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