If you do a Google image search for “Max Bill lamp”, you will see a lot of pictures of a white torchiere floor lamp with a tulip shape like the one in the picture above. The same goes for a search on 1stdibs.com. A lot of the lamps like these will have a label that says “Made in Switzerland”, and some of the listings will say that the lamp was made by a company called BAG Turgi.
It makes sense that a classic, minimal modern lamp design made in Switzerland would be attributed to Max Bill, the highly influential Swiss sculptor, architect, writer and industrial designer. However, I’ve come across some period evidence that points to this lamp as not having been designed by Max Bill.
The clipping above is from the January 1966 issue of “Progressive Architecture” magazine and is a blurb in the “New Products” section that describes some of the imported lamps that were being marketed and sold at the time by George Kovacs, Inc., in New York. In the middle we see our lamp that has been attributed to Bill.
Two countries of origin for the lamps are mentioned, Austria and Switzerland, and the torchiere is described as Swiss. All of the Swiss lamps are credited as having been designed by a man named Ernst Luthiger.
Max Bill is by far the best known and most significant Swiss modernist designer and artist. He was born in 1909 and studied at the Bauhaus in Dessau in the late 1920’s. Although his focus during his long career was mainly on sculpture and printmaking as well as teaching and writing about modern design, he did important work as an architect and designed a number of significant industrial design pieces, including the flexible reading lamp (also known as a sun lamp) for Novelectric AG in Zurich in 1951, shown below.
Other well-known product designs by Bill are the Ulmer Hocker stool (designed with Hans Gugelot during Bill’s time teaching and working at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm) from 1954, and the Junghans clock from 1957.
Here’s another lamp by Bill, this one for BAG Turgi:
The Swiss company BAG Turgi produced consumer and industrial electrical products, and is still in existence. The company began in 1909 as Schweizerische Broncewarenfabrik AG. Turgi is the city in Switzerland where BAG was first located – the company is now known simply as BAG and is currently headquartered in Arnsberg, Germany, where it concentrates exclusively on industrial LED control modules.
Here’s the lamp described and listed for sale in the “Lamps From… George Kovacs” catalog from 1966. This lamp may have been made by BAG Turgi, but so far I have only seen examples with a label that simply says “Made in Switzerland”.
In any case, I have done a fair amount of research over the last few months and have found no evidence of this lamp appearing or being mentioned in any books or magazine articles about Bill’s industrial design work. By the early 1950’s he looks to have been largely out of the industrial design game, and had settled into his role as teacher and rector at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm where he was able to continue his Bauhaus-inspired design teachings for a new generation of designers, including Dieter Rams. By the 1960’s and for the rest of his life he concentrated on his “fine” art work, which apparently was more important than industrial design to him.
It’s possible that the “New Products” blurb from Progressive Architecture in January 1966 got it wrong somehow and this lamp is actually by Max Bill, but I doubt it.
As for Ernst Luthiger, so far I have turned up no information at all about him.
Byars, Mel. The Design Encyclopedia. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994
Bill, Max. Form: A Balance Sheet of Mid-Twentieth-Century Trends in Design. Basel: Karl Werner, AG, 1952
“Products.” Progressive Architecture January 1966: page 70.