In memoriam: Umberto Riva (1928-2021)

Italian architect, designer and painter Umberto Riva was a much loved figure of Milanese architecture and design, a discreet creator with an artist’s vision and ‘a curiosity that cuts across boundaries’

Portrait of Umberto Riva
Umberto Riva.
(Image credit: Courtesy of Tacchini)

Italian architect Umberto Riva died in Palermo, Sicily, on 25 June 2021, aged 93. Known as a quiet and discreet figure of Italian architecture and design, he was also an accomplished and self-taught painter.

Riva was born in Milan in 1928 and started his career in architecture in 1960, after studying in Milan and later in Venice under Carlo Scarpa (‘he taught me the intensity of architecture’, Riva said about discovering Scarpa’s work). Until the mid-1980s, Riva worked primarily on private commissions for residences, holiday homes and residential buildings, moving on to public and urban design in the later part of his career. He was a regular collaborator of the Milan Triennale; after working with the Italian institution on several projects and installations, he was awarded the Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement award in 2018.

A 1970s photograph of a holiday home by Umberto Riva, made of stone and with a checkered red and blue tiled roof

The 1972 ‘Stintino’ holiday home complex.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Milan Triennale)

Riva’s work was largely defined by the creation of interiors characterised by light and lightness. Architectural historian Gabriele Neri wrote in his 2017 book, Umberto Riva. Interni e Allestimenti: ‘He has found the perfect sphere for a curiosity that cuts across boundaries, attracted by the peremptoriness of the structures and the lightness of the detail, by the plasticity of the form and the possibilities of colour, by the pure spatiality and the revelations of the light, by the craftsmanship of the work and by a certain vision of the living space.’

Riva said about his own work: ‘I like to confer nobility on an interior, make sure that no window, door or sequence is taken for granted. Knowing how to construct space is fundamental. Sometimes positioning a wall at an angle is enough to capture and reflect more light. [...] This is what nobility means to me: non-obviousness, care over detail, intelligent economy.’

Two copper lamps with angular forms by Umberto Riva for Tacchini

‘E63’ lamp by Umberto Riva, designed in 1963 and inspired by Constantin Brâncuși. The lamp was reissued in 2017 by Tacchini

(Image credit: press)

A strong interest in furniture design dated back to his university days, with some of the best known objects by Riva being his lamp designs produced by the likes of Tacchini and Giustini/Stagetti gallery, Rome. ‘[Riva] has always paid a great deal of attention to illumination,’ said Neri. ‘Both by weighing carefully the contribution of natural light and by personally designing lighting elements and fixtures.’ For Riva, lamps were conceived as ‘illuminated glassware’ and were inspired by the work of Fausto Melotti and Constantin Brâncuși.

The world of design and architecture has lost an elegant talent and a great interpreter of the contemporary. His words were always carefully weighed, sharp, smart, intense… exactly like each of his projects

Roberto Giustini and Stefano Stagetti

Riva was also a self-taught painter, creating chromatic compositions of geometric patterns and abstract figures. Some of his artworks were recreated by Tacchini in collaboration with the architect into a series of rugs, ‘Rituale’ and ‘Nello Spazio’, in 2017. ‘Umberto [was] a man who expressed his elegance with an incredible balance of proportions and not only that, the thing I'll remember about him is the elegance of his heart. Farewell Grande Maestro,’ said Giusi Tacchini, the company’s CEO.

A pendant glass lamp by Umberto Riva for Galleria Giustini Stagetti

‘Appesa’, a lamp designed for Giustini Stagetti, 2021

(Image credit: press)

Remembering the master, gallerists Roberto Giustini and Stefano Stagetti said: ‘We are deeply saddened by the news of Umberto Riva passing. The world of design and architecture has lost an elegant talent and a great interpreter of the contemporary. We will always remember his ability to speak about the complexity through very short speeches. His words were always carefully weighed, sharp, smart, intense and at the same time vibrant, never banal, exactly like each of his projects. We are proud to have been able to work with him in the last five years, we will preserve his friendship and his generous talent, with the promise of paying homage to him by completing his latest architectural commitment: our new gallery in Rome.’ The new gallery, they explain is currently under construction, and will open in autumn 2021 with a solo show dedicated to Riva. ‘We dreamed of this opening together with Riva and we won’t disappoint him.’

The news of his passing was announced by Stefano Boeri: ‘He was a great and sophisticated architect whose precise forms were incredibly elegant, never ordinary,’ he said. ‘From today, Milan and Italian architecture will be poorer, and lonely.’

A church in Rome designed by Umberto Riva with a simple architecture and a tree on the square opposite

The ‘San Corbiniano’ church, Rome, designed in 2011.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Triennale)

An aerial view of a carpet featuring colourful geometric patterns by Umberto Riva, shown on stone floor

The ‘Narciso’ rug, manufactured by Tacchini in 2019 from a 1994 painting by Umberto Riva 

(Image credit: press)

A glass lamp by Umberto Riva consisting on two stacked cones in light green. The lamp is shown on a pink side table next to a leather upholstered sofa

The ‘A.D.A.’ lamp, designed by Riva in 2020 and manufactured by Tacchini

(Image credit: press)

A wooden armchair with light gray upholstery

The ‘E19’ armchair for Giustini Stagetti, 2020

(Image credit: press)

A lamp made of copper wire cage holding a large white bulb, created by Umberto Riva

The ‘Sud – Est’ table lamp, 2018, for Giustini Stagetti

(Image credit: press)

A home immersed in nature made of corrugated metal in grey and yellow, designed by Umberto Riva

‘Casa Ferrario’ in Osmate, 1975.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Milan Triennale)

A pencil sketch by Umberto Riva for an exhibition at Milan Triennale

A sketch for the set of the 1994 exhibition ‘Paesaggio: la natura tra sito e artificio’ at Milan Triennale

(Image credit: press)

Detail of a 1994 installation at Milan Triennale by Umberto Riva, showing a door frame in wood

Detail of a 1994 installation at Milan Triennale

(Image credit: press)

A 1994 installation at Milan Triennale by Umberto Riva, made of wooden panels

Detail of a 1994 installation at Milan Triennale

(Image credit: press)

Rosa Bertoli was born in Udine, Italy, and now lives in London. Since 2014, she has been the Design Editor of Wallpaper*, where she oversees design content for the print and online editions, as well as special editorial projects. Through her role at Wallpaper*, she has written extensively about all areas of design. Rosa has been speaker and moderator for various design talks and conferences including London Craft Week, Maison & Objet, The Italian Cultural Institute (London), Clippings, Zaha Hadid Design, Kartell and Frieze Art Fair. Rosa has been on judging panels for the Chart Architecture Award, the Dutch Design Awards and the DesignGuild Marks. She has written for numerous English and Italian language publications, and worked as a content and communication consultant for fashion and design brands.