Shelf Life

Bruno Rainaldi’s iconic bookshelf still stacks up two decades on.

Shelf Life

Bruno Rainaldi’s iconic bookshelf still stacks up two decades on.

Ptolemy I Soter was a third-century BC Macedonian general and historian who succeeded Alexander the Great. He’s also widely credited for inventing the idea of the Library of Alexandria, built in Egypt in 283 BC. 

Fitting then, that designer Bruno Rainaldi named his iconic free-standing bookshelf Ptolomeo after the bibliophile when it was originally released in 2003. The piece was “dedicated to the person who first collected everything that had been written, with intelligent passion, without censure or fear”, he said. 

Rainaldi was something of an iconoclast: he described himself as a “street designer” whose creations were “chaotically rigorous”. After a career in various Italian design houses, he joined third-generation Lapo Ciatti at Ciatti (later renamed Opinion Ciatti) and won the Compasso D’Oro for the Ptolomeo in 2004. He died in 2011. 

You might know the design, which features a steel column with thin steel shelves: it’s now 20 years old and as good as ever. Lightweight and elegant when empty, it virtually disappears when full of books, its steel shelves giving way to the colours and textures of the books it holds and giving the impression that it is merely a very tall pile of books. It’s at once banal and intuitive, beautifully designed and barely there. Simple and yet revolutionary. 

The Ptolomeo came from that familiar conundrum of anyone who lives with books – the way they accumulate on every available surface. “Piles of books on the studio tables, too many to do the dusting,” Rainaldi once noted. “Forgotten, uncut books swallowed up who knows where.”

Available in three heights (short, 160cm and 215cm), it also comes in four colours: stainless steel, Corten, white or black. It takes up very little room and is sturdily built (unlike a stack of books). Ptolemy I would approve.

Ptolomeo by Opinion Ciatti at Matisse


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