One of the few women working in postwar Italian design, Ms. Aulenti began her career designing furniture, lamps and other accessories. One of her best-known pieces is the Tavolo con Ruote (Table With Wheels), an elegant postmodernist work consisting of a thick square of glass on industrial casters that is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
She also designed showrooms for Olivetti and Fiat, opera sets for Milan’s La Scala, the garden at a Tuscan villa and a Rodeo Drive boutique for fashion designer Adrienne Vittadini.
The work that brought her the widest acclaim was refashioning historic structures into museums.
The Musee d’Orsay was a 1900 Beaux Arts train station that she transformed over a period of several years into a sleek and glamorous home for Impressionist masterpieces and other art.
San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum had been a library, defined by a mock-classical style popular in the early 20th century. In Ms. Aulenti’s hands it became an open, light-filled space with unexpected touches, such as a courtyard with volcanic stone floors and seating.
Ms. Aulenti, who also designed museum spaces in Barcelona, Istanbul and Venice, often provoked extreme reactions with her architectural adaptations. When the Musee d’Orsay opened in 1986, critics’ reactions ranged from “fabulously eccentric” to comparisons with “a funeral hall . . . an Egyptian burial monument.”
The architect brushed off the attacks by noting the public’s response: In its opening days, 20,000 people lined up to get in.
“We looked at the old station as a contemporary object, without history,” Ms. Aulenti wrote in Architecture and Urbanism magazine. “We regarded the original architect, Victor Laloux, as a companion in the metamorphosis of the station into a museum.”
Gaetana Aulenti was born Dec. 4, 1927, in Palazzolo della Stella, near Trieste, where her father worked as an economist. Her shortened first name is pronounced “guy.”
“My parents really wanted me to be a dilettante, a nice society girl,” she said in a 1987 New York Times interview, “but I was rebellious. I enrolled in architecture school in opposition to their wishes.”
She was one of only two women in Milan Polytechnic School of Architecture’s 1954 graduating class.
After graduating from architecture school, Ms. Aulenti spent a decade working as an art director at the design magazine Casabella.
During the 1960s she began designing furniture while also teaching architecture at the University of Venice and Milan Polytechnic.
Part of a postwar group called Neo Art Nouveau, which defined itself in opposition to such masters as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, she found inspiration in history, art, music and philosophy. In 1964, she won first prize at the Milan Triennale for her Picasso-influenced work in the Italian Pavilion.
She received France’s highest honor, chevalier of the Legion d’honneur, in 1987 for her work on the Musee d’Orsay. She was the first female architect named to the order.
“Architecture is a male profession,” she told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera last year, “but I never took notice of that.”
— Los Angeles Times