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Joe Colombo - Inventing the Future At Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street, Manchester, until 25 February

The name Joe Colombo has a familiar ring to it, even if you don't know the work of this charismatic 1960s Italian designer. Entering the name into a search engine returns both the designer (real name Cesare) and an ItalianAmerican gangster. Trained as both fine artist and architect, Colombo abandoned architecture in the early 1960s in favour of a technologically driven approach to furniture and product design.

However, this being the '60s, the furniture was multifunctional architectural units, 'habitats', and containers meant to maximize space (TVs retracting into ceilings, pivoting walls with mini-bars).

They were the kind of units ahead of their time, revered at trade fairs and on programmes such as Tomorrow's World, but soon technologically obsolete.

Much will have been consigned to the skip long ago, while their Scandinavian cousins are still cherished.

Many of the impressively large number of pieces on display, such as the Cabriolet bed, carry a label informing us that no originals survive.

Maybe their time has finally come with so-called loft living.

These are pieces which need space to be seen in, despite their intention to save it. The Italian manufacturer Bof has recently reissued Colombo's 1966 minikitchen, which now appears more practical than gimmicky.

His design for a glass held by the thumb so as not to interrupt smoking is ingenious.

Whatever else it is, this show (created by Vitra Design Museum) is great fun. The 'white heat of technology' which inspired Colombo's world is stridently colourful in its outer clothing. Solid yellow environments are animated by lurid blocks of red, purple and black in extruded organic forms that reect the '60s embrace of synthetics and plastic. The exhibition's design, its objects, and the accompanying catalogue, are a wonderful evocation of the period and Italian high style.

The tone is set by a photo of Colombo sat in the 1967 Elda chair (named after his wife) with slip-on shoes, immaculate creases in his trousers, a pipe, a tie and a collection of clutch pencils in the top pocket of his white corduroy jacket. You just know that he has something like a Lamborghini parked outside - damn him. This is the designer as dandy, if not lounge lizard.

Yet this 'white heat' has a sinister side to it - easy to imagine in the world of James Bond movies, Colombo could as easily be Goldfinger as Q.

A 1950s architectural project, entitled Nuclear City, envisaged cities capable of withstanding nuclear blast, being submerged, or rotated to counteract the effects of radiation. This is post-war optimism and technological aspiration gone mad, and at times Colombo seems the natural heir to the Italian Futurists, with their misplaced love of technology.

Remarkable though some of his work is for its ingenuity and sheer machismo, you do wonder if he's the internationally significant figure this show would have us believe. Colombo died of a heart attack in 1971, aged 41, after barely a decade of productive work. This is a life which promised much, cruelly cut short - reason enough, it seems, for Tom Dixon to compare him to Jimi Hendrix.

Don't miss this show - but it raises an interesting question.

Intriguingly, Colombo's work was included posthumously in the seminal 'New Domestic Landscapes' exhibition at New York's MoMA in 1972 - usually remembered for the establishment of Post-Modern design, centred around the work of Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Studio.

Would Colombo have embraced Po-Mo if he had lived, and if so would we still be talking about him?

Julian Holder is an architectural historian in Manchester

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