Categories: scr2005
      Date: Oct  1, 2005
     Title: Art of Italian Design
Alessandro and Francesco Mendini, 2005
Exhibition at Megaron Plus – The Athens Concert Hall, Athens. 6/10-15/11, 2005

In the world history of design, Italian design has been consistently characterized by a specific style, particularly engrained in the aesthetics of objects and products and their innovation. The artistry of Italian design derives directly from the ateliers that existed during the Renaissance: today’s professional design offices in Italy reflect both their mentality and small scale. From the ‘50s to current times, Italian “design factories” have invariably been willing to experiment and they have done so with more intensity than their counterparts in the rest of Europe, embracing design as being a fundamental (and not an additional) value of their products.
Originating in Milan in the 1950’s under the name of Bel Design, Italian design underwent continuous transformation throughout the years as regards to theory and method as well as aesthetics and manufacturing. The ‘70’s and ‘80’s saw the budding of Controdesign and, successively, the founding of the Alchimia and Memphis groups. It is during this period that immigration took place of foreign designers wishing to work with Italian manufacturers, and this phenomenon still continues today. This is what makes the character of Italian design so renewed and international. Today’s designers on the cultural scene are proponents of a wide range of styles. In the meantime, a large number of design schools have opened - some are autonomous, others are departments inside existing universities and academies.

With this particular background in mind, it is interesting to underline the contemporary identity of our design in relationship to its past and its different prospective futures. Compared to their international colleagues, Italian designers continue to work with a creative and anthropological attitude that is typical of the Italian mentality in that they create projects that are fundamentally artistic and emotionally charged.

The History of Italian Craftsmanship
Contemporary Italian design is connected to, derives from and is developed in direct reference to our most ancient craftsmanship. Manufacturing traditions both elitist and common are present in every region of the country, from north to south, and they are continuous, profoundly rooted and of high quality. Depending on the area, objects are made from ceramics, porcelain, glass, marble, leather, fabrics, wood and all kinds of metal. Prestigious factories invented exclusive shapes and production processes. Since 1500, during the Renaissance, the humanistic phenomenon of the “artist’s atelier” has existed. This is where the great creators, assisted by their followers, made the paintings, ornaments, sculptures and objects that adorned both civil and religious places all over Italy. The ateliers were magical places of creative concentration, and the professional studios of today’s designers are similar in many ways. Not only design offices but also manufacturing companies benefit from this heritage. An admirable illustration of this is the 15th-century atelier run by Andrea Verrocchio in Florence. It was one of the biggest and most open, starting out with goldsmithery and widening its scope to encompass all the visual arts. Even Leonardo Da Vinci participated in its projects.

The Influence of Art
The culture of Italian design is unimaginable without considering its close connection to Italian 20th-century visual arts. Parallelism and synergy were developed between painting and design, both considered to be, and not be, applied arts. Their synthesis came about in toto, and was expressed in architecture. Especially Futurism, with its concept of the “total design of the world”, showed the way to a relationship between arts, actions and objects – even clothes and the city. The idea of drama pervaded both design and living quarters, which were influenced by the still lifes and metaphors of Savinio, De Chirico, Casorati, Carrà, Boccioni, Severini and Morandi.

Italian Design during the Modernist Movement
After Futurism, the Pre-Modern period is of interest, which ran parallel to Fascism until 1945. Influential classical architects such as Piacentini in Rome and Portaluppi and Muzio in Milan, enlivened large public and civil buildings with finely designed furniture and furnishings that encompassed every detail all the way down to the door handles. Italy’s Modern Movement found a way to experiment with autonomy and skill within the difficult political climate, and was even related to the Bauhaus movement with Terragni, Persico and Casabella magazine. Rationalist Italian design responded to the social requirements of the city’s renewal, its residential complexes and its materials, expressing an austere language that was classical and simple, partly inspired by the classicism of ancient Rome.

The Importance of Interior Design
The most important Italian designers are almost all architects. Hence their work in different disciplinary fields and their spatial sensitivity. This context led to the development of a specific type of project: interior design, especially strong in middle class Milanese homes during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Cini Boeri, Vittoriano Viganò, Joe Colombo, Nanda Vigo, Gae Aulenti, Fornasetti and others created home interiors where the space and the furniture interact in a hypothesis of reciprocal synthesis. This is why the history of Italian design is especially known as the history of furniture and furnishing.

The Five Movements
The five major movements in Italian design (meaning its “art ateliers”) in the modern and contemporary era are Futurism, Bel Design, Radical Design, Alchimia and Memphis.
In these movements, social and ideological needs and values gave birth to five intensely cultural workgroups that were very fertile, producing admirable collections of objects and images. Taking Verrocchio’s Renaissance atelier as a faraway paradigm, as a methodological reference, we can trace the origins of Depero’s “wizard’s atelier”, and later Achille Castiglioni’s small studio (cornerstone of the Bel Design phenomenon), then the Controdesign of the Radicals (Archizoom, Superstudio, Pettena, Deganello, Ufo, Casabella magazine, etc.), then Alchimia (with Alessandro Guerriero) and finally Memphis (under Ettore Sottsass). Despite ideological discord, the strong continuity of Italian creativity methods has held true for centuries. Its artistic and image-driven approach still prevails: emotional charge and drama are key. Italian design is an aesthetic design; it is sensitive to the soul and the hedonistic provocation of objects and interiors. It is also sensitive to the importance of crafts –bricklaying, stonemasonry, goldsmithery, ceramics, sartorial creation, bread baking, cabinet making, etc.
For a long time now, Italy’s cultural movements and large professional studios (more than design schools) produced the dynamics of design in theory, practice and experiments.

The First-Generation Masters
After World War II, in 1945, contemporary Italian design gushed forth with the national euphoria of the reconstruction. Very young architects united their forces with very young small-scale artisans and industrialists. Their aim was to stimulate people’s enjoyment of merchandise – its selection and quality. Especially in Milan, there was the miraculous birth of Bel Design. See Bruno Munari, Gio Ponti, Achille Castiglioni, Enzo Mari, Vico Magistretti, Ettore Sottsass, Carlo Mollino, Angelo Mangiarotti, Marco Zanuso and others: an incredible concentration of very highly talented maestros who marked their creativity with the quality of enlightened manufacturers such as Olivetti, Kartell, Alessi, Fiat, Abet Laminati, Piaggio, Brionvega, Cassina, B&B and others. Together, they initiated one of the major creative phenomena of contemporary times.

Design Culture Today
After the season of great Historical Masters, some of which are still protagonists at the height of energetic and prolific careers, the world of Italian design became more complex and international, parallel to the fashion field. Milan’s fame attracts designers from all over the world. Its Triennale exhibitions, its magazines (Domus, Casabella, Abitare, Interni, Modo, Ottagono) and its annual Furniture Fair made the city become a focal point for all discussions on design. Italian manufacturers freely welcome foreign designers, resulting in an injection of international names on the Italian design scene: Philippe Starck, Jasper Morrison, Marc Newson, Droog Design.
The “design factories” have become very numerous, spread out all over the Italian territory. In a kind of revenge against Kitsch, even the smallest and most faraway factories aspire to identifying with design culture and the aesthetics of form. A second generation of influential Italian maestros is now part of our humanistic DNA: Andrea Branzi, Nanda Vigo, Michele De Lucchi, Alessandro Guerriero, Gaetano Pesce, Riccardo Dalisi. The range of design schools has become broad – they are present in polytechnic and other universities, in art academies and also exist as private schools: Domus Academy, the European Design Institute, the NABA. As a group these designers and schools consolidate with industries and institutions that are committed to quality development of the environment and the territory. They are involved with social requirements, ecology, renewal and changes in social customs. And then there is a more recent generation of designers that is working on images of the future, on utopian visions that contrast with these extremely violent times we are living in. For their admirable dreams, these designers can also be considered Masters: Tarshito, Anna Gili, Aldo Cibic, Denis Santachiara, Stefano Giovannoni. Harmony, irony, religion, archaism, sensuality, symbols, nature, lightness, playfulness and inspiration from fables are elements that each of them displays in his or her work. Their aim is that these elements represent their objects in the world, that they define their author’s identity and his or her path through the chaotic magma of design.

Environmentally Compatible and Virtual Design
Several new designers and institutions are currently working on a simple and humble identity for objects. Projects that are based on this approach address recycling on one hand and simplification of production processes and market mechanisms on the other. It is clear that the concept of consumption is irremovable from contemporary society, but it is nonetheless necessary to elaborate schemes that control material, mental, virtual and biological pollution. The same progressive immateriality of merchandise leads to considerations and phenomena that arise completely unexpectedly.
Some young designers make very useful objects that are sold in department stores (clothes pins, sponges, plungers, rug beaters, rubber gloves) and assert that they, as a group, are focused on the quality of the little items in life. Another group, called SaleFino, has published a sophisticated book based on the same ideas, almost in an attempt to make the figure of designer disappear from sight in the enormous quantity of inexpensive and very small mass-produced items. Another interesting initiative is OneOff, a workshop for rapid prototyping that can directly develop “prototype products” in the amount desired.
Last but not least, “Remade in Italy”, promoted by the Lombardy Region and recipient of various national recycling grants, is a pilot project that helps companies to produce objects made from recycled materials. These are approaches that have obviously been carefully observed by large manufacturers whose objective it is to reach “zero impact” upon the environment. There is also a growing commitment to the production of crafts objects, oftentimes involving a workforce of outcasts of society such as prisoners and psychiatric patients, who sometime have surprising creative talents (see the Wurmkos group).

Italian Design in the Future
Today’s Italian design world is in a phase of great structural transformation. As for designers, there has been a gradual passage from Italian to international. Although for now there are no young designers or conditions with extraordinary characteristics, the basic foundations of design culture are going through profound change. The world crisis in the marketplace has been pushing the center of industry towards China, which is provoking enormous turbulence in the established order of manufacturers and their market, with prominent regroupings and new company systems (see the Charme phenomenon).
The conditions of the Italian design scene are tranquil only in appearance. In reality it is facing difficult and very complex issues. Its character, however, cannot help but remain artistic, humanistic and Mediterranean.
Enigma, pureness, narration, unhurriedness, dream worlds, friendliness and poetry are all possible positive stimuli against the harshness of consumerism, globalism and the determination of technocracy. This is where the future of Italian design might be headed. There is also the hypothesis of a re-emersion of radical approaches that must not be underestimated. This is an introverted and quite static period in design, while extremely rapid and macroscopic economic transformations take place. What is expected, but not yet visible, is the birth of a new and ground-breaking group, a school, a stream, a new atelier, an inspired movement that makes designers break out of their overly pragmatic, agnostic and arid isolation.
Possibly, the coagulating element of a new “methodological style” could emerge from the consciousness of the fragility of humankind and the planet. Instead of aiming at the concept of luxury, we should focus on the idea of having less, on the delicacy of things, on “fragilism”. This could lead to dialectic between strong images made out of weak materials.
A visionary approach is needed, an eventual war between classes of objects.