A Meditation on Italian Modernism
Most people reading design blogs have probably heard of the seminal 1972 MoMA exhibition titled “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape.” Few such readers, I’ll venture, have heard of an exhibition held at the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan the year before called "Milano 70/70." The catalog for the former exhibition is a classic text in wide circulation; the three-part catalog for the latter is an extensive but seldom-seen rarity. I have a ragged and waterlogged copy of Part II (1915-45) in my library, which I was looking at last week, and I do mean looking, since the text is entirely in Italian.
"Milano 70/70" is both a retrospective of a century of design from Milan and a celebration of a decade (the 1960’s) that elevated Milan to the center of the design universe. The type of design produced in Milan during the 1960’s—created by designers such as Joe Colombo, Vico Magistretti, Achille Castiglioni, and Gae Aulenti—is easily recognized and justly celebrated for visual excitement and quality of construction. What caught my attention in the catalog was a section at the end with about 80 ads, placed by manufacturers such as Artemide, Kartell, Flos, Olivetti, Tecno, Driade, and Brion Vega. I selected five ads to present here based purely on visual merit, as fully realized expressions of a sophisticated and coherent aesthetic sensibility. This was to be it for the post, but the very presence of an advertising section in a museum catalog called for further review, and in looking more closely at the five ads, two themes emerge that demand attention: context (or lack thereof) and plasticity.
Context requires us to step back a bit. A good overview of post-war Italian design is provided by Penny Sparke in an essay entitled "Design, Ideology and the Culture of the Home in Italy" (1990). Sparke contrasts early post-war initiatives toward reconstruction that centered on the human inhabitants of unified interior spaces with the manufacturer-led consumer market that developed by the 1960’s. Geared largely toward the export of luxury goods, this market emphasized the isolated object, which, according to Sparke, became increasingly aestheticized and decontextualized. Objects, in short, were presented as sculpture, and in part by this association with Fine Art, became symbols of status for their possessors. The ads illustrated here, as well as the others in the catalog, show this dynamic: objects are seldom placed in relation to other objects, and are never shown as part of a habitat. Instead, they are shown in stark, often abstract ways that highlight their sculptural modernity. The graphic quality of the ads further reinforces the artistic status of the objects.
Curiously, most of the ads I selected show plastic or urethane-foam furniture, and in certain fundamental ways, the 60’s were indeed a plastic decade. According to Sparke, however, even plastic was pressed into service in Italy during the 1960’s toward the creation of objets de luxe, characterized by strong, modern forms and high-quality craftsmanship, and publicized as items of sculpture. By 1972, this trend was coming under attack from proponents of ‘anti-design,’ nowhere more vividly than in a manifesto published by Ettore Sottsass in connection with the environment (pictured here) he created for the MoMA show.
Here is how Sottsass put it: “I wasn’t in the least concerned with making furniture, or a cute or amusing environment…The form is not cute at all. It is a kind of orgy of the use of plastic, regarded as a material that allows an almost complete process of deconditioning from the interminable chain of psycho-erotic self indulgences about possession—I mean the pleasure of possessing something that seems to us precious…To explain this more simply, let’s say that the idea is to succeed in making furniture from which we feel so detached, so disinterested, and so uninvolved that it is of absolutely no importance to us. That is, the form is designed so that after a time it fades away and disappears.”
Such an environment would be tough to sell, so it is not surprising that environments-for-living remain utopian while Kartell, Artemide et al continue to produce their 60’s repertoire, and vintage 60’s Italian pieces command high prices at auction.
Images from above: Artemide ad, Nonwoven ad, Kartell ad, Techint ad, Arflex ad, 1972 MoMA display by Ettore Sottsass.