“This exhibition intends to acknowledge the cultural achievements of Italian design in the last decade, to honor the accomplishments of its gifted designers and incisive critics, and to illustrate the diversity of their approaches to design by presenting a collection of the most interesting examples of their work.”1
Thus announced the curators of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1972 exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape their intentions.
The New Domestic Landscape portrayed by the gifted designers accomplishments and diversity of their approaches wasn’t however, necessarily, one inhabited by voluminously upholstered sofas and elegant lighting…….
Opened at the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, New York on May 26th 1972 Italy: The New Domestic Landscape was proudly announced as “one of the most ambitious design exhibitions ever undertaken”2 by the institution, costing $1.5 million – some 9 million in today’s dollars – was certainly the most expensive, and was as much an exhibition about the state of design and architecture in Italy as it was about the objects on display. And today stands as a snapshot of a moment in a, continuing, global discourse on the relationship between design/architecture and society, albeit one with a very distinct Italian accent, and one firmly rooted in the industrial, economic, political and social development of 20th century Italy.
While a full discussion of the economic and industrial development of Italy in the first half of the 20th century is, regrettably, outwith the scope of this post; in terms of architecture and design a good starting point is, and as with so many things in life, George Nelson. In a 1948 text for Interiors magazine Nelson notes that “as long as two decades ago it was evident to those who saw European publications that there was centred in northern Italy a design movement of extraordinary vitality”3, words which, one imagines, were inspired by works from the likes of Gio Ponti or the various members of Milan’s BBPR collective. Then, and as so often, came the war, the final years of which saw the allies increasingly target the strategically important, industrialised, regions of northern Italy, meaning that, “today these misfortunes are reflected in extreme shortages of materials, in the lack of building projects of any consequence, and in general poverty.” And one could add in a lack of industry, far less a vibrant design movement.
Change came, when albeit slowly, and by the late 1950s Italian manufacturers were firmly established on the global market, and that largely with design led products: in 1957, for example, FIAT launched their Nuova 500 which became one of the most popular small cars of all time, in 1964 Olivetti unveiled their Programma 101, an important milestone in the development of both computing technology and the design of computing technology, while in the course of the 1960s furniture and lighting brands such as Cassina, Kartell, Artemide, Flos, Azucena, C & B Italia, Zanotta or Danese became internationally renowned bywords for design excellence.
Italy: The New Domestic Landscape was a celebration of that.
And most importantly was celebrating it in its full spectrum, or as curator Emilio Ambasz notes in his introduction to the catalogue, “It is possible to differentiate in Italy today three prevalent attitudes toward design: the first is conformist, the second is reformist, and the third is, rather, one of contestation, attempting both inquiry and action.”4
As an exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape was based on an interwoven multi-layered concept. On a basic level it was divided into two sections, Objects and Environments; the former presenting some 180 furniture, lighting and accessory designs realised by Italian designers in the past decade, the latter, 125 commissioned positions on future living arrangements.
Below, or perhaps above ?, this basic level was a much more fundamental division, one exploring the purpose of design, the function of the designer, the future of design, the relationship between design and society, exploring as Emilio Ambasz notes a contemporary reality in which, “many designers are expanding their traditional concern for the aesthetic of the object to embrace also a concern for the aesthetic of the uses to which the object will be put.”6
Reflecting this the Objects section presented works selected, and arranged, according to three criteria: “Objects selected for their formal and technical means”, that is which could be considered according to traditional, conformist, understandings of an object, and including works such as Giancarlo Piretti’s Plia folding chair; the Eclisse lamp by Vico Magistretti; or the Companibilli system by Anna Castelli Ferrieri; “Objects selected for their sociocultural implications”, featured objects which Felicity Scott notes see the designers use “revival, ironic manipulation, kitsch, recycling, the embrace of ritual and formlessness”7 to comment rather than directly reform, and as exemplified by works such as the Joe Sofa by Lomazzi, D’Urbino & De Pas; Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni’s Mezzadro stool; or a series of monumental, monolithic plywood and plastic laminate cupboards by Ettore Sottsass, objects which a decade later could be understood as a stage on the road to Memphis.
The third group of Objects were “selected for their implications of more flexible patterns of use and arrangement”, which “propose more informal patterns of behavior in the home than those currently prevailing”, and included in addition to single objects such as the Sacco beanbag by Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini & Franco Teodoro; or Mario Bellini’s Camaleonda unlimited cushion system sofa landscape, numerous systems for domestic organisation, including Alberto Salvati and Ambrogio Tresoldi’s Armadio-letto, a wardrobe on castors containing a folding bed; or Bruno Munari’s Abitacolo habitable, scaffolding-esque, structure. And thus concepts which provided for a nice introduction and transition to the Environments section
In context of considering future domestic arrangements the Environments section commissioned 12 architecture/design studios to “propose microenvironments and microevents: he8 is to design the spaces and artifacts that, singly and collectively, support domestic life; and he is also to demonstrate the ceremonial and ritual patterns in which they may be used”9
The responses to this brief, as the catalogue notes “represent two opposite attitudes to environmental design currently prevalent in Italy”10: pro-design and counter-design.
The pro-design position was divided into House Environments featuring projects from Gae Aulenti, Ettore Sottsass and Joe Colombo, who following his untimely death in 1971 was represented posthumously by his Total Furnishing Unit concept which proposed four separate domestic units – Kitchen, Cupboard, Bed and privacy, Bathroom – which could be combined as required; and Mobile Environments with contributions from Alberto Rosselli, Marco Zanuso/Richard Sapper and Mario Bellini, the latter re-imaging the car as an extension of the home in an interesting piece of thinking on the future role of the car and the nature of our future relationship with the car.
In contrast to those who saw design as a “problem-solving activity” “Counterdesign as postulation” featured projects from Ugo La Pietra, Archizoom, Superstudio, Gruppo Strum and Enzo Mari, architects who according to Ambasz, “emphasize the need for a renewal of philosophical discourse and for social and political involvement as a way of bringing about structural changes in our society”11. And something perhaps most succinctly achieved by Enzo Mari, the catalogue noting that “Knowing Mr. Mari’s position, the Museum extended him a formal invitation not to design an environment. He consented and produced the following essay…”12 An essay in which he argues for the primacy of communication and the necessity of “artists” to focus on how they communicate their research rather than simply producing objects, which will ultimately be subverted by the ruling class for their own gains.
In addition to the pro- and counter- design factions Gaetano Pesce was given a section of his own, “Design as Commentary”, and which presented an excavation undertaken in the year 3000 of a cave dwelling from the year 2000, the so-called “Period of the Great Contaminations” and via which he sought to focus attention on contemporary attitudes and practices and thereby make us think about where they may lead us.
Although such critical, combative, tones weren’t exclusive to Italian architects and designers, the 1960s seeing the formation of groups such as, for example, Haus-Rucker-Co in Vienna, Ant Farm in San Francisco or Archigram in London, while in 1971 Victor Papanek opened his book Design for the Real World with the opinion that “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them”13, as Ambasz notes in the catalogue, for him, Italy stood as “a micromodel in which a wide range of the possibilities, limitations, and critical issues of contemporary design are brought into sharp focus. Many of the concerns of contemporary designers throughout the world are fairly represented by the diverse and frequently opposite approaches being developed in Italy”14
Diverse and frequently opposite approaches which had their origins in the manner by which architecture and design had developed in post-War Italy.
As the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable succinctly describes15, following the Second World War many Italian architects became frustrated at their lack of opportunities to contribute to the necessary rebuilding; a position supported not only by the above quote from George Nelson, but also by Ettore Sottsass who reflecting in 1976 on his return to Italy following the war refers to, “a land in ruins, and where although there was obviously a need for a lot of building, it soon transpired that it should be done quickly and shoddily, for there was no money.”16
Thus denied opportunities as architects the likes of Sottsass were increasingly forced into product design to pay the bills; however, the nature of the rapid growth in the Italian economy of the 1960s, and for all the fact that Italy’s so-called “Economic Miracle” was based on exports, meant that much of what was being produced in Italy in the 50s and 60s wasn’t intended for average Italians, but for foreign markets. A situation which stood, when not fully juxtaposed then certainly contrary, to that in, for example, America where designers such as Charles & Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen or Edward J Wormley were producing works primarily intended for an American public, or Denmark where the likes of Arne Jacobsen, Hans J Wegner or Børge Mogensen, were producing work within the context of contemporary Danish society, for all Børge Mogensen who’s work for and with the co-operative FDB had a strong, identifiable, social context. Their Italian counterparts in contrast were being asked to produce works independent of the realities of contemporary Italy, with no relation to contemporary Italian society, with no connection to normal Italians, objects which were created for an abstract, unknown consumer. And thus as Franco Raggi notes how Ambasz “speaks of a “sense of guilt” in Italian designers who, working in a situation where social involvement is lacking on many levels and, consequently, in design, see hidden behind the brilliant facade of “design” the abdication of the real duties of territory and city”17
A reality, and “sense of guilt” which lead many, as Huxtable notes, to question “the importance of such design when there is poverty and pollution in the world and design is not contributing to social needs” 18, and thus saw them begin to corrupt their work as an expression of dissent, something Alexandra Brown postulates can be understood in context of Operaismo, a stream of Marxist theory developed in the 1960s in northern Italy, and for all in Mario Tronti’s concepts of “”struggle from within and “the strategy of refusal””.19
Dissent, questioning, struggle and refusal which informed much of the work on show in The New Domestic Landscape, yet which had to compete for the audiences’ attention against more conventional, American, understandings of objects and interiors, a contest in which, to judge from the numerous reviews and reports, the object as objects tended to have the upper hand20, or as the the New York Times noted, “the ultimate irony, of course, is that huge amounts of money have been poured into a show to tell us that there are designers with consciences who won’t design for the over designed world of the elite who are flocking to see the show and admire the elite and beautiful products in it. It’s all there in one absolutely perfect package – protest, social themes, the relevance debate and ultimately, the object as avantgarde art”21
Whereas today exhibitions which question design and the relationship of design to wider social, cultural and environmental contexts are a regular occurrence, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape was one of the first large scale exhibitions of that type, certainly one of the first at a major institution, and therefore was an important milestone in the evolution of understandings of design and architecture.
Reflecting on the exhibition with the benefit of neigh on five decades hindsight one is struck on the one hand by how dilettantish, naive, many of the participants were in their reliance on plastics; the oil crisis of 1973, thankfully, highlighting that plastics were as finite as the natural resources they were meant to replace, and leading to research into new materials and production processes.
And on the other, how little we have progressed.
How little we’ve progressed in terms of defining our relationship to objects.
How little we’ve progressed in terms of appreciating the social and cultural relevance of objects.
How little we’ve progressed in terms of comprehending the necessity of objects.
How little we have progressed in terms of resolving the conflict between the need to produce and distribute objects and the problems thereby caused.
How little we’ve progressed in terms of our ability to correctly phrase the pertinent questions of our time.
How little we have progressed in terms of understanding the consequences of new technologies.
How little we’ve progressed in terms of formulating definitions of aesthetics.
But for all how little we have progressed in terms of our domestic arrangements, how, we still essentially live now as we did then, how the new domestic landscape resembles the old.
Italy: The New Domestic Landscape may have given the designers a platform to protest, to deconstruct conventions and propose new solutions, but ultimately, and to contradict ourselves, the New Domestic Landscape portrayed by the gifted designers accomplishments and diversity of their approaches was one inhabited by voluminously upholstered sofas and elegant lighting…….
For all looking for more information, the MoMA have quite spectacularly scanned the exhibition catalogue and made it freely available as a pdf at https://www.moma.org
Images of the exhibition are, regrettably, less freely available, hence the complete lack here. Apologies. However a fulsome selection of press and publicity photos from 1972 can be found at Italy: The New Domestic Landscape – Images
8. “He” The gender denomination isn’t irrelevant. Amongst the dozens of designers and architects presented in the exhibition Anna Castelli Ferrieri & Gae Aulenti were the only females. Although given the decade, such probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, for all in context of the Washington Post’s comment that the Italian Ambassador’s wife “is an elegant Italian design of another kind” The 1970s, honestly! One must however add that with Gaetano Pesce’s Up #5 armchair the exhibition did have one of the most potent comments and critical statements on, women’s social role. Guess no-one was paying that much attention
19. Alexandra Brown, Operaismo, Architceture & design in Ambasz’s new Domestic Landscape: Issues of Redefinition and Refusal in 1960s Italy, imagining. The 27th Annual Sahanz Conference (Sahanz 2010), Newcastle: Society Architectural Historians Australia and New Zealand, 2010
20. Amongst others, “Italian Design Show Appraised — Ambiguous but Beautiful” Ada Louise Huxtable New York Times, May 26, 1972; “Some Were Excited, Some Bored”, New York Times, May 26, 1972; “Italy displaces Scandinavia as mecca of product design”, Sarah Conroy, Boston Globe, Jun 11, 1972; “The Italian Design Show at MOMA: A postmortem”, Robert Jensen, Artforum October 1972; “Home was never like this”, Norma Skurka, New York Times, May 21, 1972; “Triumph of Plastic Over Wood; Of Machine Over Man: Italian Designs on MOMA’s Domestic Landscape”, Sarah Booth Conroy, The Washington Post,May 28, 1972