The utopian force of design in the fifties

In 1978, Ugo La Pietra reviews an ambitious exhibition which demonstrated — through a complex sum of objects — Italian design's ties to architecture, and the creative vitality that preceded the economic boom of the sixties.

This article was originally published in Domus 578 / January 1978

Italian design in the 1950s

The exhibition of Italian design in the 1950s was held in Milan at the Centrokappa di Noviglio, from 26 September to 30 October. Spread over six sectors — industrial design, interior design, object design, graphic art, fashion and fabrics, reconstruction of interiors — the show was organized by the Centrokappa with the patronage of the Regione Lombardia and sponsored by the following firms: Anic, Arflex, Arteluce, Bassani Ticino, Cassina, Fiat, Kartell, la Rinascente, Olivetti, Piaggio, Poggi, Sambonet, Tecno and Zerowatt. On these pages we are publishing a few pictures of the interiors and works exhibited. In between the black stripes we have inserted works (published by Domus) that were not in the show but which we believe are important for a better understanding of the period in question. In brackets we have indicated the dates of publication in Domus.

We were almost resigned in recent times to the idea that civilised circles in Milan were incapable of turning their attention to the vast reservoir of cultural, social, environmental and industrial issues that design has helped and still is, directly or indirectly, helping to characterize and to evolve.

The exhibition of Italian Design in the Fifties has certainly not filled this gap. But it has at least made the design business and public opinion in general focus their attention on an industrial sector that has been with us and our developing society for quite a long time. Credit should be given to this exhibition and its sponsors for having positively made people sit up and rethink about this vast cultural and production sector which has grown up since the war — particularly in the Milan area — and gradually come to embrace cultural affairs within a wider social and national context.
<em>Italian design in the 1950s</em>, Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
Italian design in the 1950s , Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
The paralysing "political" directorship that ensnared the Triennale, the sluggishness of the Italian Designers' Association (the ADI), the abandonment of all "research" initiative as a result of the ever more explicit market demands expressed by the trade, a certain air of "restoration" among magazines that had until recently seemed open to experimental and avant-garde thought, and the absolute indifference of state bodies (regional and provincial) towards the development (or birth, even, seeing that there is still no school of design in northern Italy) of teaching structures and cultural programmes — all of these things — are the fundamental cause of paralysis in a creative area that concerns an increasingly broad belt of designers, manufacturers and consumers.
<em>Italian design in the 1950s</em>, Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
Italian design in the 1950s , Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
The merit for having broken this situation, which looks and indeed is just as gloomy and catastrophic as ever, goes to private enterprise. In fact, a company (Kartell: which has always been a promoter of good design) has been instrumental in creating this event. And, naturally, as often happens in these cases, the "region", having no cultural programme whatever of its own, took advantage of the opportunity and, when approached, immediately made itself available to support the show. Arranged by Andrea Branzi, Valerio Castelli, Massayuki Matsukaze, Paola Navone and Valentino Parmiani, at the Centrokappa of Noviglio (Milan), the exhibition is presented as a panorama of objects. It has been written that the exhibition was formed by "the sediments of a culture", and it seems fairly clear that the intention of its organizers was at all events to demonstrate, through a complex sum of objects, the creative vitality that preceded the economic boom of the 1960s.
It should not be forgotten that all the designers of that time were also and primarily architects who, Iike Ponti, Viganò, Gardella and Caccia Dominioni, developed architectural models and design methods which they then transferred on a smaller scale into the designing of objects
<em>Italian design in the 1950s</em>, Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
Italian design in the 1950s , Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
Therefore one need only mention a few names like Gio Ponti, Ignazio Gardella, Vittoriano Viganò, Carlo De Carli, the Castiglioni brothers, Ettore Sottsass, Bruno Munari... to recognize the "quality" and value of the products displayed. They are products that have never been historically placed and, for the no longer young who visited the exhibition they are easily (or perhaps with a little effort) associated with the richly exciting cultural life of a postwar Milan (see magazines Iike Domus , Casabella , Stile Industria , or the Triennale of Milan, the founding of ADI, the Compasso d'Oro, the Olivetti, the Rinascente, etc.). It is still difficult, however, to picture the reactions of the spectator who, not having experienced that period, or at any rate not within the experiences of its so-called designers, looks today at the array of objects exhibited and fails to connect them with the political, cultural, literary and philosophical background of those times. But above all these spectators miss one of the most macroscopic points about the work of those who designed objects for industry: their connection with architecture. It should not be forgotten that all the designers of that time were also and primarily architects who, Iike Ponti, Viganò, Gardella and Caccia Dominioni, developed architectural models and design methods which they then transferred on a smaller scale into the designing of objects.
<em>Italian design in the 1950s</em>, Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
Italian design in the 1950s , Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
It is pretty hard, if not impossible, to understand the technical and formal choices in a lamp or table by Viganò without being familiar with his line of work connected with the brutalist movement, which appears in all its clarity of language in the architectural dimensions of the Istituto Marchiondi (Baggio), design experiences abroad and in Italy with the Pirelli tower by Ponti. But the organizers were clearly determined to exclude all relations with architecture while looking instead for a connection with other aspects that are often and wrongly considered "minor" such as clothing, graphic art, decorative and artistic objects, often and willingly retrieved from outside the ordinary boundaries of good taste, to give a comprehensive and maybe more popular (as the organizers of the exhibition would say) picture of that historical period.
<em>Italian design in the 1950s</em>, Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
Italian design in the 1950s , Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
But although this somewhat magmatic scene and its wealth of curiosities arouses some admiration and although among the many things exhibited it is often possible to select distinguished design work done in the 1950s, it is on the other hand difficult to sense the utopian force that marked the work of those years. Architects were designing without precise market references, and the few "enlightened" industrialists (Olivetti, Kartell, Cassina, Arflex, Necchi, Ideal-Standard, etc.) were more easily swayed by the forms proposed by designers than by marketing techniques.
<em>Italian design in the 1950s</em>, Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
Italian design in the 1950s , Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
Today the exhibition of design in the Fifties recalls some of the designers and some of the products in both design and art (see Fontana's large neon spatial concept at the 1951 Triennale); but it forgets to point out that these were often isolated figures and that Viganò, for example, at the end of the 1950s, was still considered slightly "mad" (in the lectures delivered by Rogers in 1960 at the Milan faculty of architecture), that the reaI winner was neo-Iiberty, and that Milanese collectors passed over the spatial art of Fontana and his Milan school. Ugo La Pietra
<em>Italian design in the 1950s</em>, Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
Italian design in the 1950s , Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
<em>Italian design in the 1950s</em>, Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
Italian design in the 1950s , Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
<em>Italian design in the 1950s</em>, Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail
Italian design in the 1950s , Domus 578 / January 1978 page detail

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