Farewell to Vanni Pasca: what purpose can design history serve?

Design historian and critic, Compasso D'Oro for his career achievements, and collaborator of Domus since the Eighties, Vanni Pasca has passed away: we remember him with a short essay he wrote for issue 944.

Relentless and ironic investigator of design in its evolutions and applications, along an era in which its object became more and more language and communication, Vanni Pasca started from a degree in Architecture towards a long career as a teacher, theorist and historian - his History of Design written with Domitilla Dardi dates back to 2019. He has taught in many prestigious universities, including that of Palermo where he directed the degree and doctorate courses in Design, and has been a consultant for the main Italian companies, as well as curator of exhibitions from the Milan Triennale to Rio de Janeiro. Last year, in September, he was awarded the Compasso d'Oro for his career. archivements. Acute and prolific critic, he has been a constant presence on Domus since the early 1980s.

We remember his long contribution to Domus with this article, originally published on issue 944, February 2011.

“The Italian Association of Design Historians was recently set up for the purpose of promoting knowledge and historical studies of design. It is hoped that the association may help to develop the debate and comparison of these topics, which are both historical material and current issues.

A change in the concept and practice of design is occurring, with a complexity still in part to be defined. Until a few years ago the presence of design had been considered with reference to only a few countries. Today, design is produced worldwide, because nations invest in it. Design is hailed as an advantage not only to businesses but also to national economies, within the international competitiveness induced by globalisation. At the same time the number of designers, teachers and students of design is increasing: rising from an elite few to a far-flung profession.
Finally, almost no type of product remains unaffected by the aestheticising processes sparked by design to compete on globalised markets.

But design also means that of visual, informative and communicative, virtual artefacts. The gap between the two types of design is narrowing: it is by now in the relation between visual communication and product materiality that its competitiveness resides.
And corporate image design has developed within strategic design, in the design of events, in design to enhance territorial resources. It should be added that, in this panorama, the “connotational” aspect is growing. We speak now of design art, luxury design, strategic design, design for all, e-design, human-centred design, design for sustainability, social design and so on.

In the face of such complexity, what purpose can design history serve? Today we know that history is made by questioning the past, beginning with the issues and knowledge presented by contemporaneity; and that what is needed is a history of design which is autonomous but also interconnected with the history of technology, economics, etc. Historians of economics refer to multiple phases of the industrial revolution, each distinguished by factors relating to energy, scientific discoveries, etc. We are in the third phase of the industrial revolution. It seems useful to define for design the factors of continuity, but also its different expression from one phase to another.

A non-linear history of design is necessary to show how things have evolved since the 19th century, which saw the clash between romantic and rationalist culture, between nostalgia for the community with an apology to craftsmanship and a reasoned adhesion to industrial society, to the 20th century, divided between avant-garde ethics-aesthetics and a market-oriented design, to a current phase characterised by globalisation and digitalisation.
The Fordist paradigm is on the way out, but not industry, which exists on a wider scale than ever (think of India and China, and even of the very recent developments in some African countries). In this new phase, “utopian energies would seem to have run out” (Habermas). Or is there room “for a new utopia”, by declaring its predecessors extinct (that of the “beautiful/useful for all by means of industry”, and the Dostoevskyan utopia of “beauty will save the world”)? Or is there no more room, or even any necessity, for new utopias?”

Opening image :
Vanni Pasca. @Monica Montesano, Wikimedia Commons

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