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From industrial design to social design

The success of Italian design has often been a very individualistic phenomenon on the part of certain intelligent architects, inventors of prototypes, rare figures in an industry incapable of true mass production at accessible prices and guaranteeing functionality in time. Today’s industrial design is facing a fundamental problem: the need to work communally on single items

 

While Italian industrial design still receives great accolades and is seen as a success globally, it is manifesting the symptoms of crisis. The last edition of the Compasso d’Oro verged on the brink of a protest. But contrary to the protest for the events of the Istituto Nazionale di Urbanistica at the Milan Triennale, etc., the Compasso d’Oro did not generate the global criticism that it aimed to achieve, and we will see why later.

[…] We can observe that in almost all nations in the world, with the exception of a few sectors and in some Nordic countries, the design of objects corresponded to a definition of “industrial design”, prioritising a characteristic design to distinguish it from other competitive products rather than the social function of the object itself.
This also explains why the aesthetics of the object were primarily seen in terms of its functionality and rationality and less in what it expressed, keeping in mind the context in which the object is to be placed and used.
This was the scenario in which the “Modern Movement” of architecture, as postulated by Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, found its justification; a trait d’union between industrial production, social production, and modern aesthetics.

Le Corbusier himself, reminiscing over his experience in Behrens’ studio (perhaps the first “industrial designer”, who regarded “pure functionality” as a duty), declared that “today no man can negate the aesthetics that modern industry is developing”. “The style of an era is found in its general artistic production, and not as commonly believed, in certain products of ornamental character.” When facing the still highly “complex” situation, in Italy, following the crisis of a new-found liberty, an explosion of industrial design was expected – perfectly in line with the lessons of functionalist and rationalist – as a signal the return of fantasy and imagination, and a taste for courageously “beautiful” objects. Olivetti typewriters designed by the artist Nizzoli began to fold their sharp metal sheet edges into plastic curves and to transform their levers and carriages into soft pleasing forms, both utilitarian and aesthetically pleasing. After a long process of perfection, these were the first machines in the world to be exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Albini, Gardella, bbpr, Castiglioni and other representatives of the finest of Italian architects created lamps, tables, bookcases, office and home furniture, equipment for museums and exhibitions, furnishings for conference rooms and theatres. They were full of inventiveness and daring in their choice of materials; rationalist beams matched with marble or wood, leather and refined textiles on simple metallic supports.

But the younger generation of Zanuso, Magistretti, Gregotti, Aulenti, Sottsass, Steiner, Munari, Sambonet, Max Bill, Huber, Bellini, Conte & Fiori, Bonetto, Colombo, Menghi, A. Castelli, Helg, Rosselli, Mari, A. & T. Scarpa, etc., took a step further by instilling a renewed fantasy in objects which were monopolised by industrial austerity. This is how a more open and free design of objects was born; it was applied to large calculators and televisions, to telephones and sewing machines, etc.

At this point, industrial design started to move into other sectors, liberating designers from their previous scruples. The second generation of Italian architects, just like the younger ones, had entered a period of free discourse, and applied themselves to lamps, armchairs, home furnishing, kitchens, cutlery, etc.
Italian-made objects found global success, and flagship sales outlets became focal points in many cities, from New York and Paris, to London and Frankfurt.

And so, what about the crisis?

Despite their success, many of these objects remained “aristocratic”. Despite the possibility of mass production, their elevated cost rendered them rare or unique collector pieces.

An article in the last edition of Casabella said that although these were beautiful objects, they were often (due as well to the work of imitators) fragile, not always functional, and without any support for spare parts that may deteriorate with wear.

For such small quantities, precise and programmed production was difficult and quality control even more complicated. Casabella continues: “Anyone buying a new car can always read and learn about its performance and attributes; in the furniture market, however, very often there are no or few technical specifications regarding what is being sold”. “There is no general supervision by an institution charged with selection, such as might be able to offer some form of guarantee”. Too often the success of Italian design is the result of the work of some intelligent architects, inventors of prototypes that remain prototypes, or rare examples of craftsmanship that are unable to undertake the necessary research and quality control to start mass production and offer accessible prices for the general public, as well as guaranteeing the functionality of the product during its lifetime.

As Magistretti rightly said, “Italian design will end if it does not have true strong industry”. “Industry, materials, great volumes – these are positive factors for object-based production… objects that have to be produced for the general public as an act of cultural enrichment destined to rise from below”. Magistretti is still sterner, concluding: “This is the principal task of designers, otherwise you will become mere soubrettes of design, caught up in the trap of fashion to satisfy your ephemeral pseudo-snobbery of an artisan playing at industry”.

But there is a much more profound and substantial problem with today’s industrial design. If we were dealing merely with numbers and quality control of already well-designed objects, then new production processes could resolve this problem. There is growing competition; well-designed and carefully built products, mainly from French, American and German companies, are being launched onto the market, and sometimes mere imitations or variations of Italian prototypes.

We consider the real problem to be something different and much more serious, because it is not merely an organisational problem relating to production volumes.

In most countries of the world, industrial design has and still targets a narrow range of objects, particularly home appliances and furnishings, which have generated a disturbing and anti-economical phenomenon of merciless competition.

Each year hundreds and hundreds of very similar armchairs, sofas, lamps, seats, ashtrays and even lighters or electric razors find their way into the market, creating the impression that only these objects can be designed, and in infinite variations. It is not competition, however, that ultimately discourages any long-lasting mass production.

In conditions of fierce competition, innovation, new models and solutions – often aesthetically and functionally inferior to previous ones – are needed to maintain the necessary market share. Thus, design necessarily changes every season, and is no longer destined to last.

This phenomenon has also invaded the field of home furnishings, where it seems impossible to organise oneself for an entire lifetime, because to be fashionable, everything has to be “all glass”, “neo-liberty”, or even “leather and wood” or “absolute white plexiglass”. On the horizon we see pressed-cardboard furniture, which can burned entire according to the whims of “Vogue casa”.

This is all synonymous with the decay in the value of the home, which is a stratification of memories and conventions, the conservation of objects and the continual introduction of something new in correspondence with the developing personality, as the psychologist and sociologist Mitscherlich observed.

But apart from this phenomenon, which in our opinion is negative, there remains the other major problem of abandoning fierce competition in a limited field of design, so as to broaden the horizon to encompass what has not yet been designed, and what needs to be designed.

In the last Italian edition of Compasso d’Oro – widely followed abroad and with interesting international evaluations – there was a proposal to break this circle and seek design possibilities in sectors such as scientific and technical research, education and schools, health and social welfare, leisure time and tourism, etc.

After much investigation, we have reached the conclusion that in Italy “design” is almost absent in these fields. […] There are some examples of a wider application of design in other countries, but they are mainly sporadic and disparate attempts; Poland has advanced surgical theatre equipment, the United Kingdom has some good examples of school furnishings.

What is lacking almost everywhere – with the exception of some parts of Scandinavian countries – is an overall design plan, a logical and coordinated approach towards objects in general.

[…] There are some glimmers of hope (examples for a possible future) in some areas of Sweden or Denmark, and to a lesser extent in the Netherlands where workbenches in factories and school desks, laboratory worktops and restaurant tables, road signs or cutlery or even home lighting units all reflect an overall design and are part of a serious shared discourse.

Notwithstanding their imperfection and incompleteness, it is from these rare examples that we can comprehend the potential for a new vision of industrial design for the modern world.

We have recent examples of structuralism applied to urban planning, architecture and design of objects in which each visible element continually plays on the human psyche, conveying messages, pathways and indications of behaviour. If these signals are positive and correct, this can contribute to fostering civil education in conjunction with schooling and education in general. By being exposed to visual stimuli, the citizen of today can learn more from the urban environment than from books, but today we believe that order is essential in this chaos in which we live, not only to give mankind greater orientation, but still more to present opportunities for the coherence and the development of the individual personality. A wonderful example of this can be found in the efforts made by the “Scuola di Urbino”, where they have tried to design a model to serve the city, creating order and clarity in road signs, in advertisements and publicity (inviting the citizens as well to participate in questions of public interest), in the organisation of cultural and scholastic centres, and in furnishing for administrative centres while at the same time freeing historic and modern buildings from an overload of bewildering and disfiguring signs.

This work was reported by the Compasso d’Oro this year, and similar projects have also been noted, notwithstanding discontinuous and insufficient results today, to wit: a worker’s train for commuters by the Ferrovie dello Stato that has started to render these commuter journeys less unpleasant; a bus for transporting the public in the greatest comfort and visual intensity; a hospital bed, easily distinguishable from hospital ward beds, which is at least comfortable and which has all the necessary accessories, without humiliating the patient; unaggressive equipment to be used in ever-distressing laboratory tests for the sick; a school that, although resorting to the most advanced methods of prefabrication, does not renounce the use of wood panels to confer warmth to the schoolrooms and to the overall structure; a game in which the child is led to understand the three-dimensional nature of space, widening the mind without coercion; equipment initially designed for the luxury home, but adaptable for social centres; instruments and equipment for scientific research where, beyond the mere functionality of the machines, the researcher can work in environments in which the very machines express their adaptability to the service of research, etc.

Even the critics have had to take note of these efforts.

The lack of things already made and other circumstantial obstacles obliging objects to already be produced in mass if they are to be taken into consideration has not permitted us to go beyond these examples and indications. I believe that this is the route that we should promote and encourage: new initiatives in previously neglected fields where there is greatest need for design to be practised.

If we were able to break that small circle of today in which industrial design is practised and widen it to include many other sectors presently still untouched, then industrial design would not be in crisis but would see a veritable “boom” in its dimensions, something never before seen.

When talking of new production, we must consider that we are creating new opportunities for industry with important possibilities both nationally and also for the export market; but to implement concrete measures to make this possible, we have to stop acting as individuals or as single, isolated units.

I believe that the revival of design on a vast scale needs to tackle the problem of large dimensions. The entire city, down to the smallest detail, has to be designed coherently, and this means, not obliging everyone to adopt the same model, but letting each single contribution develop with the greatest fantasy, yet always in function of a shared objective.

This is how mediaeval cities developed over the centuries, and they still astound us for their overall layout, for their buildings, furnishings and objects, which are of great value to this day.

What was done in the past by the hands of craftsmen, can still be done under different conditions by the hand of the designer and with the help of industry. The designer could abandon his isolation and the subordination caused by his highly specific projects and work more for social objectives, to become a researcher and designer of an “advanced tertiary sector”, collaborating with other specialists and responding to choices and feedback from end users, with the common goal of giving a new and liberating image to the city and to all forms of social activity.

But the decisive step would be in understanding the necessity of finally “undertaking industrial design” as “social design”.

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