Continuing HGTV.ca’s special 6-part series on Italian design, as reported from the streets at the heart of the Mediterranean republic’s undisputed design capital. If all roads lead to Rome, all threads lead to Milan…
Spurred on to a large degree by the activities of an upstart group of artists known as the Futurists (approx. 1906-1916, and so perfectly named), Italy’s modernist revolution stimulated new approaches to traditional arts and crafts. Futurism sought to eradicate the influence of Italy’s weighty history, making way for the truly modern era of electricity, railroads and machines — Milan was the first European city to adopt electrical street lighting — and catapulting the country, just in the nick of time, into the ranks of the continent’s industrialized nations. Before the obvious ethical, moral and human crimes of the second World War, the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini made possible a period of economic renewal for Italy, launching the country into a leading position for industrially produced design.
The mid-century saw Art Deco, which had become the prevailing style throughout both Europe and the Americas, fuse with a uniquely Italian form of modernism. Conscious or subconscious, the goal of the Italian designers was to reconcile an over-bearing Classical tradition with industrial pragmatism. Unquestionably, Gio Ponti (1891-1979) is the first hero and father of Italian design, having imbued every one of his projects with his unique, precocious and steadfastly modern aesthetic. From architecture and interiors to furnishings and ceramics, and despite an abundance of expressions, all of the artist’s designs prove to be continually, unflinchingly relevant today.
Among many notable Italian designers, Piero Fornasetti (1918-1988) also stands out. Another early pioneer of design, Fornasetti’s aesthetic approach admittedly leaned more traditional. Still, culled from inexhaustible traditional images and used to decorate the surfaces of his furnishings, his signature motifs introduced an irreverent approach to design, looking back to the traditions of the past, while looking to the future. (Sigh: fond memories of “the dance” in Brera.)
Not surprisingly, both Ponti and Fornasetti — whose legacy lives on with the notable work of his son, Barnaba (1950-) — collaborated in the design of furniture, developing practical designs that made emphatically tongue-in-cheek statements about Italic tradition. For just one example, consider chairs. Among many that Ponti designed, he is deservedly famous for the Superleggera (super light) [second image in this post]; Fornasetti, meanwhile, would put a woman’s face on the back of a chair — which was unconventional enough on its own, but he would put the same face on a porcelain plate [left].
Perhaps what distinguishes the Italian mid-century design aesthetic from others is not only the irony of blending classicism with modernity, but the particular attention to the quality and luxury of materials used in production. Whatever the reason, it worked, because well over half a century later, the message is as relevant as ever.
Tomorrow in “Italian Design Week”: The Grand Finale — A Design Pilgrimage