Italy: The New Domestic Landscape


28 November 2013

In the summer of 1972, an exhibition on Italian design showed at MoMA in New York. Although short-lived, it has formed a seminal moment in design history. Tonight the Architecture Foundation screens a series of films about the exhibition, followed by a Q&A with Gaetano Pesce at the Barbican in London. Here we revisit a feature on the show from Disegno No.2 with exclusive interviews with the exhibition curator, Emilio Ambasz, and Pesce.

“When I visited the factory to see how the construction of the project was coming along, the workers told me that they didn’t like spending time inside the installation; it had a bad atmosphere. To me, that was a great compliment – it demonstrated the true function of architecture, to provoke emotional responses from people.” Gaetano Pesce is recalling the moment he visited the Cassina factory in Italy, in early 1972, to check on the progress of his new work Project For An Underground City In The Age Of Great Contaminations. The piece was about to be shipped to the United States to form part of a landmark exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Curated by Emilio Ambasz, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape was to become one of the most provocative shows in the history of contemporary design.

“When I started the exhibition I knew nothing about Italian design,” confesses Ambasz, who is Argentinean by birth, from his office in Bologna, Italy. Ambasz was only 25 at the time and had just submitted a proposal to the MoMA board of directors. “I had read a few magazines and seen beautiful products, so I said we should have an exhibition. It was only when I got to Italy that it became evident to me that the designers were making objects but thinking of environments.” To demonstrate this, Ambasz commissioned a series of prototype environments, installations that would reflect upon changing domestic living patterns within contemporary society, while also facilitating the explorative use of new materials and multimedia technology.

“As I felt that the industry was not able to offer an opportunity to make such environments, because they wouldn’t be able to sell them, I invited a number designers to take part in the exhibition and many of them came up with pretty extraordinary ideas,” says Ambasz. In total, 12 Italian designers and architects participated: Ettore Sottsass, Joe Colombo, Gae Aulenti, Mario Bellini, Alberto Rosselli, Richard Sapper and Marco Zanuso, Gaeteno Pesce, Ugo La Pietra, Gruppo Strum, Archizoom, Superstudio and 9999. These environments were to be presented alongside a selection of examples of Italian industrial design produced during the previous decade, to act as a historical counterpoint for American audiences.

Illustration of furnishing concept by Ettore Sottsass as featured in the exhibition catalogue. Sottsass produced a series of interchangeable and moveable closets, moulded in grey plastic for the Environments section of the exhibition

“What Ambasz had understood was that design in Italy was moving beyond being an applied art. It was becoming a language capable of making a commentary on reality,” says Pesce, who lives in New York. “The concept was to give the American public the idea of design as having a bigger meaning, not just a banal collection of objects, but exploring existential problems.”

Originally intended to travel to museums across the States, the exhibition opened for a single summer in New York before being dismantled and the exhibits returned to Italy. Yet, despite the brevity of its public presentation, the show became a benchmark for future architecture and design exhibitions. “It’s the great ‘myth’ of design curating,” explains London-based Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic, “the show that my generation never saw, but thanks to the catalogue, and the title we regularly refer to it. On one level, the range from Pesce to Bellini did not make sense brought together under one roof, but for spectacle and stylishness, it was the first show to really highlight design as a mainstream museum culture concern.”

Installation view of the exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, MoMA, New York, 26 May to 11 September 1972

The importance of the original event is such that it has provoked a recent curatorial response of its own, Environments And Counter Environments: Experimental Media in Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, MoMA 1972. Containing extensive archival research from the original show, the exhibition was presented in New York, Stockholm, Basel and Barcelona in the last two years and formed the basis for a series of discussions on the future of curating architecture and design.

Spread across two wings of the museum, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape opened on 26 May 1972, divided into two ideologically separate sections: Objects and Environments. The museum’s Garden Wing played host to the former, and featured more than 150 chairs, tables, lights and other household items from Italian manufacturers including Artemide, Cassina and Kartell. Archetypal designs such as Achille Castiglioni’s Arco lamp for Flos and Ettore Sottsass’ Valentine typewriter for Olivetti were presented in tall wooden crate-like structures, arranged in a grid and echoing the visual language of the city skyline above them.

Displayed behind glass, as if in shop windows to seduce new American customers, the “parade of exquisitely designed objects” prompted Time magazine to declare “Italian designers dominate their field in the 1970s much as New York painters dominated theirs in the 1960s”. Ambasz remembers it well: “It was the best-attended exhibition MoMA had ever had, 176,000 visitors in total, although the American design profession was pretty upset. They had been brought up in the Bauhaus tradition and yet here there were these Italian designers that were using colour, curves and sensuous materials and they saw that the public loved it.”

Installation view of the exhibition. It was divided into two ideologically separate sections: Objects and Environments. The museum's Garden Wing (pictured) played host to Objects and featured more than 150 chairs, tables, lights and other household items from Italian manufacturers like Artemide, Cassina and Kartell

These examples of Italian Bel design also offered a vivid representation of the provocation behind the confrontational political positions taken by several of contributing designers and architects in the Environments section. Despite the miracolo economico of the 1960s, wages in Italy were comparatively low compared to the rest of Western Europe meaning that some of the domestically produced objects on display at MoMA remained out of reach for many Italian consumers.

In addition, a severe housing crisis was the cause of significant problems for many of the large numbers of Southern migrant workers now living in the Northern industrial cities of Italy. The student-led occupation of the 1968 Triennale in Milan had indicated a shifting consensus within architecture and design towards a position of direct action and social implications rather than aesthetics were emerging as the central ideology within contemporary practice. In response to this, several of the invited designers decided not to produce conventional physical installations as requested and instead used the institutional platform that MoMA offered to present alternative manifestos.

This was most graphically demonstrated by the three fotoromanzi produced by the Turin-based Gruppo Strum for the exhibition and distributed free to museum visitors. The explicit Marxist message contained within the pages caused unease among the museum’s board of directors and outright anger among several members of the public. “I was called by David Rockefeller who was at that time the chairman of the museum board and said to me ‘Mr. Agnelli [head of FIAT] is my friend and you have him on the cover of one these magazines branded as Capitalist’,” says Ambasz. “I replied that I had asked Mr. Agnelli if he would accept this, as otherwise we would remove it and he replied ‘But I am a capitalist. It’s perfectly ok’.”

The fotoromanzo The Struggle for Housing by Gruppo Strum caused an outrage at the exhibition

Other “artful acts of rebellion”, as New York Times critic Ada Huxtable described them, included the Florentine group Archizoom’s14 empty shipping container, into which a recording of a young girl’s voice was played describing what the installation would be like: “Listen, I am convinced this would be an extraordinary place, it would be very spacious and very serene, without any obstructions or intersections. Can you visualise it?” Ugo La Pietra’s Casa Telematica (The Domicile Cell: A Microstructure within the Information and Communications Systems) presented a didactic triangular box, similarly devoid of objects and featuring an audio-visual presentation of his concept of design as a tool for experiential methods of communication rather than actual physical production.

“It was the beginning of a new form of Bel design, the ability to comment or express ideas about society,” explains Pesce. “In that moment, design had become art, because art is nothing more than that. The idea of design as art, art as design, has been debated for the past 40 years and I believe it comes from this moment.” Ettore Sottsass produced a series of interchangeable and moveable closets, moulded in grey plastic to demonstrate anti-commercial qualities and intended to remove the hierarchies found in traditional households. Milanese architect Gae Aulenti responded to the words of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges for her project, a series of fibreglass architectural furniture typologies; “nothing is built on stone, all is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand is stone”, declaring in her accompanying manifesto that “architecture is made beyond the strife of governments, wars and famine.”

Gae Aulenti took inspiration from Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges for House Environment, a series of fibreglass architectural furniture typologies

Not all the selected designers responded to the brief from theoretical positions, instead choosing to work using more tangible and utilitarian methods. Richard Sapper and Marco Zanuso re-interpreted a standard shipping container, building within it an expandable structure that could be used as emergency temporary housing, responding directly to the problems highlighted by the Gruppo Strum’s publications. Joe Colombo’s19 Total Furnishing Unit, completed a year after his untimely death, compressed all the elements of the suburban home into one fully extendable central plastic mono-block, an expansion of his mini-kitchen for kitchen and bathroom makers Boffi, exhibited elsewhere in the show. Visitors were also shown a series of short films, displayed using 8mm cartridges alongside the installations. These allowed for either a pragmatic illustration of the technical features of the design or experimental visualisations of the critical thinking behind the designers’ theoretical approaches.

This pioneering use of film within a design exhibition was at the heart of the research undertaken by Peter Lang, Mark Wasiuta and Luca Molinari for their recent exhibition and forthcoming book. The Environments and Counter Environments project was conceived following the rediscovery of much of the multimedia material, which had remained unseen for nearly 40 years. “The films were conceived in tandem with the Environment section,” explains curator Lang. “Ambasz was not aiming for a conventional architectural rhetoric, at least not in making an exhibit of models, renderings or ink drawings; he wanted to get as real as possible. And, in what would be the crucial exercise, he programmed the making of the films, to portray the “rituals and ceremonies” that would bring all these conceptual ideals home to the museum public.” Superstudio presented a mock advertisement for the group’s manifesto of an alternative strategy of a life without objects, produced using a mainstream commercial advertising company. Pesce worked with Swiss advertising and fashion photographer Klaus Zaugg to create an anthropological documentary of the lives of the inhabitants of his installation, the one that had so troubled the workers at Cassina.

Joe Colombo continued exploring the idea of compact living in the Total Furnishing Unit which was part of the Environments section

Designed as a future archaeological discovery, Project For An Underground City In The Age Of Great Contaminations was an underground communal space for 12 people who had left the surface of the planet in response to an unknown ecological incident. In an inspired and improvised piece of curation by Ambasz, the exhibit was presented in a lift shaft at the museum, enabling visitors to view the installation from above, as intended. The confrontational nature of Pesce’s piece demonstrated the willingness of Italian manufacturers to participate in projects that allowed them to innovate, experiment and respond to new cultural ideas.

The research centre at the Cassina factory also produced Mario Bellini’s Kar-A-Sutra mobile living environment while Boffi, car manufacturer Fiat and furniture-maker Kartell were other companies to contribute their resources and expertise to the production of several of the environments. “I was more than the curator, I was the impresario,” exclaims Ambasz. “I was able to use the institutional support that MoMA provided to get the architects to produce those environments for the simple fact of vanity. The vanity of the manufacturers who were willing to under-write everything so it would be presented at the Museum of Modern Art.”

Gaetano Pesce's Project For An Underground City In The Age of Great Contaminations was installed in a lift shaft

The theoretical and politically confrontational position offered by the exhibition failed to placate some of the participants, who felt ill at ease with the commercial motives and ambitions of the show’s headline sponsors – the Italian Government. Archizoom’s Andrea Branzi wrote a highly satirical review for the June 1972 issue of Domus magazine, portraying the Italian designers as celebrities and mingling with Hollywood stars at the exhibition’s opening black-tie gala party. Branzi describes the Italian Ambassador as having tears in his eyes and emotionally declaring that the designers had “saved our country”, suggesting that the exhibition had become little more than a glorified trade show. The Government funding had been integral in financing the exorbitant costs of the project and Ambasz had waited until the exhibition had opened before announcing that the proposed tour would not be taking place, anticipating the obvious anger this caused.

Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the failure of the exhibition to travel beyond New York, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape has become a seminal moment in design history. The summer of 1972 represented a clear high point in Italian creativity and spontaneity, a moment of unique synergy between the designers and manufacturers. In the years that followed, the confidence and vision of Italian design was replaced by a mood of introspection and revision. Indeed Ambasz’s exhibition has been referenced repeatedly by other architecture and design projects; Paolo Portoghesi’s Strada Novissima at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 1980 and Alessi’s Tea and Coffee Piazza project from 1983 both followed closely his original curatorial template. Even today, the annual Interni installations at the Università degli Studi di Milano during Salone act as 
a reminder of how little the landscape of architecture and design exhibitions has changed over 
the past 40 years.

The cover of Casabella Issue 367 June 1972 featured a gorilla with the words Radical Design on its chest

For several of the participating designers the closing of the exhibition marked the end of a theoretical journey; “There followed a kind of a cultural revolution in that so much of the radical content, the nascent green movement, a critical material culture and the conceptual movement in general, literally vanished from discussion to be replaced by the new dogma of autonomy and historicism,” says Lang. “Blame the oil crisis of 1973, the economy, or whatever, but in the year Ambasz staged his exhibition, the movement both achieved its greatest notoriety, firmly cementing Italy’s global reputation for avant-garde design, and then poof! It’s history.” Ambasz agrees: “For some of the designers, I think Italy: The New Domestic Landscape was a moment that happens to every person, the moment when you realise the extent of your capacity and from then on something changes, not that people’s capacity diminishes, simply that it does not fly higher.”

Perhaps the most telling commentary on the exhibition was provided by Casabella magazine. For the June 1972 issue, editor Alessandro Mendini used an illustration of a mountain gorilla, taken from a postcard purchased at the Museum of Natural History in New York. To the postcard Mendini added the words “radical design”, written across the chest of the gorilla; like King Kong, the wild beast of Italian design had been captured and taken to New York for the entertainment of the American public.