Learning from Italy: lessons from the radical avant-garde, 1968 - 1976


19 April 2013

Next month the design academic Catharine Rossi and Alex Coles, a professor in the department of art, design and architecture at the University of Huddersfield release their book EP Vol. 1, The Italian Avant-Garde: 1968–1976. Examining its titular period in Italian design history, the book examines icons such as Alessandro Mendini and Ettore Sottsass, as well as unearthing largely forgotten collectives, interpreting their legacy in terms of contemporary practice. Here, Rossi writes an introduction to the Italian avant-garde.

The years 1968 – 1976 represent the high watermark of Italian avant-garde practice.

From Arte Povera to Radical Design, Archizoom Associati to Global Tools, these years were dominated by practitioners such as Alessandro Mendini and Ettore Sottsass, figures whose cross-disciplinary, experimental practice epitomised one of the most well-known periods in the history of Italian art, architecture and design.

For all the mythologizing that surrounds these years, it has been subject to insufficient critical scrutiny. Given the many parallels between the seventies and today, it seems pertinent to look again. Italy’s radical avant-garde faced similarly challenging economic times to contemporary practitioners, alongside a comparable growth in political and social orientation in design, and how they met those challenges could still provide key lessons.

In the early 1970s, design’s growing awareness of its social responsibility was partnered by a shift in approach. In the catalogue for the landmark 1972 MoMA exhibition Italy: New Domestic Landscape: Achievements and Problems of Italian Design, art critic Filiberto Menna identified a “crisis of the object” amongst Italy’s designers as they sought to transform their role from designing commodities to “designing for new behaviours”. One group facing this crisis was Gruppo 9999, a little-known group of Florentine architects, whose MoMA exhibit constituted a proposal for an interior vegetable garden to bring man and nature closer together, a desire that chimes well with current sustainable practices.

In 1973 Gruppo 9999 were one of the founders of Global Tools, the largest Radical Design collective. Other members included Sottsass, Mendini, Archizoom Associati and Cavart, a group set up by Michele de Lucchi and fellow architecture students in Florence that year. Like Gruppo 9999, Cavart desired a more meaningful relationship between man and the built environment, explored in primitivist design and construction workshops located in remote rural areas. Significantly, the paper and performance-based activities of both groups have all but disappeared from public knowledge, their impact uncertain; a salutary tale for those pursuing such ephemeral and immaterial practice today.

But despite this relative obscurity, many contemporary designers have been highly influenced by this period, and not just in Italy. They include the Dutch graphic design studio Experimental Jetset, who have been heavily influenced by Ettore Vitale, the Roman graphic designer whose roster of clients in this period ranged from the Italian Socialist Party to the furniture manufacturer Arflex. Vitale's diverse output was united by a small repertoire of techniques - such as folding, overprinting, repetition and tearing – that can also be seen in Experimental Jetset’s own work, such as 2010’s Paradiso Program Poster. For Experimental Jetset, Vitale’s aesthetic of transparent construction represents the vocabulary of an activist graphic language: whether or not the client is explicitly political.

Education is a key arena for tracing the influence of earlier generations. In 1994, furniture designer Martino Gamper was a student of Vienna Fine Arts Academy’s Progetto Arte, a cross-disciplinary programme run by Michelangelo Pistoletto, one of the protagonists of the Arte Povera movement that sprang up in the late 1960s. Pistoletto's influence is evident in Gamper's projects such as 2007’s 100 chairs in 100 Days, where his manual, making-based approach to design chimed with Arte Povera’s emphasis on process, direct experience and material engagement.

Similarly, Studio Formafantasma cite both Arte Povera and Radical Design as influences on their work. The Sardinian designers studied at Florence’s ISIA school, where they were taught by Gilberto Corretti and Paolo Deganello, two members of Archizoom, the highly conceptual design studio that was set up in the city in 1967, and which found fame for its bold urban planning schemas.

Significantly, while Formafantasma credit this experience with the politically engaged nature of their practice, it is not Florence but Eindhoven where they identify a "radical attitude" still alive today. They suggest that Italy’s Radical Designers remain burdened by the weight of their failed utopianism, and have struggled to pass the baton of socially-engaged practice onto the next generation.

As this brief account suggests, looking again at Italy’s 1960s and 1970s avant-garde is a valuable exercise. Not only does it show up the multiple, often overlooked, connections between art, design and architecture, but it also the exposes the complexity of this mythical period’s legacy - one that suggests the importance of historical awareness for contemporary practitioners to ensure the efficacy, and longevity, of their approach today.