Italian radical design turns 50: still innovative and increasingly iconic

10 May 2022

Half a century ago, an important exhibition at the MOMA sanctioned its revolutionary significance, which is still recognizable today

On May 26, 1972, half a century ago, the exhibition “Italy: the new domestic landscape” was inaugurated at the MOMA in New York. Conceived and set up by the Argentine designer Emilio Ambasz, curator of the museum’s architecture and design department, the exhibition recounted the design, formal and domestic revolution that was being born and growing in Italy, through 180 objects for domestic use and 11 reconstructions of environments commissioned by the museum itself for the occasion.

A right intuition, sponsored not by chance by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Institute for Foreign Trade, which sanctioned the primacy of Italian design with a revolutionary, experimental and, indeed, radical connotation.

Radical in proposing new formal models, or rather, the absence of the model and its deconstruction towards a total freedom of aesthetic interpretation of the project, disconnected from tradition and classical examples. This approach, at times playful but far from superficial, also responded to the need to adapt the design to new lifestyles and new ways of living the home.

The exhibition itself was configured in an extremely modern way: divided into two sections Environments and Objects, accompanied by audiovisual testimonies, it offered the visitor an immersive experience ante litteram. Just as visionary was the idea of ​​proposing, alongside the reproduction of the permanent home, also that of the so-called “mobile unit”. Ambasz coined two definitions: “counter-design” to emphasize the innovative scope and distance from the classic vision of the house: the goal is to improve the quality of life by improving the physical environment in which one lives. “Pro design” instead refers to environments designed to accommodate informal social and family dynamics and to experiment with new shapes, materials and colors.

What remains of this wave of change today? Surely a heritage of iconic, sculptural furnishings with a strong character. They fit perfectly into the homes of those who feel the desire to experiment, to amaze, but also to experience the home in their own way. Of those who are not satisfied with furnishings that perform a function but rather seek out elements that tell a story and inspire new forms of sociality, today as in 1972.

Not surprisingly, the designers involved in the MOMA exhibition are some of those who still represent Italian design in the world. First of all Ettore Sottsass who with his Ultrafragola mirror brings waves of light into the houses and a large surface in which to reflect. Among the furnishings on display at MOMA, which are still among the most popular today, we also find the Soriana armchair by Afra and Tobia Scarpa, produced by Cassina is the image of a new use of the sofa, more informal and relaxed. As well as the Arco lamp by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, an iconic product by Flos that is still today one of the most popular lighting elements for the living area. And how not to mention the Sacco armchair by Gatti, Teodoro and Paolini for Zanotta which distorts the idea of ​​seating becoming a timeless icon.

Radical design naturally also develops outside the New York exhibition and generates a large and highly creative series of furnishings that are still current and innovative in scope. For example, the Bocca sofa by Gufram is one of a kind and extremely pop; as well as the Proust seat by Alessandro Mendini which starts from the eighteenth-century armchair model and preserves its lines, however distorting its decoration. Equally innovative but with completely different roots is the Up seat by Gaetano Pesce, produced by B&B Italia: a feminine body, sensual and maternal at the same time in which to let oneself be enveloped.

Gufram Pratone
Poltronova Ultrafragola
Gufram Bocca Sofa
Zanotta Sacco
Cappellini Proust
B&B Italia Up
Flos Arco

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