Italy: The New Domestic Landscape: a cult exhibition in the history of design
It is often forgotten, but art and design exhibitions can, in certain exceptional cases, mark their time and reveal an entire generation of creators capable of breathing new life into the history of their discipline. Often a particular historical context creates these conditions.
In 1972, Emilio Ambasz, then 25 years old, submitted the idea of organising an exhibition dedicated to Italian designers to the Board of the famous Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA, NYC). As he would later admit, he was frankly unaware of the work of Italian designers at the time, but he had noticed the aesthetics of their products, which were featured in magazines at the time.
With the exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Lanscape, Emilio Ambasz would, without imagining it, turn an exhibition devoted to design – a challenge to offer design in an institution like MoMA! – into the political manifesto of a gifted generation, ahead of its time and visionary.
Indeed, the challenge of mounting an entire exhibition devoted to design in the then booming temple of modern and contemporary art was a daunting one. In the American design microcosm, the exhibition was eagerly awaited. What would these Italian designers, who were adept at bright colours and sensual shapes, show? For the American public, European design is often reduced to the forms theorised by theBauhaus School: a stripped-down, sober style and rational shapes (square or rectangular), without embellishments. But the exhibition will take a completely different path, blowing a wind of modernity rarely seen in the history of design. More than an exhibition, the event proposes a reflection on the societal and protest role of design.
Historically, the exhibition takes place at a pivotal time. While it shows the formidable creative spirit of the designers selected for the occasion, at the height of the golden age of the Italian economic miracle, it precedes by a year the first oil crisis and therefore the end of a period of 30 years of uninterrupted growth. The moment is important, because the exhibition shows both the desire for freedom of a booming consumer society, but also foreshadows the economic difficulties to come.
For Emilio Ambasz soon realised that the 12 Italian designers/groups selected for the exhibition would not be content with exhibiting design objects but would go further, making their discipline a reflection of the societal developments of their time. It is for this particular reason, in large part, that the exhibition will be a landmark.
The New York exhibition is divided into two parts: an exhibition of more than 150 chairs, tables, and household items that testify to the vitality of Italian design at a time when the great designers were working in concert with artisanal companies that were just starting to develop – Artemide, Cassina, Kartell -; and a second section dealing with “Environments”, which exposes the futuristic vision of certain designers of the Western habitat. Indeed, Ambasz has understood that the designers it invites have more than just objects to present, but are conducting a real reflection on the evolution of the domestic environment. As far as the objects are concerned, the museum deploys an original and somewhat provocative concept for the American public. They are exhibited in independent showcases in the museum’s gardens.
In the exhibition, two points of view emerge: that of a radical design that openly criticizes capitalism and mass consumption, and that of a design that highlights the aspirations of young people for a modern world, including the evolution of comfort, the search for individuality, the advancement in the use of innovative materials and techniques, and even the inclusion of new media in the living space. We no longer think only in terms of the object itself, which is part of an “environment” that is changing as society evolves.
A symbol of the evolution of design in its search for comfort and individuality is the emblematic Sacco chair, presented for the first time at the exhibition devoted to Italian design. Gone is the chair, however comfortable it may be, and long live colourful modernity with a seat that hugs the body of the person sitting on it. Made of polystyrene balls contained in a bag, itself surrounded by coloured fabric coated with PVC, the Sacco chair was unusual for its time. It is multifunctional: it can be used on the floor as a chair, chaise longue or pouf.
Another example of a liberated and non-conformist era is the Kar A-Sutra, a concept car with an evocative name presented by designer Mario Bellini. A kind of minivan of the time dedicated to travel, the interior is furnished with cushions, allowing group travel and other functions. The roof is fully glazed and adjustable in height, asserting a certain idea of proximity to the environment.
Nevertheless, if some designers like Mario Bellini designed and thought about objects that responded to the thirst for freedom of the time, others openly criticised it and used the exhibition to get their message across. Towards the end of the 1960s, design was born in Italy. Collectives such as Archizoom, which brought together Andrea Branzi, Gilberto Corretti, Paolo Deganello and Massimo Morozzi, and Superstudio, stirred people’s consciences. They propose a design that is critical of the capitalist and consumerist values of post-war Western societies. With a great deal of derision, they openly criticise the law of the market and question the notion of good taste… Archizoom and Superstudio are notably selected for the exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape.
For the exhibition, Archizoom installs Gray Room, an environment animated by the voice of a woman who describes a beautiful coloured house, inside which there would be no obstruction to space. The design thus becomes a manifesto, and comes close to an artistic approach. Never before seen in a design event organised by a prestigious cultural institution.
In addition to Archizoom and Superstudio invited to the event, the Strum group (Gruppo Strum) did not hesitate to provoke the good consciences of the time. For the occasion, this Turin-based collective produced three photo novels (fotoromanzo) with a Marxist discourse that denounced the housing crisis, featuring Giovanni Agnelli, the boss of FIAT. The MoMA Board of Trustees was stunned, as Mr Agnelli was a close friend of David Rockefeller, then Chairman of the Museum’s Board of Trustees..
The section devoted to “Environments” will literally create the event by surprising a public that expected to discover simple design objects. Joe Colombo, an outstanding post-war designer who died suddenly a year before the exhibition, will be honoured with the presentation of his Total Furnishing Unit, a compact and functional living unit. Made of a plastic monoblock, it brings together the individual cells of the home (bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, office) which can be assembled separately and even combined with each other!
Another great attraction of the exhibition is the proposal of a post-futuristic habitat conceived by the young Italian designer Gaetano Pesce (33 years old at the time). The Italian architect, painter, designer, sculptor and philosopher proposes an answer to an anxious question: what if an ecological accident were to strike our planet, how would we survive? In close collaboration with the Italian manufacturer Cassina, he imagined a living space for twelve people, habitable outside our planet. The idea was not so far-fetched at the time, since the same year the Franco-American designer Raymond Loewy (Link to design-market website) designed with William Snaith the living quarters for Skylab, NASA’s orbital station.
Once again, Emilio Ambasz is bold in his scenography. The habitat imagined by Gaetano Pesce is presented in a lift shaft of the museum, so that the museum visitors look down on the fictional installation of the Italian master. A way to gain perspective on an avant-garde project. What’s more, Ambasz requires the selected participants to present their projects in a film, an innovation that gives an even more realistic vision to the initially conceptual projects.
In 1972, designer Ettore Sottsass was already a figure of Italian design recognised by his peers. Awarded the Compasso d’Oro in 1959, he was notably responsible for the red Valentine typewriter (1969) for Olivetti, a cult object of 20th century design. For Italy: The New Domestic Landsape, Sottsass produced a series of living rooms designed to fit into containers. The furniture – a shower, a toilet, a wardrobe, a reading area, a jukebox, a bookcase – is on wheels. The Italian master’s thinking, as with Joe Colombo, focuses on the modularity of the elements, which can be combined with each other.
The traditional home was over, Italian designers thought of furniture as movable, light and compact, made with the use of new materials, such as plastic. The furniture is also designed to be cheap and accessible, sometimes in “bad taste”, in response to the design objects exhibited in the “showcases” of the MoMA garden, which are financially inaccessible to the average citizen.
For the reasons that made what began as a simple review of the best of Italian design a landmark event of its time, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape continued to fascinate subsequent generations of designers. So much so that, as of 2010, several cultural institutions have hosted an exhibition dedicated to the 1972 event. Its name: Environments and Counter Environments. “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape,” MoMA, 1972
The curators of the exhibition, Peter Lang, Lucas Molinari and Mark Wasiuta, all professors of Architecture and specialists in its history, recalled the impact that the New York exhibition had at the time and, above all, the modern and futuristic vision that Italian designers had of the domestic habitat. For one of the first times in its history, design carried within it a societal and philosophical reflection, just like the art of its time.
Written by François Boutard