How Radical Was the Italian Design of the 20th Century?

February 9, 2020

The Italian design's long tradition that can be traced to the fin de siècle. It also experienced a special twist during the 1960s and 1970s with the experimentation and radicalism inspired by Pop art and other tendencies when the phrases Bel Design and Linea Italiana appeared in the vocabulary of furniture design. It was an era of designers who felt empowered to test out new materials and forms that were rather bold for the time and not subordinate to the market.

To unravel the outstanding domains of designers and the studios hiring them, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is about to open an exhibition titled Radical: Italian Design 1965–1985, The Dennis Freedman Collection.

Left Fabio De Sanctis and Ugo Sterpini - Officina Undici, Cielo, Mare, Terra Buffet Right Gianni Pettena - Rumble Model
Left: Fabio De Sanctis and Ugo Sterpini - Officina Undici, Cielo, Mare, Terra Buffet, 1964. Walnut, metal, and two Fiat doors of the 600 prima series. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Dennis Freedman Collection. Museum purchase funded by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund. Kent Pell, photographer / Right: Gianni Pettena - Rumble Model, 1967. Foam, terrycloth, and cardboard. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Dennis Freedman Collection, gift of Dennis Freedman. © 1967 Gianni Pettena, Kent Pell, photographer

The Golden Years of Italian Design

In 1972, MoMa organized the iconic exhibition focused on the Italian phenomenon under the title Italy: The New Domestic Landscape. Now, fifty years later, there comes the first major U.S. survey that will analyze the same from a historical perspective. Seventy pieces of furniture, architectural models, lighting design, paintings, and objects, will be on display, half of them being gifts of Dennis Freedman and half acquisitions from his collection. All of those artifacts form a foundational collection for the Museum including rarely seen prototypes and limited edition works by designers, architects, and collectives such as Lapo Binazzi, Ugo La Pietra, Studio Alchimia, Superstudio, Archizoom Associati, Alessandro Mendini, Gianni Pettena, Ettore Sottsass, and others.

The young practitioners felt motivated to develop projects that led to radicalization, which changed the course of architecture and design in Italy at the time. The Radical design movement included artists, architects, and designers coming from the leading Italian academic environments; they interrogated the utilitarian potentials of design in regards to the ideological articulation of social and environmental issues as a consequence of consumerism.

The term Radical was launched by the most prominent Italian art critic Germano Celant, who used it to describe a specificity of their practices and the influence of art movements such as Arte Povera, Pop art, Minimalism, and Conceptual art. The innovative designs based on the constant exploration of color, form, and material were often expressed in unconventional formats of photomontages, drawings, performances, and happenings, as well as theoretical contributions.

Man Ray - The Witness (Le Témoin), from the Ultramobile collection, designed 1971, made 1971–74, wood, enamel, and plastic, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Dennis Freedman Collection, gift of Dennis Freedman. © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris, Brad Bridgers, photographer

The Context of The Installment

Radical: Italian Design 1965–1985 will put a specific focus on three cities in Italy that were practically the epicenters of the movement’s development. In Florence, the architecture students from the local university acted critically in the collectives such as Archizoom Associati, Superstudio, UFO, and were the driving force of the Radical design movement along with the architect Gianni Pettena. Their philosophy and aesthetic vocabulary were encapsulated in the 1966 show called Superarchitecttura show; held in nearby Pistoia, the first Radical exhibition, included furniture and lighting designs by Superstudio and Archizoom in a completely designed environment.

The MFAH exhibition will include the piece Passiflora Lamp by Superstudio, an abstracted flower form that was initially shown in Superarchitecttura, along with conceptual lamps made by Florentine architects Lapo Binazzi and UFO such as the Paramount Table Lamp (1969) and the MGM Table Lamp (1969) inspired by Hollywood’s Paramount Pictures and MGM Studios.

In Turin, the proponents of the movement were more politically engaged, and are best known for their material exploration of plastics. Working for the atelier Gufram, the artist and designer Piero Gilardi developed revolutionary polyurethane skin for molded foam furniture; his Sassi seating (1968) reminiscent of a rock, will be on display together with Pop art inspired Capitello chair (1971) designed by Studio65 that operated as a critique of class divisions and high culture.

The last epicenter of the movement was Milan, where the leading design journals Casabella, Domus, Modo, and In had their headquarters. The movement was enforced by the architects-editors such as Ugo La Pietra, Alessandro Mendini, and Franco Raggi who made a tremendous effort to articulate the new vocabulary and philosophy of anti-design. The magazines served as a tool for networking between architects, designers, and artists of the period so the Radical design liaisons with the leading art movements developed naturally. The Milan highlights will include Urano Palma’s Armchair (1970–74) and Ugo Marano’s San Picasso Chair (1978) that underline the connection with Arte Povera.

The Radical design movement also drew the attention of the visionaries coming from other cities such as Naples based designer Riccardo Dalisi and Gaetano Pesce, who operated in Padua. The MFHA installment will include Wooden Throne (1979) by Dalisi inspired by the city’s poor communities, and Pesce’s UP7 Piede chair that was a result of the designer’s experimentation with materials and form.

It is important to mention that both men, as well as other major collectives, designers, architects, and thinkers became a part of Global Tools, a counter-movement active from 1974 to 1976 that aimed to deal with the social issues through workshops and manifesto.

Left Alessandro Mendini - Spaziale Chair Right Dario Bartolini for Design Centre - San Remo Floor Lamp
Left: Alessandro Mendini for Studio Alchimia - Spaziale Chair, 1981. Lacquered wood. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Dennis Freedman Collection. Museum purchase funded by the Design Council, 2019, and Ray and Ashley Simpson. © 1981 Estate of Alessandro Mendini, Brad Bridgers, photographer/ Right: Dario Bartolini for Design Centre - San Remo Floor Lamp, manufactured by Poltronova, designed 1967–68, made c. 1968–75. Enameled and chrome-plated steel, acrylic, and incandescent halogen bulb. The Dennis Freedman Collection. © 1967 Dario Bartolini, Kent Pell, photographer

Radical Italian Design at the MFAH

Radical: Italian Design 1965–1985, The Dennis Freedman Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is extended through 5 July 2020.

Afterward, the exhibition will travel to the Yale Architecture Gallery at the Yale School of Architecture in the fall of 2021.

Editors’ Tip: Radical: Italian Design 1965–1985, The Dennis Freedman Collection

In the mid-1960s, reacting to contemporary social and political upheaval, young Italian architects and designers began developing a new style that openly challenged Modernism. Known as “Radical design,” this movement probed possibilities for visually transforming the urban environment. Radical design’s proponents also applied it to items such as furniture and lighting, utilizing alternative materials and an innovative formal vocabulary. Radical: Italian Design 1965–1985 surveys the work of these pioneering designers through nearly 70 objects and architectural models—including rare prototypes and limited-production pieces.

Featured images: Lapo Binazzi, UFO - MGM Table Lamp, designed 1969, made c. 1975. Aluminum, enamel, and bulb. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Dennis Freedman Collection. Museum purchase funded by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund. © 1969 Lapo Binazzi (UFO), Brad Bridgers, photographer; Studio65 - Capitello, designed 1971, made c. 1972–78. Polyurethane foam and Guflac®, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Dennis Freedman Collection, gift of Dennis Freedman. © 1971 Studio65, Brad Bridgers, photographer. All images courtesy The Museum of Fine Arts Houston.