Italy's Economic Design in Times of Crisis ; in 2 Milan Exhibitions, a Wealth of Practical Solutions amid Austerity

Article excerpt

Two exhibitions in Milan explore design's role in providing practical solutions during times of austerity in Italy.

What could you make from a single piece of cardboard? During the 1950s, the Italian artist and designer Bruno Munari succeeded in turning one into an inexpensive, yet effective alternative to sunglasses. After spending hours studying the way people use their hands as impromptu light shields, he figured out how to cut and fold cardboard to create the same protective effect. His ingenious sun visors became immensely popular -- even President Dwight D. Eisenhower sported one on the campaign trail.

Mr. Munari's model of economic design is currently featured in two exhibitions in Milan, the city where he was born in 1907 and died in 1998. "Munari Polytechnic," a spirited tribute to his work, runs through Sept. 7 at Museo del Novecento, and "Italian Design Beyond the Crisis: Autarky, Austerity, Autonomy," runs through Feb. 22, 2015, at the Triennale Design Museum as the latest in a series of annual surveys of Italy's design history.

The exhibitions coincide with a resurgence of interest in Mr. Munari. Curated by Marco Sammicheli and Giovanni Rubino, "Munari Polytechnic" paints an engaging picture of a man who relished putting his Constructivist principles into practice by transforming rudimentary materials -- wire, paper, bamboo and broken electrical components -- into objects that were eloquent, witty and useful, like his nifty visor. Not for nothing did Mr. Munari claim that his name meant "making something out of nothing" in Japanese. It wasn't entirely true, but the sentiment reflected the guiding principles of his work and of the show at the Triennale Design Museum.

"Italian Design Beyond the Crisis," the fifth exhibition in a series, addresses the same theme -- "What is Italian Design?" -- as its predecessors, but takes a different perspective. Curated by Beppe Finessi, this installment challenges the polished Dolce Vita stereotype of Italian design forged during the late 1950s and early 1960s by exploring design's role in providing practical solutions during times of austerity, and in articulating the underlying social and political tensions through products, architecture, fashion and graphics.

The "necessity as the mother of invention" theme is apt at a time when Italy is still struggling to emerge from the economic crisis that began with the credit crunch. And the exhibition's defining qualities -- frugality, resilience, empathy, sustainability and activism, all of which were central to Mr. Munari's work -- are increasingly important issues for designers worldwide.

Mr. Finessi has chosen to focus on three crises in modern Italian history. The first began in 1935, when the League of Nations imposed trade sanctions on Italy in protest against its war with Ethiopia. The show illustrates how designers experimented with the "home- grown" alternatives to materials and technologies that could no longer be imported: For instance, the designers Gio Ponti and Franco Albini developed products using Securit, a new form of safety glass made with sand from Veneto and Tuscany. …