SINCE WORLD WAR II no country has been more thoroughly identified with the lure of design than Italy. Curatorial attempts to consider the historical relationship between Italian design and art, however, have often proved disappointing. For example, the last North American treatment of the subject, Germano Celant's "The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943-1968" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1994, was perhaps most memorable for its Ferragamo shoes and mannequins in Valentino evening gowns. By contrast, "Il Modo Italiano: Italian Design and Avant-Garde in the 20th Century," co-organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto (MART), and the Royal Ontario Museum, is striking for curators Giampiero Bosoni and Guy Cogeval's thoughtful juxtapositions of developments in design with those of contemporaneous avant-garde art movements.
Opening their exhibition with rarely seen examples of Stile Liberty (the Italian spin on Art Nouveau) placed among rural landscapes, executed in a Divisionist style--such as Angelo Morbelli's In risaia (The Rice Field), 1901, depicting women harvesting rice--the curators pursue the argument that Italy's twentieth-century investment in design was a compensatory move for what designer and theorist Andrea Branzi has called that nation's "imperfect" and "incomplete" modernity. An overwhelmingly agrarian Italy, only recently unified (in 1861), tried to join, overnight, the mighty industrialized nations of Europe. Under Fascism, the synthesis of Italian art and design developed a strong national identity and was forcefully promoted by the Triennale and the magazine Domus. In the show the neoclassical, feminized elegance of the Novecento style, a movement that peaked in the mid-'30s, is represented by slender furniture and porcelain urns and vases designed by Giovanni Muzio and Gio Ponti as well as the ominous muscular archaism of the painter/sculptor/designer Mario Sironi. One of the real trouvailles among the 375 items exhibited is Sironi's massive wood-and-ivory dining-room set, circa 1936, displayed in Montreal alongside I costruttori (The Builders), 1930, a typically dark, monumental cityscape by the artist. In an attempt to redeem the bourgeois everydayness of the decorative arts--which Sironi considered to be "beneath" the masculine elan of Fascism--the ensemble summoned the savagery of the primeval. No less striking, for both aesthetic and ideological reasons, is the Sant'Elia armchair designed by Giuseppe Terragni for the boardroom of his 1932-36 Casa del Fascio in Como, a building meant to epitomize another offshoot of Fascist design, modernist rationalism. This chair, with its continuous structure of chrome-plated tubular steel, morphs an earlier Bauhaus design by Marcel Breuer into an "armored" modernism.
As the unified aesthetics of the Fascist "total work of art" finally unraveled during the economic boom of the '50s, Italians dominated international design with iconic objects such as Marcello Nizzoli's and Luigi Figini's typewriters for Olivetti, Ponti's Superleggera chair for Cassina, and the Castiglioni brothers' Mezzadro stool for Zanotta. …