FROM B/W TO COLOR
March 16, 1972, 3pm : an event occurred that marked the end of an era of blind faith in Modernism - the first building of the Igoe Pruitt housing project in St. Louis, Mo, was blown up and cleared away by the U.S. government.
In the first half of the 20th century, architects and urban planners all over the world looked up to the French architect Le Corbusier and the CIAM (International Congresses of Modern Architecture) whose manifesto of providing the world with a better living habitat had influenced architects and planners for much of the century. The following image is Le Corbusier's Radiant City (Ville Radieuse), an unbuilt project designed in 1924:
Not until the early 1960s when Jane Jacobs and like-minded activists who came out to loudly opposed the by then well entrenched doctrines of Le Corbusier and his followers, did mainstream architects and designers dare to express some personality and individuality in their work. Below is an image of Greenwich Village today which Jane Jacobs and Co. saved from the wrecking ball in the 1960s:
In Europe, the reaction against the totalitarian approach of the International Style perpetrators started early, just after WWII. Carlo Scarpa designed various Venice Biennale pavillions starting in 1948. His work was poetic and beautiful - a prophecy of architecture to come. Photo source: courtesy of La Biennale Foundation : sculpture garden of the Venice Biennale by Carlo Scarpa
The mainstream still operated in the modernist mode in Italy in the 1970s. Young designers, architects, artists, craftspeople, tradespeople, etc., many of them under-employed, full of pent up creative energy and with a knack for drawing, sketching, sculpting, constructing and building,were designing and making things on their own. Among these talented individuals, the few with good taste, fashion sense, the skill for self-promotion and good sense of making things work and work better, would group together under a banner and create their own firm. Poltronova was one of such groups : (see future post on Poltronova)
DESIGN as EXPORT
As an architecture student, Learning from Las Vegas was required reading. We all thought we admired Venturi's Sainsbury Wing project. And along came Leon Krier aligning even more with 'Tradition' but without the smirk. The term Post Modern only became popular and then over-used since the early 1980s when Philippe Starck started collaborating with Ian Schrager of Studio 54 fame. Having lived through the 80s, I believe Post Modernism is everything that Mies and Le Corbusier would not have wanted us to enjoy. Individuality simply could not be tolerated. See below, IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology) campus planning by Mies van der Rohe :
Since the 1960s, the Italian government has been sponsoring trade commissions all over the world to effectively promote and market Italian designed goods. Individuality and perceived quality in product design was the key to the success of the Italian export industry. A case in point is Stilnovo, a lighting fixture manufacturer, founded in the 1940s and went on to become well known as a clearing house for bold new Italian designs.
From left to right, designer for Stilnovo : Gae Aulenti, Ettore Sottsass, Joe Colombo, Alberto Fraser.
Stilnovo had collaborated with numerous well-known architects. Its products were typically technically straightforward but each model seemed to have its own personality. The styling epitomized 1970s' Italian design by its freshness, playfulness and innocence. Each model usually contained a new design idea or the use of new material and was almost like an animated object but without the tackiness of a cartoon caricature. Stilnovo had hundreds of designs in its archive worthy of being cataloged into a design handbook. Stilnovo is no longer in operation, however, a committee of supporters can still be reached to answer questions about the company and its products : http://www.stilnovoitalia.it/en/
The following Italian desk lamp came out in the 1970s. PL bulb was unheard of at that time in North America. It was used as a featured element in the design - a touch of high tech circa 1970. The base was contained in a highly polished pastel-colored dome that was thick cast-metal which weighed about five pounds. Small parts were also cast and machined for the model. Nothing seemed to be off the shelf except the switch, plug, wire, light bulb socket and the PL bulb. The lamp had a solid and well-crafted feel to it. PL Mini desk lamp by Tronconi of Italy, 1980 :
It made so much sense for Italy to nurture and sustain these groups of enthusiasts who wanted to export their individual designs. Their talent was an exportable resource. One-offs and experimentation required small-scaled fabricators' support. Mold-making, die-casting, glass blowing, fabric and leather sewing, etc. were readily available for designers who wanted to make their prototypes. Starting small was possible. The following photos show Ron Arad, in a typical European fashion, handcrafting a custom interior project for his own firm. Taken from the Sept 1991 issue of Ottagono magazine :