The Memory of Design

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The Sistema Design Italia - an inter-university study led by the industrial design faculty at Milan has recently set forth its findings on the extremely complex and varied question of what is design driven in our country, both in planning and production terms, i.e. what it is that is driven by the logic of design. The roots of the issue are to be found in the technical and engineering culture of the nineteenth century and has been expressed in diverging threads during the course of the “brief century”, with moments of rapid acceleration after the second world war and at times of great technological changes such as that of the current information and multimedia revolution that is redrawing the economic, social and manufacturing map of this country. It must therefore be emphasised that there are many and different ways that industrial design can manifest itself; there is clearly a quite different order of technological complexity involved in the design of cars and motorcycles than there is for the design of a chair or a cooking pan. Such variety in Italian design, both of type and areas of production, has only been partly acknowledged in the historical accounts and in the contemporary record and comment. There has been a tendency to prefer to apply generalisations that group together, under the convenient label of design, expressions of human endeavour that have in reality little in common, from WAP telephones to tiles decorated by fashion designers. It seems that there is a need for some useful methodical distinctions that can be applied in the future, both from the point of view of the market and of the project itself.
The way, for example, that companies, whole segments of industry and even individual collectors and enthusiasts have sought to document the design history categories to which they belong, through archives, museums and virtual presentations, introduces new and helpful keys to interpreting the complex phenomenon of Italian design.
It is a sadly well known fact that there are no collections, real or virtual, that provide a clear and exhaustive overview of Italian design. The contribution of the technical and science museums has been very disappointing while, in Italy, there are none of those applied and decorative art museums that form the basis of many of the world’s design collections. At the same time the way that the Design Collection of the Milan Triennale has been conceived and managed leaves much to be desired. On the other hand, throughout the length and breadth of Italy there has been a somewhat anarchic but positive flourishing of attempts to preserve the memory of both the production and the design. Assisted by new laws, such as that on Foundations, entrepreneurs, public bodies and private individuals, whether for the love of their country, personal ambition, publicity needs or more noble and altruistic purposes, have made it their task to document and leave us with traces of the past. There is still much in the way of scientific and historic shortcomings in the organisation of the material, including museums without so much as a scrap accompanying archive documentation, not to mention the persistence of ideas on the presentation of objects, products and documents that are still largely dominated by an academic notion of the ‘precious object’. The hope is that, despite our inveterate provincialism, a multidisciplinary and interactive direction can be provided for us by such examples as the joyous, pleasant and yet serious Science Museum in London or the bustling, disorganised but “real” Exploratorium in San Francisco, to name but two. For the time being let us content ourselves with the many collections which, as part of a wider-ranging reconstruction of the history of companies, society, consumption, communication, record passages from the history of Italian design. These include local manufacturing museums such as the recently renewed exhibition of the industrial heritage of Bologna, as well as those of individual industries, like the car and motorcycle museum from Pininfarina to Piaggio, and the exhibitions on furnishings from Kartell to Alessi. “Little gems” are now beginning to emerge like the filed and computerised collection of patents (1946-1966) at the Archivio di Stato in Rome of patents, providing crucial assistance to understanding the technological, creative and inventive method behind design in Italy.
The on-line Guzzi archive and museum points one way to the future with its virtual museum available at any time and from anywhere in the world.
The faculty of industrial design at Milan Polytechnic this year dedicates its end of course laboratories to the virtual museum; among the possible objectives is that of putting design museums and archives on the web, for better orientation among a varied and detailed system that has not unfortunately been the fruit of concerted political, strategic and associative action, and is thus sadly lacking in any identifiable unitary guiding intelligence.


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