SuperDesign: Italian Radical Design at R & Company

By Abby Margulies

For a few more weeks, visitors to R & Company will have the chance to encounter rare works, photographs, and ephemera from a period of Italian design history that has, until now, been given very little critical attention. SuperDesign: Italian Radical Design from 1965-1975 is a major retrospective of Italian Radical Design that explores major works by leading figures of the movement, tracing a time of political and social upheaval in Italy through the eyes of the country’s architects and designers.

According to Evan Synderman, co-founder and director of R & Company, the exhibition had its nascence 17 years ago when he began collecting material with what he describes as foresight that it was important and that one day he’d like to do an exhibition on this subject. Three years ago, Snyderman took the next step, and hired Maria Cristina Didero to curate the exhibition, turning attention to a period in design history that hasn’t been featured since the Museum of Modern Art’s 1972 exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape. Together with documentary film maker Francesca Molteni, they traveled throughout Italy, interviewing the designers who were formative to the movement, and gathering ephemera, stories, prototypes, and never before seen photographs, which they have woven into an exhibition, book, and film.

“What we uncovered in the interview process is the reason they were involved in the first place was politically charged. They were making work with a social and political context. They were not designing pieces to be fashionable or even to sell – most considered themselves anti-consumerist designers,” said Synderman.

As they traveled throughout Italy and parts of Europe Synderman says they kept encountering works that were different and didn’t fit into the mold, that didn’t follow the rules. “The works were more Avant Garde, more sculpture than function,” said Synderman. “All of those things are really exciting to us, coming from a fine arts background, because they feel like that crossover between the art and design world that we love so much…There are a few moments where the art and design world collide and this is one of the most important ones.”

Italian Radical design took hold in the 1960’s as a way for architecture and design students to respond to the tumultuous political climate in Italy. The movement was further spurred by the rise of Pop Art in the U.S., which the Italians first encountered at the 1964 Venice Biennale, resulting in what Synderman describes as an “Aha Moment” for them. “They were exposed to this idea that they could incorporate irony into these more serious concepts. They combined what they were studying in architecture, what they were seeing in the Pop Art world, and what they were seeing in their political and social lives,” said Synderman. “They wanted color and embellishment and silliness.”

One of the defining aspects of the movement was the shift to material that was both easier to work with and cheaper to source. Foam rubber, which was developed in the U.S., became available to the Italians in the late 60s, and was transformative to the movement. It offered new possibilities to the designers, who no longer had to rely on a carpenter to craft something out of wood, but could now use foam to create unconventional and oftentimes outrageous shapes. Some of the most iconic works on view in SuperDesign are made of foam, including Studio 65’s Bocca, a lip shaped sofa and Guido Drocco and Franco Mello’s Cactus, a coat rack shaped like a cactus made in foam.

This choice to use readily available and cheaply sourced material, including paper, cardboard, and plastic in addition to foam, has also contributed to the reason that so little of this work exists still today, as it is extremely hard to preserve. In addition, many of the individuals and collectives working at the time made protoypes for designs, but not complete works, or enacted performance pieces that were not captured. For this exhibition, R & Company sourced many of the works directly from the artists’ studios.

For Snyderman, who describes this as one of the biggest exhibition he has ever been involved in, the decision to mount this exhibition now is very timely. “They were doing performance art, making work to make political or socioeconomic statements, and rebelling against rationalist teachers and upbringings. It was really what we call a movement and that is something that no one has really thought about in a design scenario before,” said Synderman. “Movements are typically designated to art world periods and groups, but here is a bunch of architects who created a movement in design and who really believed they could change the world through design.”

Snyderman says that this imperative behind the work has inspired more students and more museum curators to come see the show than they’ve ever had come through the gallery before. A handful of schools have even made it a curriculum requirement for their students. This speaks to what Synderman sees as part of R & Company’s mission, which is to find things the they think are important but that people aren’t focusing on and are not doing the research on, and bringing them to light to help tell story of 20th century design.

“The world seems to be falling apart and no one can make any sense of it and maybe this is where design can come back into the fold and young designers can do something with it,” says Snyderman. “They don’t just have to make something functional, or a technological innovation, or something that is cheap to produce, they can actually make a statement with their work and create a conversation, which is all we can do, we can’t do more than that.”

R & Company will be a featured gallery at If So, What?, on view in Silicon Valley April 19-22, 2018