In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the work emerging from Italian designers looked like visions of an acid trip: sofas shaped like voluptuous crimson lips, tactile carpets that mimic dry riverbeds, coat stands that look like a nude woman had a (painful) run-in with a cactus, lounge chairs that resemble three-foot-tall blades of grass. But these designers weren’t after some Alice in Wonderland whimsy; they were anti-establishment sentinels, protesting consumerism, fascism, and inequality.
“This period epitomizes an exceptional moment for utopian dreams, as well as battles for ideals,” writes curator Maria Cristina Didero in SuperDesign: Italian Radical Design 1965–75. “A reflection on radical design today is therefore not sentimental. On the contrary, in our era, it is interesting to explore why the fact that radicals generated hyper-eccentric furniture and objects–as well as their tools, both theoretical and practical–to stand up for civil and political rights still has meaning for us today.”
As Didero points out in the book, the radical Italian designers were interested in breaking with the past and creating a future free from the baggage of history, like racism, war, and prescriptive thinking–modernism in particular–in design schools. They often referenced the past’s artifacts in their work, but stripped them of their cultural meaning. For example, a toppled Greek column–a symbol of high architecture–became a chair. And the designers exploited kitsch–objects considered to be tacky, low-brow, and cheap–to critique the middle-class’s obsession with good taste and beauty. For example, Archizoom’s Safari sofa was upholstered with faux leopard print and its Sanremo lamps look like cheap plastic palm trees.
Some designers were interested in fabricating material objects, but not for mass consumption; they were artistic manifestos and set pieces for installations. The ultimate example of radical design was a disco. Young architects created prismatic spaces decorated with eccentric furniture–often of their own design–and oddities, like vegetable gardens and discarded washing machine drums. The ephemeral interactions between people, the feeling a space imparts, and the performance weren’t about things that could be bought or sold. Designing a disco wasn’t about creating a permanent icon that embodied ideal ratios, proportions, and theory–hallmarks of modernist architecture and design. It was about a moment in time that people inside could experience equally, but in their own unique and individual way.
The architects and designers associated with the movement–Gaetano Pesce, Archizoom, Superstudio–interpreted radical design in their own way. Pesce, for example, created furniture that was downright weird, like a lounge chair made from rags dipped in resin and a cabinet that looks like two lovers locked in an embrace. His most famous design, the La Mamma chair, is an abstraction of a woman’s figure. The chair’s ottoman is attached by a cord and was meant to symbolize the social shackles that hold women back. Some of them were too risqué for their time, like a doorway shaped like a butt that was only built recently when the British artist Anthea Hamilton wanted it in one of her exhibitions. Superstudio was an architecture collective, but didn’t actually design any buildings, preferring to explore space through conceptual drawings and furniture. While some practitioners objected to mass producing design, others embraced working with manufacturers.
“A blend of serious fun, engaged political vision, and an unbounded creativity originated a spectacular plurality of designs and actions,” Didero writes in the book. “And plurality is certainly something to celebrate, as alone it bears the seed of freedom.”
Today’s resurgence of maximalism–an eclectic mix of patterns, materials, colors, shapes, and textures–speaks to a desire to break from imposing authority. It’s rooted in similar sentiments to Italian radicals and is materializing in a similar way aesthetically. The irony is that anti-establishment design of the 20th century is that it’s repackaged as stylish accessories for today’s consumers, showing the limitations of designers’ intention.
Five years ago, everyone was buying and selling boxy beige sofas; now designers are loosening up and offering more exciting options. In fact, some of the manufacturers the historic designers worked with–Gufram and Poltronova produced radicals’ furniture in the ’60s and ’70s–have reissued some of their pieces so contemporary shoppers, who have thousands of dollars to spend on what’s now considered to be high-end design, can buy them.
Fifty years after the Italian radical movement, social inequality has maybe improved marginally. The radicals didn’t necessarily meet their goal of revolution, and their symbols of subversion are now emblems of class and a stylistic statement. But that they remain relevant, somehow, speaks to the power of designers to process the sentiment of a time and give us something beautiful to behold, and, hopefully contemplate.