21 June 2019
by Marco Romanelli
Once upon a time there was art and there was design. They inhabited adjacent, but extremely well defined territories, (although sometimes, it is said, they encroached upon each other). Then, quite suddenly, to put it simply, their marriage produced ‘art design.’
Once upon a time there was art and there was design. They inhabited adjacent, but quite distinct territories, (although sometimes, it is said, they encroached upon each other). As regards ’those days’ and indeed Milan, which is where this whole story began, artists and designers (and their architect comrades) used to meet in certain bars in Brera or the Triennali, but then the former went back to their studios, crammed with half-squeezed tubes, turpentine and canvases, clay and plaster; the latter, on the other hand, hopped into their cars and took that lengthy road that goes from Milan to Meda and then up Cantù. There they met entrepreneurs (skilled carpenters and second generation weavers) and, together, they organised the production of furniture, slightly above artisan level, aspiring to be industrialists (in those days, industry was a creditable field, a noble field). The designers, who, if truth be told, were not designated as such in those days, rapidly became rich and the world discovered the perfection of Made in Italy goods: pieces worked with tremendous care, in which nothing was left to improvisation. Meanwhile, the artists, on the other hand, often continued to be impoverished and unknown. The refined bourgeoisie, even in Milanese circles, had already begun to be captivated by the products emanating from Cassina, Arflex, Bernini, Danese and even Poltronova and Gavina, while in Paris, they were desperate to fly on Concorde, while contemporary art was viewed with a degree of suspicion. Basically, the artists went hungry, while the designers ate their fill. But that was back in the Fifties, back in the Sixties. Then, bit by bit, things changed in leaps and bounds to a more recent past, coinciding with the end of a millennium, at which point the designers (almost all) went hungry and the artists (not all) could eat. The refined bourgeoisie mentioned above, had by then lost their so-called ‘purchasing power,’ and had given up visiting showrooms and scooping up a sofa and two armchairs, half a dozen chairs and a sideboard all in one fell swoop. They would perhaps make do with an occasional table and get the rest from Ikea. The rich, however, had become even richer and, at art fairs or on certain Spring mornings with nothing better to do and accompanied by their dolled-up wives, would acquire ‘trophy art’ for their houses in Montecarlo, Porto Cervo, Ibiza or Cortina, without batting an eyelid. Then the hungry designers wondered to themselves: Can this art really be so difficult?” to which they immediately replied (we all know that designers tend to be a tad presumptuous): “Well if artists can do it, we most certainly can!” For their part, the gallerists (not to be underestimated), after having inflated the prices of paintings and sculptures, after having thoroughly exploited ‘art photography,’ began to wonder what they could flog for ‘a bit less.’ So then the bulimic art market and the anorexic industrial design market joined together in the marriage of the new millennium, a marriage that culminated, to put it simply, in ‘art design.’
Craftsmanship was then called in to celebrate the perverse union. Artisans, who had always rubbed shoulders with industry (for whom they made the prototypes) and architects (for whom they fashioned sophisticated special pieces for interiors) found that they had officially become ‘producers of art’. Stonemasons and bronze-workers, ceramists and glass blowers started to produce things (for the designers who sat back and watched), one-off pieces or small batches: a glass bubble on a marble slab, a brass screw in a ebony frame. Suddenly, and contemporaneously, objects of this type started to appear in Basel and in Miami, in the galleries of Paris, Milan and New York (the same galleries that were meanwhile scraping the bottom of the barrel of the so-called modern antiques market). There, finally, one could buy a ’work’ for a mere 5/6000 euros: not bad, much better value than a canvas or a photograph, because it could also serve as a resting place for one’s gloves, on returning home in the evening. Then suddenly all (almost all) the designers fancied themselves as artists, all (almost all) the gallerists fancied themselves as design talent scouts. It all worked so well that even some artists started being art-designers. Meanwhile, the young designers (who really were hungry, but more switched on, much more switched on) rapidly sideswerved the recent contrivance of self-production fuelled by social and democratic intentions in order to share design with ‘the many,’ in favour of higher aspirations, targeting ‘the few,’ targeting the galleries. What about industry? Industry, which by its very nature had simplified, lightened, brightened or clarified, began to complicate, to superimpose, to pile up, to combine contrasting things, basically to follow rather than precede, relegated to the sidelines rather than picking up the ball and running with it.
These days a really clever - even the cleverest - semiologist would toil to pin sincere labels and credible attributions – the industrialists claim to be skilled craftsmen, the craftsmen claim to be making art, the artists do whatever the gallerists want, the editors of specialist publications rave about objects plastered with curdled cows’ milk and hay, then off they go to buy a Billy bookcase (someone buys a Billy bookcase every 10 seconds, according to the New York Times). How much easier it would have been for our present-day semiologist, just as it was much easier 50 years ago when Gio Ponti, a truly consummate artist and designer who wanted to be known as an architect, simply an architect, worked with the artists (with Melotti and with Fontana) and worked with the craftsmen (with De Poli and with Venini). In those days it was known as the ‘synergy of the arts’ (and nobody was in danger of falling off their high horse!).