13 December 2019
by Marco Romanelli
“Whoever wants to learn to fence must take the rapier into his own hands. Nobody has ever learned to fence just by watching.” Adolf Loos, 1903
With the contemporary obsession with the “internet culture,” the orgy of apparently exhaustive clicks, is there still any point in having a master? A “living, breathing master,” not a tutorial, not a navigator. I believe that, at the beginning of the millennium, some of us thought that the impersonal nature of those recorded voices would have freed us from the need for a physical master, with his own idiosyncrasies, his violent bursts of rage, of everything that makes a man (or a woman, naturally) into a master. What happened? Within just a few years it became quite clear that no computer or technological system was, yet, capable of being a substitute for a direct (or even indirect) relationship with an expert. Leaving aside ancient philosophers, eternally engaged in symposiums or peripatetic soliloquies, and even those 19th century teachers with their flexible canes, we simply need to think about what still goes on in architectural and design studios. In those privileged places of education, the vampiresque relationship between someone who is in possession of facts and someone who wants to wheedle them out is a two-way relationship. The information that flows from the greater expert to the lesser one is made up for by the curiosity and energy that flows from the lesser to the more expert person. Wise eyes and skilled hands as against new eyes and strong hands. With this principle established, and hopefully agreed, it raises a question: in a world dominated by marketing and contracts, in which designers have been turned into art directors, are there still any masters? A master is someone with a vision of their own, backed up by a personal method. A master is someone capable of taking a stand against the drift of the existing, of challenging the way things stand and coming up with an alternative. At this point, we have to bring in Enzo Mari, the most cussed “opposer” ever in the history of 20th century design: the theoriser of negation. But a master nonetheless, who did not want pupils (or did not know he had them). He was undoubtedly a great master, in spite of himself! We also have to admit, without however going as far as Mari’s programmatic hostility, that hardly any of the celebrated designers of the 20th century were capable of consciously behaving like masters: not Munari, shut into his own self-referential world; not Castiglioni, an inventor without parallel; not Magistretti, the solitary aesthete, not Bellini, not Mangiarotti and not Riva. Perhaps Alessandro Mendini and Ettore Sottsass alone really were – the former, however, was master of an aesthetic credo so individual that it was almost impossible to pass on, and the latter was a generous king to his own courtiers only. If we think about it, the people who belonged to these generations of “masters yet not masters” had all been involved in the Second World War, albeit in different ways. Perhaps it was precisely that “fatigue” that had made them so different from their predecessors, Gio Ponti first and foremost, but also Albini, Scarpa and Rogers, people who nurtured true disciples all over the world, who built schools that are still full of dedicated followers.
We now need to put this vexing question aside, as it lends itself more to an analysis of the history of Italian design than to a discussion on the role of the master today. Given that a direct relationship with a master should be fundamental for any pupil, we should start by asking ourselves what those pupils for whom a relationship of this kind is impossible, should do - and they are in the majority. They would have to learn how to choose an “imaginary master.” An imaginary master is the equivalent of the “imaginary friend” that at various stages during childhood is someone to talk to, someone we can turn to, who comes to our aid and holds our hand. How to choose an imaginary master, though? Totally empathetically, sifting through hundreds and hundreds of projects, ideally tracing the genesis of thousands of objects, from initial brief to finished article. As well as by reading books and magazines, going to exhibitions and conferences (“Il faut se faire des harems dans la tête,” Flaubert, 1853). This is the preparatory phase for choosing one’s own imaginary master (who may be a contemporary or someone from the past – for me it was Gio Ponti).
These masters, be they real or imaginary, will help us determine the value of our projects, teaching us that the basic principle of creation is “forgetting by heart” (as Vincenzo Agnetti put it, frequently reiterated by Lisa Ponti): these days especially, “I didn’t know” is no excuse – one needs to know and then forget. The memory is our soul. Copying is not permissible (our real or imaginary master would box the ears of any pupil caught doing such a thing) and even citing is something that needs to be done with caution. Only true citations are allowed, with no hint of plagiarism, rather reinterpretation, transfiguration even. There are no shortcuts or justifications for pupils. Nor indeed for a master who is not, and never should regard himself as a prophet. A researcher, more like. As Roland Barthes said in 1967: “There is an age at which we teach what we know. Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research.”