24 June 2020
by Marco Romanelli
When is it that words start to lose their meaning and become empty vessels, or else take on a negative connotation? It can happen all of a sudden (cast your mind back to the late ‘70s when, worn-out, we gave up talking about “green”?) or it can be a long-drawn-out and complicated process. This is precisely what has happened with the word 'style'. An ancient word, as precious as a medal for valour - “the style of the Greeks” as compared to the “style of the Romans”, “the style of ‘Mademoiselle Chanel’” rather than that of “Monsieur Dior”, “the style of Lancia” as opposed to that of “Alfa Romeo”.
As Gio Ponti reflected in the ‘40s, in one of his extremely popular magazines, entitled “Style” – fancy that! – in order to become masters (even though they were very young at the time, but Ponti’s antennae were always pricked), creatives had to possess their own style: “Gardella’s style”, “Caccia’s style”, “Mollino’s style”, “Libera’s style.” Style for Ponti was a set of unique and “qualifying” characteristics that rendered the design approach of every single architect or designer recognisable and different. In rather more recent times, could you ever mistake a sofa designed by Mario Bellini (rounded, practically sitting on the ground, generous) for one designed by Vico Magistretti (more forthright and ergonomic, lifted off the ground)? Could you ever mistake a lamp by the Castiglioni brothers (conceptual, edgy) for one by Gae Aulenti (volumetric, aggressive)?
This game of comparisons could go on and on, but I think it’s more important to ask ourselves when and why these strong identities, these unequivocal “styles” that characterised Italian design began to die out.
Post-modernism and its gurus were probably responsible for spawning “photocopiable” design: their greatest flight of fantasy (Italo Calvino maintained that “fantasy is a place where it rains”!), while the disconnect from function and production demands has meant that the much-invoked design freedom has rapidly turned into homologation: how many followers at the court of Sottsass or Mendini?
As the wind changed in the mid’90s, even the redeeming advent of Minimalism failed to buck the trend. The lofty discourses of Morrison, Kufus and van Severen were all too easy to reproduce and trivialise. While “the originals” were absolutely unmistakable to an expert eye, the world was again deluged with “carbon paper” design (or “cut and paste” to put a more contemporary spin on it). A plethora of trends (I no longer wish to refer to them “styles”) ensued: from neo-modernist to neo-baroque, from neo-decorative to “fifties” and stylism.” Trends that, by default, all eschewed any identifying process.
Businesses basically felt quite comfortable with this “new” world – with single pieces no longer the order of the day, rather whole collections (easier to sell, like cherries: one leads to another). Consequently, most Italian designers, as we’ve said so often, have transmogrified into art directors while style dwindles into colours and details, leaving the concept of identity behind. While shapes are being blitzed in an enormous homogenising blender, in a world that absurdly only creates “style”, the word has lost its original meaning and taken on a disparaging note. The situation in other countries is slightly different where, given the virtual absence of a supply industry, “designer styles” are more recognisable, although often simply in theoretical terms, lacking any market impact in practice.
What to do? Clearly there’s a growing need for a “style manifesto”, for waging a “style war” powerfully and clearly. If the designers don’t feel up to it (too “politically” weak these days), why not allocate the task to the manufacturers, for a salutary stylistic rebranding movement?