19 October 2018
by Marco Romanelli
Re-edit is a verb that is hard to conjugate in the future tense. Indeed, during the financial and social boom years, Italian design actually focused on “designing” rather than on “re-editing.” It took the great crisis, which has already dragged on for a decade, to trigger a craze for refuge in nostalgia, the effect of which has made us look to a mythical past in search of iconic objects to reassure us. The re-editions market has thus flourished astonishingly but, despite appearances, re-editions (or rather “re-productions”) are neither mute nor all identical. Alongside objects formerly produced in small series or approved by their makers as prototypes, pieces have gone into industrial production that were conceived for strictly artisan production, as have pieces produced from sketches or drawings that were never actually made and had therefore not gone through the fundamental verification (and modification!) stage familiar to all designers, and which happens when the design is made into a model and then into a prototype. It is probably fair to say that the current craze for re-editions is crying out for a proper deontological code that will help quash the mindset that sees the past as an unlimited and irrepressible pool of formal models.
Let us begin by analysing the positive effects – re-editing necessarily calls for an in-depth historical study, involving targeted archival incursions, the collection of original models and the analysis of period literature. This has meant that our knowledge of our design history has really grown exponentially over the last few years. Undeservedly underestimated, fundamental Italian design figures like Gino Sarfatti, Gianfranco Frattini, Roberto Menghi, Paolo Tilche and Osvaldo Borsani, have made a powerful comeback. Unforgotten giants such as Gio Ponti and Joe Colombo, have seen their work vivisectioned down to the smallest detail. Major exhibitions have also featured the relative monographs, helping to bring Italy’s rich and varied design scene during the Post-War period and throughout the ‘70s back into the spotlight. Archives are aspirational and lively places once more, in which managers and marketing directors, all too often under- informed, have launched acculturation processes while also bringing in crucial financial resources for the preservation of documentary heritage.
Nonetheless, it has to be said that there are also less positive aspects to the re-edition craze. I alluded to the most significant one at the beginning, and it relates to hope: designing actually means “having faith in the future,” while re-editing, by default, bleeds the design of oxygen, especially in the hands of the upcoming generations of designers. It is also in danger of having a boomerang effect on the promoting companies: the general public finds emotional reassurance in “traditional” pieces (polished up and therefore lacking the “scratches” inevitably left by the passage of time and of which new ones are devoid), and, what’s more, sees them as a statement of the “value” of their investment as compared with the current formally endorsed models in which the intrinsic reasons informing their differing cost cannot be discerned. This explains why buyers tend to go for “powerful identities” (icons of the past), guided by a really rather elementary syllogism: “if these objects, designed 40-50-60 years ago, have lasted this long … they could well still be serviceable in 40-50-60 years.” Thus, re-editions have suddenly ceased to be an elite craze, supported by careful historical and critical analysis, to become a mass phenomenon, triggering a huge rise in reproduction models and confusion, with companies that started up in the ‘90s producing Thirties pieces that they pass off as heritage objects, involving costly reproduction rights, and iconic objects “updated” to suit commercial demands (lowered, made softer, reupholstered in non-period materials).
Basically, deregulation abounds, and needs to be curbed with the introduction of a sort of “identity card” for each piece, clearly indicating the original name and the date of design, its original manufacturer and any later editions, reference to any heirs or rights holders, and details of the archives where the original designs and/or period models can be consulted, as well as a brief history of the object and the designer’s curriculum vitae. This would trigger a new trend: “pedigree design,” or perhaps the “traceability” of objects (identifying and verifying!). A virtuous habit that could equally be applied to the world of new productions as well as that of re-editions – which would safeguard the original in any case. Because, lest we forget, everything that looks ancient to us was once new!