Design as Art

Design as Art

In 1970, Bruno Munari wrote a "Preface to the English Edition" of his widely successful work, Design as Art. In an uncharacteristically sweeping fashion, at once both reflective and fatidic, Munari lays down the broad outlines of the history of art, and points to the future of design. In a tone, not of lament, but of observation, he notes, "In art exhibitions we see less and less of oil paintings on canvases and pieces of sculpture in marble and bronze. Instead we see a growing number of objects made in all sorts of ways of all sorts of materials, things that have no connection with the old-fashioned categories of visual arts. In the old days of painting these materials and techniques were very much looked down on as inhuman and unworthy of being the vehicles of a Work of Art."

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With a clear reference to Walter Benjamin, Munari continues, offering up a 'compressed' version of the history of art, describing the "essential stages in the disappearance of the old categories of art".

He writes,

"The literary element in a visual work of art was the first to be discarded in favor of pure visuality (Seurat), and it was understood that with the means proper to the visual arts one could say many things that could not be out into words. It was therefore left to literature to tell stories. The disappearance of narrative led to the disappearance of the forms that imitated visible nature, and (with Kandinsky) the first abstract forms entered the scene. These still had shades of coloring, but this naturalistic and representative element wads discarded (by Mondrian) in favor of a color and form that was simply itself and nothing else. From this point it is practically inevitable that we should end up with paintings that are all of one color (Klein)."
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He sees the work of Fontana, who famously slashed the canvas, as 'the last farewell to techniques that no longer had anything to say to modern man'. In a way, for Munari, this is the last moment of traditional art, and the birth of a new paradigm. A paradigm that addresses the perennial questions, but with new vectors and references. As he explains, the shift is 'probably the desire to get back into society, to re-establish contact with their neighbors, to create an art for everyone'.

"They want to destroy the myth of the Great Artist, of the enormously costly Masterpiece, of the one and only unique divine Thing."

In a movement, almost from divine intervention, to design inspiration, Munari proposes a new, transformational landscape. "If the aim is to mass-produce objects for sale to a wide public at low price, then it becomes a problem of method and design. The artist has to regain the modesty he had when art was just a trade, and instead of despising the very public he is trying to interest he must discover its needs and make contact with it again. This is the reason why the traditional artist is being transformed into a designer..."

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