Written by Davide Pizzi
Design is a very common word, sometimes misused or often generalised. But what is design, what is its history?
From the Treccani encyclopaedia: In industrial production, design aimed at reconciling the technical, functional and economic requirements of mass-produced objects, so that the resulting form is the synthesis of this design activity.
However, this definition, which is absolutely spot-on, is only the end of the journey and describes the synthesis of what industrial design actually is: a history of objects.
True, but it is also – and above all – a story about people.
A story about encounters, very often fortuitous and sometimes sought after, of visionary architects and courageous entrepreneurs.
A story of attempts gone wrong and experiments succeeded by a blow.
Design, or to put it more fully, industrial design, is an exquisitely human story, which puts the person at the centre and which stems from the desire to create something beautiful.
Beauty, however, is not to be understood as something aesthetic and an end in itself, but as the desire to improve everyday life through objects, for as many people as possible.
This was the spirit that animated the great masters of design, famous or unknown, during the period of their creations: to create an object that could be in harmony with everyone who came into contact with it, from the entrepreneur who had to invest to the worker who had to make it, to the consumer who used it.
Let us think for example of the Vespa, a symbol of Italian design in the world, designed by the aeronautical engineer Corradino d’Ascanio. Would you believe that he did not like motorbikes at all? In fact, in designing his masterpiece, he actually created the antithesis of the motorbike itself. D’Ascanio imagined a motorbike where you didn’t have to lift your leg to sit on it, with a shock-absorbing seat instead of a rigid, sporty one, shifters on the handlebars that had never been seen before, an engine covered by the frame to avoid staining your trousers, a front suspension reminiscent of aircraft bogies as well as the whole design, the result of his technical expertise in the field of aeronautics.
A motorbike that no motorcyclist would ever design, an object of industrial production, which carried in its DNA all the personal and human character of its creator: his history, his tastes, his choices.
Just like the Vespa, another masterpiece of Italian design, the Olivetti Lettera22 typewriter designed by Marcello Nizzoli has a curious and unlikely genesis. Nizzoli started work in the early 1910s as a set designer, architect and advertising graphic designer. He arrived at Olivetti through mutual acquaintances in the early 1930s, again as a graphic designer. In 1940, thanks to Adriano Olivetti’s intuition, he started working as a designer, and in 1950 created the Lettera22, his masterpiece. This came after a 40-year career that had begun in a completely different field. After 20 years in the same company and no less than 10 as a designer. Times that perhaps no one would be willing to wait for today, but which evidently played a key role in the maturation of this master of design.
In the automotive world, on the other hand, it is impossible not to mention the Fiat ‘500, another milestone of our design of which hardly anyone knows the name of the designer who designed it, engineer Dante Giacosa.
A car that was born out of necessity, that had to cost little and had to reach as many people as possible, even wanted by the Duce. Giacosa studied the interior space to give maximum load capacity, removing all the superfluous from the engine part as well. The first model of the 500 did not even have a petrol pump, which was poured into the engine by gravity. It was also designed to be moulded from a single sheet of sheet metal, minimising waste.
This car scared the German competition so much, and from the fear of falling behind came the car for the German people, the Maggiolino, as an equal and opposite reaction. Another timeless masterpiece, a child of fear rather than reason, it too has become a timeless cult object.
On the same creative impulse, the legendary Moka Bialetti, an icon almost unchanged in appearance in more than 80 years of production, saw the light of day in Omegna, a small village on Lake Orta, where the foundry of Alfonso Bialetti, Renato’s father, whose caricature is the famous little man with a moustache that has now become an unmistakable trademark, was located. We do not know the reasons that drove Bialetti to create his invention, which ran counter to the Neapolitan coffee makers of the time and which, despite being very Italian, was named after the Yemeni city of Mokha, once the place from which ships laden with coffee departed. What we do know is that its revolutionary method of chimney operation was inspired by an old type of washing machine in vogue at the time (the lisciveuse), and that its octagonal shape was probably inspired by a series of pots produced by Alessi, another historic Italian brand that happened to be based in Omegna, or perhaps a practical choice to make it easier to unscrew the moka pot with even wet hands. The first moka pot, which I was fortunate enough to see in person, had a slightly different shape, but it already had the octagonal form that we still find today.
However, we are faced with yet another object born from the heart and the belly, rather than from calculations, predictions and strategies, and one that has entered indelibly into the memory of us all. Perhaps Bialetti did not expect to have invented not only an object, but also an unmistakable sound that has always accompanied us, namely the gurgling sound that the moka makes when the coffee is ready, a ringtone at the start of so many of our days.
As you can see from these few examples, the secret of a successful design product is often a delicate balance between different souls: aesthetics, technique, entrepreneurship.
Each one interpreted by a different actor, who, in addition to his skills, contributes his character and human value to give a more or less profound imprint to the creation of a product. At a time when it seems that AI is destined to take our place, these objects and many others that I will talk about, remind us of the importance of our humanity, having an exquisitely sentimental genesis and not at all artificial.
This is not meant to be a section that talks about Industrial Design in the strict sense of the word, it is not meant to be a notionistic account or a mere celebration of Italian design.
Staying true to the spirit of Art&Glamour, I would like to put people at the centre, to tell this fascinating discipline from its most human perspective, to try to bring it closer to all of us, and maybe even get some of the readers hooked on what I have been passionate about all my life.