Rocking Sixties

text and icons by Enrico Morteo
Between socio-economic revolutions, on the one hand, and technological progress, on the other, the 1960s are a turning point of Italian modernity.
While in December 1963 Giulio Natta receives the Nobel Prize for the formula of isotactic polypropylene, a synthetic molecule that opened the way for industrial production of plastic and pushed Italy into the front ranks of worldwide chemistry, in 1968 university students and industrial workers rebel against a society based precisely on the order and discipline of the factory. In a few years the optimism of progress gives way to the dream of utopia and the disenchantment of mass society. While technique is the challenge of the day, Italian design sets out to tame it and make it compatible with the rapid transformations of lifestyles and the collective imaginary. Still connected to the frivolous composure of the 1950s, the Italian home gets overturned and rewritten to match new materials and new appliances that trigger new behaviors and new feelings: everything gets revised, from the way of sitting to the forms of light, from the living room to the kitchen. New objects for completely new lives.

Everything has to be modern. Plastic, until yesterday used to imitate more precious materials at a lower price, takes on a precise identity made of appropriate geometries, bright colors, unexpected softness. Telephones, radios, washing machines and televisions find new central roles in the home. Not even wood is left out of the tumult, worked in colors and with a simplicity of lines that reveal its hidden modernity.

But the illusion of good, optimistic technology is soon shattered by radical protests against an industrialized, alienating and capitalist society. Before the years of violence, the “anni di piombo” lower their gray curtain, Italian design invents a revolution done with irony and wit. A playful experimental territory, the Italian home fills up with inflatable chairs, shaped polyurethane, colorful swellings, artistic spatial distortions, cheerful illusions that society might change starting with the private sphere and with individual behaviors. With courage, Italian companies face up to the provocations, but at the same time they experiment with component systems that take the idea of freedom back into controllable rules, for serial reproduction.

Between rules and protest, Italian design approaches the 1970s with an extraordinary wealth of proposals and research. A wealth Emilio Ambasz photographs with precision in the exhibition “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape,” opened in June 1972 at MoMA New York.

Bearing witness to dreams and hopes, doubts and certainties, the exhibition presents a design suspended between the tenets of the modern and the unknowns of a post-modernity already just around the corner: the ingredients that would fuel many of the experiences of the decades to follow have already been called into play