years of Italian history

by Deyan Sudjic
Sixty years ago, Italy was a country on the edge of a breakthrough. Now it’s a country that has been through a nervous breakdown and is looking for a new definition of its identity. It had been poor, but was growing rich.
It had been a battleground between 1943 and 1945, fought over by the allied powers and the Nazis, but had rebuilt the damage done. It was a fragile state pushed to civil war between fascism and its enemies, but had survived Mussolini and Hitler, and the struggle between the Italian Communist Party and the Christian Democrats. At last, after so many false dawns, Italy finally found itself as the last of the big European country to industrialize, and was able to live the life of a wealthier, more leisured society.

Leapfrogging technology in the 21st century allowed Indian technology companies to bypass copper wire, and go straight to digital, so Italy had leapfrogged its older European rivals in the 1950s. It went from recycling the innovations of Ford and Underwood to building its own mainframe computers in 1959 and exporting FIAT cars to the Soviet Union, Brazil , Yugoslavia and Spain. Underneath a skin of modernity, characterized by Nizolli’s typewriters for Olivetti , FIAT rail cars, and Terragni’s Casa del Fascio in Como, Italy was still a largely agrarian economy in 1945. But by 1954, it had turned into a modern state. It was building a culture that set its own agenda, rather than follow that of others. The transformation was made possible by a wave of migration from the peasant south to the industrial north. And by manufacturers who moved from generic low cost products that sold on price to premium design led production. Underneath its commercial success, Italy had a culture with its own design schools, and its own design media that provided both a critical mass, and a means of broadcasting its message to the world. It was in 1954 that Interni magazine, was founded, and has been a constant presence as a record of Italy’s place in design, both a home, and broadcasting its message around the world.

Magazines have been an integral part of the ecology of design in Italy, and it has more of them specializing in the subject than any other country. Interni, unlike so many of the others has seen its job as providing a reflection of the wider picture, rather than associating itself with one or other ideology, or even becoming part of the repertoire of a particular designer, or architect. If Italy in the 1950s was Europe’s China, exporting low cost cars to the Soviet bloc, undercutting French textiles and German metalware, it was also the European economy that was most threatened in 2000 by the emergence of China. Of course China has yet to establish its own culture of education, media and criticism, in the way that Italy did so successfully. Now Italy is in the midst of a crucial reassessment of its cultural identity

In 1955, an Italy, that had once been admired only for its past – to the irritation of many of its polemicists – “rid us of your deplorable Ruskin” , howled Marinetti to Italy’s Anglo Saxon critics, urging Venice to fill in its canals with concrete was on the brink of becoming an inspiration for what it could offer to the modern world. In England, Terence Conran established himself as a stylish restaurateur in the London of the 1950s by importing one of the first espresso machines in Britain, and acquiring a Vespa. A little later Italian suits appeared on the street of Soho as the uniform of the Mod youth cult. And Italy’s magazines, its awards, such as the Compasso d’Oro and its exhibitions: the triennale in Milan and the biennale in Venice in particular, set the design and art agenda.

These were developments that reflected a shift in cultural perceptions. Piero Cardini had left his home in Treviso for France in 1939 to become Pierre Cardin, and never return. But ten years later, Valentino Garavani trained in Paris, but went back to Rome to start his own fashion house. For Anglo Saxon critics, Italy’s contribution to modernism had been unclear. They saw only a modern movement dominated by Germany and the Bauhaus, with France, Holland, Sweden and Finland as acknowledged players. In this view Italy was invisible until the 1950s when a new generation of critics, lead by Reyner Banham began to reassess such previously neglected figures as Terragni. Italy itself began to produce a dazzling sequence of innovative projects, from Gio Ponti’s Pirelli tower, to the Castiglioni brothers’ furniture. Banham had more trouble with coming to terms with some post war Italians. The Torre Velesca of BBPR triggered a war of words between Banham and Ernesto Rogers. Banham regarded its neo medieval silhouette as a reactionary betrayal. In fact Italy and Britain throughout this period have played off each other. In the 1960s the youth culture of London was an inspiration for the Italian avante garde, from Ettore Sottsass’s and Fiorucci’s fascination with the youth culture of the Kings Road, to Archizoom’s preoccupation with Archigram.

But it was also the period when a generation of British designers could see the opportunities offered by Italy, and in particular by the design culture of Milan, which in those days was inextricably connected with Olivetti. First Perry King, then George Sowden, James Dillon, James Irvine, and many others made their way to Italy, and in many cases merged into the culture there. Milan also attracted Hans von Klier Richard Sapper and other German, the Argentine critic Tomas Maldonado, the Japanese designer Toshiyuki Kita. It was a magnet for ambitious designers from all around the world. I can remember how glamorous Italy seemed when I went to the Salone di Mobile for the first time in 1976 – flying Alitalia , with Jo Colombo cutlery on the lunch tray, and the Landor designed corporate identity. Alitalia is surely the only airline to have stuck with the same look for such a long time, and has gone from the epitome of style, to the embodiment of all that can go wrong with a corporate culture. I can remember being given Enzo Mari’s chair in a box when it was launched, and the launch of the Vertebra chair for Castelli by Emilio Ambasz. I can remember parties on the Milan subway, and in abandoned factories. I never saw Italy the New Domestic Landscape at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but I have the stunning catalogue. I started to be on the Olivetti mailing list and got a copy of the company’s celebrated desk diary every Christmas for a while.

Of course what I was not quite so aware of at the time was the street fighting and the terrorism of the years of lead that coincided exactly with the New Domestic Landscape exhibition. It was only a matter of months between the death of Ettore Sottsass’s friend Giacomo Feltrinelli at the base of an electricity pylon outside Milan that he had been trying to dynamite, and Sottsass’s presentation at MoMA in New York.

Pierre Restany, the veteran art critic reminded me much later, how he had to spend the 1968 Venice Art Biennale keeping one step ahead of an anarchist group who wanted to push him into the Grand Canal for being too bourgeois. Andrea Branzi told me about the night in 1969 that he and Ettore Sottsass came out of a party in the Savini restaurant in the Galleria in Milan. Sottsass, who happened to be wearing a native American feathered war bonnet, made the mistake of looking a fascist skinhead in the eye, and got beaten up for it.

I was in the Corso Europa for the Memphis launch in 1981. At the time it seemed like a burst of anarchic revolt against the preconceptions of Italian good taste. In fact it was the start of what in retrospect turned out to be something of a golden age for Italy, when Fiorucci took London street style and re-exported it to the world, opening the way for Benetton to modernize fashion in both production and distribution, and for Alessi to make its name. The Italian economy seemed to be on the brink of overtaking that of the United Kingdom. It was a golden age that was derailed by the Tagentopoli scandal. A scandal that had as one of its least likely consequences, Sottsass’s appointment to design the interiors of Malpensa, when the original design consultants working on the project were revealed to have embarrassing political connections.

After the scandals came the stagnation of the Berlusconi years. And an Italy that is now struggling to find itself again. After the years of the masters, first in architecture, then in design that made Italy a world capital of design, its hard to see a new generation that has yet developed to rediscover that role. It is time for another breakthrough.

And yet Italy is one of the most generous of countries to talent wherever it comes from. It was certainly generous to me. I had the chance to edit Domus for four years, and to become the curator of the Venice Architecture Biennale. Its hard to imagine France for example being as welcoming to a non native speaker. The world is still looking to Italy for what the world of design will be. It is a country that is rooted in making, and in ideas, in questioning, and in an openness to the world.