Design as Snobbery

My experience as a graphic designer is long, not deep. I’ve been designing part-time for more than twenty years but sporadically and not to the degree that I could call myself more than a novice. I love doing it and have created a few logos and publications I’m proud of. I’ve longed to be able to design cool stuff like wine labels, album covers or books (inside and out) but never had the opportunity to, aside from two self-published poetry books.

I am now semi-retired and have some time to dive deeper, so I bought a couple of classic design books for inspiration. The first is Design as Art by Bruno Munari. I never studied design, so Munari and his book are new to me.

The book begins with a brief description of Munari’s “useless machines,” which were basically mobiles of the highfalutin variety. According to Munari, “The inspiration for [mobiles] seems to be drawn from the vegetable kingdom,” while his “machines” are … not? He admits what they have in common: suspension and gyration, but doesn’t offer a concrete difference beyond a technical description of the mechanics of some of his machines. It seems his machines are basically complex mobiles. His conclusion of this section, however, does make the important observation that both mobiles and his own version of them, affirmed that “figurative art had passed from two or at the most three dimensions to acquire a fourth: that of time.”

Following this is the brief chapter which provides the book’s title, Design as Art which is also the thesis.

“Today, it has become necessary to demolish the myth of the ‘star’ artist who only produces masterpieces for a small group of ultra-intelligent people. It must be understood that as long as art stands aside from the problems of life it will only a very few people. Culture today is becoming a mass affair, and the artist must step down from his high pedestal and be prepared to make a sign for a butcher’s shop (if he knows how to do it)… Without losing his innate aesthetic sense he must be able to respond with humility and competence to the demands his neighbors may make of him.”

I now regret having sold that lot adjacent to my friend John’s art studio. It simply never occurred to me that such proximity entitled me to shape the direction of his sculptures.

Fortunately, Munari is remembered not as a writer but as an artist and designer. I understand the point he’s making which, in his day, was innovative. The book, which is really a series of related essays, makes more of a case that “design” must evolve (to be more like art) than that “the artist” or “art” must evolve (to be more like a craftsperson). It reads like a recruitment tract to entice artists to become (commercial) designers while simultaneously encouraging designers to think more like artists.

I imagine this idea was controversial at the time and I might easily argue that it remains so. Unsure? While it is possible, and likely, that your artist friend at one time used their skills painting the likes of butcher signs it is equally doubtful that they would consider reversing the timeline to be progress.

The essays are divided into six sections: Design as Art, Designers and Style, Visual Design, Graphic Design, Industrial Design and Research Design. The bulk of the essays are smart and mark Munari as one of the ultra-intellectuals he warns are of minor importance to the modern artist. He makes clear his love for experimentation, science and the natural world and frequently shows us how the three are, or could be, integral to the creation of art.

I’m a book defiler. I write in them, not only to underline or highlight but to comment, question and argue. The sections that I marked the most were the first three. The least marked section is Industrial Design. This is where the title of this critique comes from. Some of the essays, such as Children’s Books, How One Lives in a Traditional Japanese House, Luxuriously Appointed Gentleman’s Apartments and Knives, Forks and Spoons are not only out of place, they veer off into snide criticism of the popular culture of his time.

“Design as Art” by Bruno Munari is as insufferable as it is inspiring.

How One Lives in a Traditional Japanese House is four pages of gushing and sentimental adoration of Japanese architecture and its minimalism and use of natural materials. Luxuriously Appointed Gentleman’s Apartments is a counterpart in which an almost apoplectic Munari expresses contempt for the “mania of luxury,” “very highly polished marble,” “fake baroque furniture,” and “uncultured houses, built by uncultured builders for uncluttered tenants.”

Munari seems to be critiquing from below, attacking the status quo of the fashions of his time but he betrays himself when he writes about “the porter’s little cubby-hole” contaminated, as it were, by “the smell of cabbage and fried foods.” He also disdains the “Niagra of noise from the lavatory (for soundproofing has been neglected in favour of more luxurious wallpaper).”

Orange, Peas and Rose is the chapter that caused me to wonder momentarily if I was missing something in these sections. It opens with a series of interesting questions about the possibility of art finding inspiration from “natural projects.” But the ensuing descriptions of the beauty and natural design of oranges, peas and rose is so elaborate and ornate it becomes clear that he is being satirical. My one marginal note for this chapter is this, “The gig is up!”

His description of an orange might well be describing one of his own creations.

“The object is made up of modular containers shaped very much like the segments of an orange and arranged in a circle around a vertical axis. Each container or section has its straight side flush with the axis and its curved side turned outwards. In this way, the sum of their curved sides forms a globe, a rough sphere.”

After several paragraphs like this describing the shape, container and color of peas he concludes by marveling about the success of the pea despite the illogical variance of the number of ‘pills’ in a pod,

“ … for thousands of years this object has been offered to consumers in this format, and consumers have raised virtually no objections.”

He ends this chapter with a critique of a single rose (illustrated!), concluding.

“We therefore have an object that is absolutely useless to man, an object good for nothing better than being looked at, or at most sniffed … this is an object without justification, and one moreover that may lead the worker to futile thoughts. It is, in the last analysis, even immoral.”

On its own this is the best piece of writing in the book but reading it, I felt blindsided. Before this everything read like a treatise on the need for merging art with form and function. Including this essay blatantly undercuts his entire argument. Admittedly, it was funny but it doesn’t fit. Was he trying to unsettle me?

The next few chapters, including Luxurious Apartments and more of its ilk only confounded me more. I faltered in my reading here and put the book down for my longest break since beginning.

Research Design begins with either another bit of satire or a glaring bit of intellectual elitism. In the chapter titled, Iris, he informs us that this flower is “Iris Germanica to the experts and flagflower to the profane.” I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt here, but the rest of this brief chapter is a serious examination of the makeup of the flower.

It is during the third section, Visual Design, that my marks begin tapering off and they almost disappear entirely during Industrial Design.

Children’s Books chapter is a good example of the book’s ability to inspire and impose. It is illustrates how Munari often contradicts himself.

“To enter the world of a child (or cat) the least you must do is sit down on the ground without interrupting the child in whatever he is doing, and wait for him to notice you.” This is astute. But then, here come the rules, “A good book for children aged three to nine should have a very simple story and coloured illustrations showing whole figures with clarity and precision.” I’m sure such a book could be fine but none of the most loved books on my grandchildren’s shelves could be described this way.

Further,

“The stories must be as simple as the child’s world is; an apple, a kitten … the sun, the moon, a leaf, an ant, butterfly, water, time (the beating of a heart).”

He anticipates our reaction,

“‘That’s too difficult,’ you say. ’Time is an abstract thing.”

Refuting our objection, he offers an example of how one might write about time in a manner suitable for a children’s book…

“Your heart goes tick tock. Listen to it. Put your hand on it and feel it. Count the beats: one, two, three, four… When you have counted sixty beats a minute will have passed. After sixty minutes an hour will have passed. In one hour a plant grows a hundredth of an inch. In twelve hours the sun rises and set. Twenty-four hours make one whole day and one whole night. After this the clock is no good to us any more. We must look at the calendar: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday make one week. Four weeks make one month: January. After January come February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December. Now twelve months have passed, and your heart is still going tick tock. A whole year of seconds and minutes has passed. In a year we have spring, summer, autumn and winter. Time never stops: the clock shows the hours, calendars show us the days, and time goes on and eats up everything.It makes even iron fall to dust and it draws the lines on old people’s faces. After a hundred years, in a second, one man dies and another is born.”

A very simple story, indeed.

The above passage is indicative of the many descriptions he offers of his art. Some of these descriptions go on for more than a page and most aren’t illustrated (though a few are). Here he is describing a Tetracone:

“The dimensions of the box are the basis of all the other forms. Each element is related to every other one and to the whole, not according to the old rules of the Golden Section, which do not apply in this case, but by simple geometrical relationships. The diagonals of the sides of the box determine the size of the cones. The diameter of the base of each cone is equal to the internal length of the sides of the box, while its height from base to apex is equal to half that amount. The surface of each cone, if projected on to a flat surface, is equal to three quarters of the circle which has a radius of half the diagonal of the side of the box. Each cone is painted in two complementary colours, half one colour and half the other. In this case the colours are red and green. Complementary colours produce an optical vibration at the dividing line between them, and this gets rid of the material. I had better explain this: if you look at complementary colours in the right lighting conditions you will lose all awareness of the material they are painted on. You will therefore be looking purely at the colour and not at the material.”

The full description consists of three more paragraphs that sound just like this.

Passages like these do impart useful information. Munari is clearly a passionate and meticulous artist cum designer (or is it the other way around) who creates complex and visually compelling art that also instructs us about the natural world and, more importantly, our perceptions of it.

I suppose my main contention with the book, aside from the many quibbles, is that Munari’s definition of art and design seem interchangeable which severely restricts the scope of what constitutes art. The art he’s marrying to design is the art of beauty, mathematics and science (what is engineering but building things on the basis of science). Another way to describe it is “the art of functional things.” By describing the educational aspect of his artistic ideals (and his work) he leaves no room for any aesthetic outside of the informational. Early on, when talking about graphic design he claims, “Communication must be instant and it must be exact.” That may be true for commercial graphic design but it doesn’t even remotely apply to art.

“There should be no such thing as art divorced from life, with beautiful things to look at and hideous to use. If what we use every day is made with art, and not thrown together by chance or caprice, then we shall have nothing to hide.”

If I put aside my own definition of art, shaped as it is by my particular place on the timeline of history, and adopt his own, much of what he writes not only makes sense but enters the realm of ingeniousness and maybe even genius. While ultimately rejecting his thesis as narrow and outdated, I was nevertheless inspired many times. I even developed a new code in my markup shorthand by writing the capital letter P and circling it next to the many passages that suggested creative projects to try for myself.

I understand why Munari is an important figure and any student of design will find a lot of interesting and inspirational ideas and prompts for further study in this book. I look forward to trying out the experimental (P) rojects marked in the book. This was a fast read and there’s a lot that I’ll be going back to revisit. I’m tempted to tear out a few chapters in the middle, but I’m not that much of a book defiler.

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