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What makes design ‘radical’?

A show at New York’s R & Company turns its lens on the radicalism of a 1960s Italian design movement

Objects in “SuperDesign,” an exhibition at New York City gallery R & Company.
Photos by Joe Kramm for R & Company

Gigantic foam blocks of cheese, a comical cactus coat-hanger, and a large sofa in the shape of a pair of luscious cherry red lips: These imaginative works are the product of a movement in Italian architecture and design history known retrospectively as “radical design.”

Despite the fact that the movement took place decades ago, it remains highly relevant in today’s uncertain era marked by global populist movements and dizzying technological advancement.

The 1960s in Italy, as in the U.S. and elsewhere in Europe, was a period of ideological and political turbulence. Tensions between neo-fascist and militant leftist groups led to years of violence, now referred to as the anni di piombo or, “years of lead,” for the bullets fired.

Italian students and intellectuals felt society had reached a tipping point: The gap between rich and poor had grown rapidly during the post-WWII economic boom, universities were overcrowded, and global events—such as the U.S. entering the Vietnam war—set the stage for active student movements. In architecture faculties, this questioning led to interdisciplinary collaboration and a body of deeply political works.

“None of [the radicals] had a great interest in getting rich or selling a product; they were trying to make statements—economic, social, and political statements” says Evan Snyderman, cofounder of New York City gallery R & Company. “These guys were the youth who tried to speak out and change things politically through design and architecture.”

Paying homage to the radicals’ legacy, Snyderman and curator Maria Cristina Didero present a survey of Italian radical work called “SuperDesign” on display until Thursday, January 4. The two-floor review—the result of over 17 years of collecting—sheds light on the oeuvre of Italian radical design between 1965 and 1975 and aims to introduce the movement to a U.S. audience. It also includes a documentary dedicated to the topic. The last time these Italian works were on display in the U.S. was in 1972, during the MoMA exhibition “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape.”

Some pieces on display are fully functional, like Florence-based Lapo Binazzi’s “MGM Lamp” a pink metallic lamp that ironically mimics the movie studio’s logo. Binazzi, a “radical” now in his 70s, founded the UFO collective while still in university and can still be found creating new works in a small studio in Florence. Other pieces, like drawings and sketches, are more ephemeral.

Radical works, including much of the furniture on display, often feature irony borrowed from the Pop Art movement, which was introduced to Italy in the early ’60s. A gridded seat—essentially a wooden cube—by Florence-based group Superstudio is part of the group’s critique on what they saw as the increasingly homogenous nature of modernist architecture. In a series of sketches, the group envisioned the Continuous Monument (1969), a bland, never-ending grid-like structure, overpowering nature—a kind of Le Corbusian takeover.

The “Pratone”, a foam seating area resembling a cartoonish patch of grass by Turin-based Gruppo Strum is one such example. The message was one of anti-consumerism, a swipe at the “Made in Italy” boom years of the 1960s. “They were making work with a purpose beyond the beauty, functionality of the objects they were creating, adds Snyderman.

It is, admittedly, ironic that an exhibition dedicated to anti-capitalist and consumerist works is taking place at a commercial gallery space with the goal of being sold to elite consumers.

Yet, as well as hoping to find buyers—R & Company intended for “SuperDesign” to educate a wider audience. The show has been an “overwhelming success” with the public, according to Snyderman, particularly with students and those in academic circles—an element he attributes to the movement’s deeply political base and its growing relevance in 2017. Professors at some universities, including Bard, required their students to visit the exhibition, he says.

“Again we are going through a similar time where things are happening in our governments” he adds. “I feel like now is the time for us to be doing this again—for students to be able to speak out and try to create a conversation about what’s happening in the world through their work, which is something that hasn’t happened in a long time.”

“SuperDesign” is on view at R & Company until Thursday, January 4.