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The Italian radicals who imagined utopia

They fought consumerism, inequality, and sexism through furniture and design

The phrase “Made in Italy” conjures up images of sexy cars and impossibly sleek chairs and lamps—a sophisticated industrial aesthetic that began to be forged in the 1950s. But in the late 1960s and 1970s things got weird: A sofa that looks like oversized fake grass, a chair that looks like a cartoonish toppled column, a lamp with an umbrella for a shade, a chaise in the shape of an enormous foot. These kitschy, strange, and irreverent designs are actually all little slices of utopia imagined by the radical Italian designers who created them.

“They had the audacity to believe that through architecture and design, they could change the world,” collector Dennis Freedman says in a Q&A in the catalog for Radical Italian Design: 1965–1985, The Dennis Freedman Collection, a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), opening February 14 and running until April 26. It presents some of the rarest and most eccentric furniture from the movement, the majority of which Freedman donated to the MFAH from his personal collection. Though the bulk of the objects on view are around 50 years old, much of it speaks to the same social and political turbulence that we’re experiencing today around inequality, the environment, and consumerism.

“They were designing objects that were meant as vehicles for communicating their ideas,” says Cindi Strauss, a curator of decorative arts and design at the MFAH. “They are anti-consumerists, even though they design objects. They were concerned with inequality in society, like workers’ rights. They were concerned about how people in the future were going to furnish their lives. They were designing objects and environments in a theoretical and utopian way.”

A lamp with a red hand-formed ceramic base and teal umbrella for a shade.
Lapo Binazzi, UFO, “Paramount” Table Lamp, designed 1969, made c. 1972–73, ceramic, silk, metal, and bulbs, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Dennis Freedman Collection, Museum purchase funded by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund. © 1969 Lapo Binazzi (UFO)
Kent Pell, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Houston

Post-war Italian design was meant to seduce the new middle class—and it succeeded. Mass-produced consumer goods, all tastefully designed, fueled Italy’s “economic miracle,” which transformed the country from an agrarian society to an industrial, urban one through the 1950s and 1960s. Social turbulence accompanied this seismic cultural shift.

The late 1960s were marked by demonstrations by factory workers who demanded better pay and working conditions, university students protesting the high cost of education and outdated teaching styles, and growing social inequality. Far-left and far-right extremists unleashed violence that became known as “The Years of Lead.”

To the radicals—who weren’t a single group of designers, but a number of smaller collectives— the formalism and rationalism of their elders, which was based on the Bauhaus’s industrial way of thinking had become symbols of the economic miracle’s failures. The radicals weren’t interested in making products for the upper middle class. They wanted a revolution, and they plumbed the depths of their imagination to envision new and better worlds.

In these designers’ eyes, utopia was a disco, a space where everyone attending could share a creative and liberating experience. Utopia was a psychedelic rendering of an alternative world with endless possibilities. Utopia was a table covered in a grid, a symbol of democracy since every point on the grid was considered equal. Utopia was a manifesto, like this one, which is printed in the exhibition’s catalog, from Studio Alchimia, a design collective founded in 1976:

“Alchimia believes that today’s men and women live in a turbulent and unbalanced state, their lives characterized by details: organizational, human, industrial, political, and cultural fragments. . . . In this transitional period they are often gripped by an undefined fear due to the loss of so many values once considered absolute. To find oneself again is essential.”

The designers from this period experimented with industrial materials, but emphasized handcrafted work. The objects were about ideas more than functionality. For example: Alessandro Mendini’s “Objects for Spiritual Use,” which included a chair perched atop steps that he set on fire. “I wanted to show that even objects have a life, and that it can be tragic,” Mendini once said. Gianni Pettena’s Rumble sofa features movable cushions that can be configured to suit a person’s immediate needs.

A square blue sofa with large blue cushions.
Gianni Pettena, “Rumble” Model, 1967, foam, terrycloth, and cardboard, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Dennis Freedman Collection, gift of Dennis Freedman. © 1967 Gianni Pettena,
Kent Pell, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Houston

“They used [every medium] to express their thinking about how we would live in the future,” Freedman says. “Their ideas of utopia, the idea of a more nomadic life, all of that came out in the furniture.”

While the radical movement was deeply influential in Europe, it never took off in the United States. The Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition in 1972 called Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, which focused on the objects the radicals designed. Since then, there hasn’t been a major museum exhibition in the United States on furniture from the time. (A 1973 Walker Art Center exhibition focused on the architectural works on paper.) The movement has faded into relative obscurity in the United States, thanks in part to the designers’ disinterest in creating mass-produced items, and economic downturn that led to consumers preferring safer, classically shaped designs.

“The objects weren’t popular [when they were designed],” Strauss says. “It wasn’t about economic success for the designers. It was about getting the ideas out, and if the objects sold, then the ideas went further. And that’s terrific.”

The movement is long overdue for a museum reappraisal stateside, according to Strauss. “From a larger, more theoretical perspective, the radicals’ focus on living situations, on inequality, that obviously is still something that’s important today in terms of how people are responding to economic challenges and divides in cities,” she says.

Of course, it’s impossible for a chair or a table to solve social crises. But the conversations they provoke about alternative ways of inhabiting space might lead our thinking today into new territory.