PRINT October 1986


antiques regain their youth.

AN IMPORTANT ITALIAN AUCTION this fall features, at very high prices, furniture and objects designed by 21 contemporary designers and architects, including Emilio Ambasz, Gae Aulenti, Mario Botta, Peter Eisenman, Hans Hollein, Rafael Moneo, SITE, Ettore Sottsass, and Robert Venturi, among others. All these pieces were shown in the 1985 Milan Triennale, in a section of the show titled “Le affinità elettive” (Elective affinities). Highly crafted, mostly in wood, the works are among the most perfectly realized exemplars of post- and neomodern currents. Originally, they were slated to proceed from the Triennale to a museum collection; instead, they went to sale. A phenomenon as flashily realized as this auction gives rise to certain observations about the nature of design values today. They are becoming increasingly transient. The rate at which they succeed each other has become so vertiginous as to end in a simultaneity in which the recently designed object achieves the condition of the "instantaneous antique.”

In the Renaissance, archaeology provided a sort of antique shop of the distant past, and served the function of transmitting supposedly eternal values from era to era. Today, this “normal” historical sense has skipped to a digging up of a past so near to us as to be to all intents and purposes the present, the “neopast,” a concept that leads finally to the idea of the “neofuture.” The instantaneousness of variations in taste that we have been experiencing renders time circular: insofar as the contemporary can simultaneously be the antique, the concept of antiquity, too, is utterly revised. In this situation, one could feasibly design objects to be "outside time,” outside what was once seen as the linear progression of changing style—outside, but at the same time within style, for if one accepts that what once was linear is now circular, everything can coexist within it. All that is new is old, and vice versa.

And so we watch the end of the traditional definition of the antique, the birth of the modern antique, and, with destructive consequences, the arrival of the future antique. Here I refer not to science fiction design, but to something quite different: the practice by which a collector who favors a particular designer or artist buys up his or her work before it has become a physical, real object, when it still exists only in the mind of its maker, or as a plan. This signifies a profound change in the maker’s psyche, and in the process affects the conception and articulation of design. For coming up with an idea for an object that will instantly be valued like an antique is quite different from inventing a fresh design object. Such a product’s characteristics will inevitably be affected inordinately by an external viewpoint, a prior decision as to how it is to be regarded. Although the object may be expressively charged, may be art, may have the potential to be an antique, its evolution—technically, esthetically, commercially, and functionally—is as good as predetermined. This closes off the possibilities of design.

The broad need of designers (and of the design public) to subject an object, hot off the assembly line, to a process of accelerated aging—that is, of accelerated value—makes it attractive for designer and manufacturer to envision, for example, a new version of an ancient-Egyptian table—perhaps, let’s say, in steel. This has been placed under the all-encompassing umbrella term “post-Modernism,” but it is also a response to the old need to fill a room with objects that already seem lived with, as if they had already been consumed by other people and thus came to us rich with memories of distant places and cultures. If one accepts the concept of the circularity of time, just what is the difference between the authentic Egyptian table and its contemporary souvenir? Here the theme of “authenticity” flowers ambiguously. Which has more meaning for us, a fake-contemporary Egyptian table (mass produced as an industrial antique) or a truly ancient table? Which has more value? What is the difference between an “authentically false” and a “falsely authentic” object? Questions of more or less this nature occur to me and, I’m sure, to others of the current generation of designers when we see the future antique looming. Having grown up with the idea of socially, and politically engaged design, we now see our ideological axis abruptly and disconcertingly thrown side-ways. But all this leads us to the beginnings of a deeply reflective phase of design, a reconsideration on esthetic grounds of the morality of production. Here one can dream of a vast new design horizon waiting to be explored.

Alessandro Mendini is an architect and designer who lives in Milan. A former director of Domus magazine, he has published widely on design. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.