TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT December 1986

OBJECT

paint necessarily so.

ENTERING A DESIGN SHOW these days, one is sometimes unsure whether one has strayed instead into an exhibition of art. A crossover of the design object with the art object has arisen, reflecting a new phenomenon, especially in Europe, and more especially in Italy: the emergence of what might be called “pictorial design,” or, and it’s the same thing, of “designed pictures.” Many designers today seem to want to paint more than to design. Strictly speaking, the two terms are contradictory. To design is to realize useful objects whose form is affected by conditions of their intended function, by the market, and by the technology through which they are produced. Painting assumes no such hypotheses of inevitable use. It exists as a communication of sensations, an unfolding of visual thought, an enumeration of personal values. The motivation of a painting is not efficiency; rather; the work’s reality consists of the love with which it is elaborated and of the poetry that it contains.

Many designers today feel a sense of amorphousness in their objectives. They “don’t know” what, for whom, or why to design; they feel that the real nature of their work is closed off by the hidden future; they have no ready-made way of approaching the kind of rational transformations that are taking place in global visions of the world, an approach that would allow them to hypothesize either a use or a “consumer” for what they produce. One of their responses is to turn in upon themselves, to pursue an expressive rather than a functional vocation. They approach three-dimensional objects and architectural spaces the way a painter would a canvas, as “implements” of visual thought. Intended as painting, work in this mode is “cold” (to the degree that it is contradictory to, or anti, painting); intended as design, it is “hot” (in that it is antidesign). It is an activity, a poetic vision of the world, adapted to the “new decorative man,” the person who today, at the end of (utopian) ideologies, has perceived “superficiality” as a positive way through the needs of the moment, in other words the person who is a “neoabstractionist."

The pictorial designer is not interested in obeying the preset limits of different disciplines, but in investigating the free spaces between these disciplines. Clearly knowing whether work is painting, sculpture, architecture, applied art, theater, or whatever is irrelevant here. The pictorial comes into play in a situation beyond the design, a situation of disciplinary and conceptual neutrality, and of “confused” methods of ideation and production, in which crafts, methods, information techniques, forms, materials, and traditions both real and imaginary can all be mixed together. Yet this intradisciplinary play conforms rigorously to its own rules and pictorial polemics; its interweaving linguistic games interlace and combine infinitely in these abstract drawn lines and surfaces, adhering to a system that has its own internal justifications. The approach here is to take the attitude of the creative “author,” which the pictorial designer adopts in order to redesign the matrices of the world’s image.

This new development in design has appeared with increasing insistence in design exhibitions from Düsseldorf to Barcelona and from Milan to Stuttgart. In part, it is an antifunctionalist polemic. The designer/artist plays the art card. The card is played in a post-Modern vein, that is, according to the idea of a circle—the idea that everything that can be done with forms, materials, and colors has probably been done already, with other meanings, in other cultures and places, within the larger history of the applied arts. Given the general project of facing design’s sense of inadequacy against the demands of the contemporary world, the personal fantasy of the designer has been brought to work that con go on without ending.

Alessandro Mendini is an architect, designer, and writer who lives in Milan. He is a former director of Domus magazine. His own design work is much involved with the issues of pictorial design. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.