PRINT September 1987


In pursuit of unrealism.

A CONSTANT TENSION EXISTS BETWEEN the “realistic” and the “artistic” aspects of design, and it is absolutely vital that the designer take a stand on this dynamic. We all know that design is more than just a switch for the industrial conveyor belt. Design matters insofar as it is a vessel for speculative thought about civilization, insofar as it shows an anthropological consciousness about those for whom it exists, insofar as it reveals its role. Perhaps, in fact, we should think of the design object not as a thing but as an existence that is made, an essence that is created, the creature of an artificial nature. In a sense, it is an image of culture, a representation. In the enterprise or project of design as I think of it, a vision of design and the object itself overlap; together, they occupy the environment, as though to put something in it. In such design the relationships between true and false, object and appearance, become more what they really are. And function, the object’s use, has a different position in the hierarchy. It is important, of course, but the object has value in itself rather than only in the service it performs.

There are too many cold, functional design objects around. They are what is called “realistic,” practical and pragmatic, about design, and about what most of us have expected from design in our lives. Today, however, we can sense ourselves looking for something else. Today, there is a need for objects very distant from the concreteness of objecthood, dreamy objects placed among us in the world as life preservers in the stormy sea of fin de siècle modernity. More than ever, we need the designer to be a poet. The designer’s work should be the creation of “antidote” objects to the cruelty of mass reproduction and of the materialist environment, “paradox” objects that embody the contradictions we live with, “imaginary” objects that take on a life in the mind, objects that occupy a time and space through which breathe the winds of hope, history, memory, and love.

A lot of different states are at work in the issues of design today—states of kaleidoscopic mutability, of stylistic turbulence, of mannerism, of an easy borrowing of forms and whatever else one needs (to the point of kleptomania), of a sweet kind of assertiveness, of being comfortable with everyday materials and motifs, of the banalization of images. Most important is the anthropological impulse evident in the figurative and cross-cultural aspect of the most innovative contemporary design. This presence in design of the issues that we live with today reconfirms that the project of design deeply reflects the culture, and can in turn communicate something about that to the viewer and user. What is the nature of this communication? It is a message—or, better, an antimessage, antiheroic. It is all these options of who we are, and a question about who we want to be. We must never forget that the inspiration for the presence of the design object in the world is in the end always this question.

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.