San Diego

“Italian Re-Evolution: Design in Italian Society in the Eighties”

Museums have generally chosen one of two methodologies for survey exhibitions of contemporary design. In one, the purely esthetic qualities of functional artifacts such as teacups, record players, and chairs are isolated by placing the objects on pedestals or in vitrines as if they were sculptures; alternatively, the design process itself unfolds in displays often including experimental prototypes and tracking initial concept through final execution.

“Italian Re-Evolution: Design in Italian Society in the Eighties” ostensibly proposes a new methodology. Organized by museum director Sebastian J. Adler and guest curator Piero Sartogo, a Roman architect and teacher, the show purports to refocus our understanding of design by examining its manifestations within a sociocultural context. “This is not an exhibition of the Italian way of life, nor of objects,” Sartogo writes in the accompanying catalogue, “but an exhibition of the object-user relationship.” Despite the rhetoric, however, the show actually employs the pedestal-and-vitrine approach, albeit in theatrical guise. In short, this is an exhibition representing the apotheosis of the museum store.

Some 600 objects, from coffee pots and computers to televisions and opera sets, have been arranged in a linear path chronicling the events of a “typical” Italian day. (We know it’s typical because the show is periodically punctuated with demographic charts outlining what percentage of the population drinks its coffee black or owns a car or house, how many minutes are spent eating lunch, and other such data.) This maze is subdivided into 16 exhibition areas defining two categories of events in the life of the day. Work-time activities include: waking up (two alarm clocks and a row of coffee pots and espresso machines), going to work (motor scooters and a Vespacar enhanced by tape-recorded sounds of city traffic), working (a factory conveyor belt lined with manufactured products), shopping (an avenue of store windows displaying fashions, high and low), and so on.

Leisure activities, the second category, include: recreation (rows of running shoes and ski boots on Formica-clad terraces adjacent to an Alfa Romeo sports car), religion (a large window frame housing a bulletproof lectern designed for the Pope), sex (a tufted-leather seduction couch next to a red Ferrari), sports (mannequins dressed in soccer gear, their heads replaced by TV sets and radios broadcasting the World Cup games), and so forth.

That the “meaning” of these design objects truly lies in the sociocultural context of their use is everywhere claimed in the theoretical stance of the catalogue, but everywhere denied by the realities of the museum’s exhibition. They steadfastly remain objects to be looked at, with the standard spare pedestals and Plexiglas vitrines of typical museum shows simply transformed into stage sets. Sometimes the set is realistic, as in a pavilion dining room which might have been plucked whole from an upper-class home, or a shopping street with authentic store-window displays: at other times it is pure surrealism, as in the soccer players with TV heads. And, appropriately, the show ends with models of stage designs for operas performed at La Scala—theatricality in its grandest sense.

These 16 vaunted “exhibition areas” are little more than redesigned housewares, sporting goods, menswear, notions, and lingerie displays—the department store museumized. Like a department store display the exhibition, with its “look but don’t touch” insistence on the primacy of “the object-user relationship,” seductively posits a dream-world for the viewer. What it establishes most strongly is a sense of desire whose fulfillment can only be approached if we actually use the product. To use it, of course, we first must buy it.

The true nature of “the object-user relationship” could be most accurately described as commercialism—the very “ism” of contemporary design. A straightforward exegesis of that fact might have legitimized this show. Product display—the interface between the manufactured object and the potential buyer—is a crucial component of commercialism, and in the museum context translates quite easily into installation design. Indeed, for “Italian Re-Evolution” the show itself is the design object and the museum visitor the user, making the entire undertaking a most authentic example of the “object-user” relationship for the ’80s.

This show’s theatrical installation is marked by elegance, sly wit, drama, aural effects, elaborateness, a collage of seemingly contradictory modes, and surface illusion; stylistically it’s clearly mannerist. None of this, however, is presented to the viewer/user as the focus of the exhibition object. Instead, our attention is deflected toward an unknowable “relationship” between these consumer goods and the culture that uses them. Indeed, the duplicity of this attitude is what is most disturbing about the show. With the full support of a contemporary art museum, it’s as if design in Italian society in the 80s were playfully shouting. “Look over there!” While you’re looking, your pocket is being picked.

Christopher Knight