It is in the Use of an Object that its Destiny is Written: The director of Milan’s Triennale Design Museum reflects on the functional side of design
“And since all the objects will always be visible from any angulation, the visitors will gradually lose their sense of Time. To be emancipated from the sense of Time, to transcend Time: this is life’s greatest consolation. In museums that are made with passion and well organized, it is not the sight of the objects we love that comforts us, but rather, this eternity we experience by visiting them.” Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence
A little more than two years have passed since December 2007, when we inaugurated the Triennale di Milano Design Museum. Since that time, the bearing idea for our project—that of giving life to a changing museum that would be capable of periodically renewing itself in terms of contents, of selection criteria, and of modalities of fruition—has been refined and consolidated, becoming even a pilot model for significant foreign experiences.
It is our intention and hope that each new edition of the Museum will correspond to a new way of interrogating Italian Design and of recounting its story. In the first edition, we confronted the baroque outlook of Peter Greenaway with the eclectic approach of Italo Rota and the radical viewpoint of Andrea Branzi, to investigate the Seven Obsessions recurring in Italian Design. In the second, we staged a dialog between Antonio Citterio’s classicality, rigor, and rationalist clarity and Andrea Branzi’s scientific, didactic approach, to investigate the complex relationship between Series and Off Series.
Now, in the third edition, we are short-circuiting Pierre Charpin’s poetic and conceptual minimalism with Alessandro Mendini’s punctilious and astonishing encyclopedism, with his boundless and proteiform passion for all the manifestations of material culture and, above all, with his idea that design objects have an intrinsic “responsibility.” The objective, once again, is to astonish and to reveal: starting from the same query that inspired the two preceding editions (“What is Italian Design”), this time a possible response takes shape that—I am certain— will evoke discussions and possibly even divisions. Because Mendini is casting his gaze beyond the confines of the territory canonically attributable to institutional design, toward that “infinite parallel world” inhabited by objects and things that are expressions of a design that is invisible and unorthodox, though not, for this, any less connected to the lives of persons and to our most intimate daily landscapes. Mendini needs but little to open a new perspective: for him a small deviation with respect to the usual point of observation suffices to discover that perhaps Italian Design is not only what, up to now, we have believed it is, and also that many objects or processes not referable to disciplinary orthodoxy have, however, an undisputable anthropological and social relevance.
As we were working to put together this Third Museum, Mendini gave me two precious books in Italian: Il museo dell’innocenza (The Museum of Innocence) by Orhan Pamuk and Oggetto quasi (Almost Object) by José Saramago.
I believe that traces, remains, and echoes of these two splendid texts have even remained in the Museum, in its soul. For my part, I gave Mendini Wu Ming’s Altai, because I like the idea of a plural, anonymous “authorship” that expresses itself in this “collective” of writers. And because the novel has the idea of the Tower of Babel, which we used as a point of departure to involve some designers from the latest generation, giving them incentive to measure themselves against a utopia that obliged them to come out into the open. I recall all this to reaffirm that this edition did not derive from a reading of manuals about the history of design, but rather from other itineraries, other paths, other stories.
Generally, museum orderings are arranged by typologies, by districts, by chronologies, by styles, by poetics, by authors, and so forth. Alessandro Mendini, for his part, wanted to avoid recourse to previously codified grids. He moved in an intuitive, rather than a structured, manner.
He started out from a strong hypothesis, but he guarded well against categorizing, against stiffening. His selection is polymorphous, unforeseeable, unsettling. There are certain theses, of course, but there is no one absolute answer. Each person can come out of it with his own history of design: the discourse remains open. Because Mendini proceeds by networks, by sudden pairings, by couplings with little of the judicious. At times, he works around an object of his election; other times, he makes groupings of things that seem similar, as though to form little “puppet theaters.” There are miniature objects beside other, outsized objects. There are objects that are singular, or common, or quotidian. Magical things next to poetical things. Antique objects and contemporary objects. Banal and refined. Sumptuous and poor. Provocative and political. In his hands, under his gaze, design becomes anthropology, an account of what has been lived. Each object becomes personage and mask. And the Museum becomes theater, or the space for a staging where things reveal their contribution toward making us What We Are.
And this time, as well, the story told by the Museum commences in the remote past, with the boat—the Phaselus— of Catullus. Mendini proposes finding again the roots of design, rather than in Renaissance workshops, in the ancient, for there he retraces project hypotheses much more current than the humanistic- Renaissance ones. Thus conceived, the Museum is not so much a concern of memory as it is of the uses that persons make of the objects during the course of their lives. The visitor will not find many of the so-called icons of Italian Design, and certain canonical design objects are present only for very singular reasons: the mythical typewriter, Olivetti Lettera 22, for example, is included in the selection only because it is the very one used by Indro Montanelli. Ettore Sottsass, for his part, appears, not with an object, but with his own body transformed into icon.
What is displayed, in fact, is a portrait of him, full-length and in his birthday suit, realized by painter-designer Roberto Sambonet. And further, Enzo Mari’s curbstone is there, but it undergoes a radical semantic shift, to become—opportunely revised and corrected—a work by Pao. Objects of extremely high craftsmanship, objects of common use, objects on the frontier between art and design.
Above all, objects that have been used. As though this Third Museum wanted to suggest that it is in their use that the destiny of things is written, and that only by using them is it possible for us to hope to understand The Things We Are.
About the Author
Silvia Annicchiarico, architect, is the director of the Triennale Design Museum of the Milan Triennale since 2007. Prior to that, she was the curator of the Permanent Italian Design Collection of the Milan Triennale. She is a member of the Scientific Committee in the area of design and was a professor of industrial design at Milan Politechnic. From 1998-2001, she was the vice president of the monthly publication “Modo,” collaborating with various print and radio journalists. She is a curator of exhibitions and books in Italy and abroad. In 2004, she became a mother to Caterina.