What is Italian Design?: A look to history for ideas

by Giampero Bosoni

To uncover the secret of Italian design, if there is one, it is necessary to look from the right perspective, searching not through the discipline’s celebrated recent past but rather in the grand cultural and artistic history of that ancient peninsula in the middle of the Mediterranean and at the center of Europe. From this historical perspective we can admire the extremely rich, complex and often contradictory patrimony of knowledge and research from which the most capable practitioners of so-called Italian design have drawn deeply. They have absorbed ways of seeing, thinking, and doing and skillfully translated them into the design of everyday objects.

What Is Design_Dome

The Italian designer is a difficult figure to identify, given the various directions research has taken and the expressive forms artists have pursued. One characteristic, though, resides in the figure itself: he or she is the antithesis of the engineer or pure technician who is concerned only with function and production.

This designer performs creative research but is also involved with a certain culture of production that includes industry and that has been developed through the continuous regeneration of a sophisticated legacy of craftsmanship.

Because of its creativity, originality, innovation, and capacity to adapt rapidly to the market, the produce of this culture has received significant recognition in the current international context, labeled “Made in Italy.”

Italian design is a continuous play of affirmations and negations, which is what the mature phase of design always should be. It should be noted that for quite some time (particularly in the discipline’s heroic phase, roughly from the 1920s to the 1970s), the history of design in Italy was written by a relatively small group of designers and entrepreneurs who overlapped most frequently in artisan studios, literary salons, and the workshops of small and midsized companies or art galleries, and almost never met in design offices and rarely in the style centers of major industries. Their work, at its best, was separate from the inner workings of industry and the market (and in certain cases and periods has openly rebelled against it), and it emerged for the most part to provide answers to questions that were still unexpressed—concerning a new way of dwelling, a new way of moving, a new way of living. Perhaps this explains why, historically, almost all Italian designers have come from architecture or the art world—although a certain humanistic culture has allowed some technicians and engineers to look at what things mean in addition to their purely technical functions.

Politically in 1860, a mere century and a half ago. This explains the variety of languages and expressions that have been cultivated for centuries in this country of “a thousand bell towers,” kept alive in strong regionalisms and very specific local identities.1 Italy has metabolized modernity through its complex and unique history, and for this reason it has never fully shared the modes and tempos of Great Britain, France, Germany, the United States and most other industrialized nations. In this sense, modernity in Italy has developed in a manner we might call uncertain and imperfect; Italian artistic and design research must mediate between a desire to break with the burden of history and difficult but powerful attempts to establish a dialogue with it. These two profound impulses continually attract and reject modernity, diverting its most well established effects into unusual, hybrid solutions with original and unpredictable features. We know that Italians have always had a passion for adversarial factions and oppositional alignments (Montagues and Capulets, Guelphs and Ghibellines), and it is no accident that a decade-to-decade alternation, an irresolvable dichotomy between strong dualisms expressed by new philosophies, new aesthetics, and new signs, has profoundly marked the debate throughout the history of Italian arts and design.

Many of the outcomes of Italian design cannot be explained without acknowledging, for better or worse, the philosophical and aesthetic legacy of the Italian humanist culture of the Renaissance.

Beginning in the early years of the 20th century, this legacy was reinterpreted, rejected and regenerated from the different cultural positions (some more reformist, others more conservative) that addressed the theme of design in the industrial and, later, postindustrial eras.

Of course, interpretation only in these terms would be too schematic. The richness of the Italian model has always consisted in its almost individualistic heterodoxy of ideas and investigations. This condition has been imposed with truly original autonomy by artists blazing trails that are still little traveled and which will be appreciated for their power and premonition only with time. A certain Italian way of creating and designing, elaborating a truly nuanced and malleable concept of modernity, seems to have drawn the energy for continuous adjustment and uninterrupted experimental research from this unique condition.

About the Author


Architect Giampero Bosoni has collaborated with Figini and Pollini, Vittori Gregotti and Enzo Mari, with whom he has developed interest for theory and history for architectural and industrial design projects. He is Professor of interior architecture and the history of design at Milan Politechnic, where he is a faculty member. His writings about design and living have been published in Abitare, Casabella, Domus, Interni, Ottagono, Print, Rassegna and others. He has written and edited various books as well. In 1997, he curated the exhibit “Museum of Design” for the Milan Triennale, which formed the first nucleus of the historical collection of Italian Design of the Triennale. In 2006-2007, he organized the international show “Italian Design and Avant-garde in the 20th century” (Montréal, Toronto, Rovereto). For the Museum of Modern Art, New York, he authored a book about Italian design history. Most recently he curated the show “Made in Cassina” and the accompanying catalog (Triennale di Milano 2008, Tokyo 2009). He has held numerous conferences on the subject at academic and cultural institutions in Italy and worldwide. His studio Bosono+Ranza concentrates on architectural projects, exhibits and interior design.