The Life and Work of Bruno Munari by Emily King
18 February 2014
Bruno Munari defied categorisation. You couldn’t call him a graphic designer, yet he created more than 60 books over his career. He doesn’t fit the description of product designer, yet the manufacturer Danese still produces a light that he conceived of more than 50 years ago (the ‘Falkland’ lamp: a 1.6-metre tower of aluminium hoops contained in stretchy fabric).
He wasn’t a theorist, yet his collected writings gathered together under the title Design as Art remain as current now as they were when they were first published in 1966. And he certainly wouldn’t qualify as an anthropologist, yet his book on Italian hand gestures, titled Supplement to the Italian Dictionary, is as concise and entertaining a record of non-verbal communication in post-war Italy as it’s possible to be.
Born in Milan in 1907, Munari grew up in the Veneto region in northern Italy where his parents owned a hotel. He returned to Milan in 1926 and, although he had no formal training, began work as a graphic designer. At the same time he came into contact with Futurist artists such as Marinetti and Enrico Prampolini and was swept into their movement. Munari contributed to a number of Futurist exhibitions, signing his contributions ‘BUM’, which, as well as being an abbreviation of his name, is the Italian onomatopoeia for the sound of an explosion.
Although he associated with the Futurists until the late 1930s, and even signed their manifestos, Munari never seemed fully in line with their cause. In particular the series of fragile and purposeless kinetic constructions that he made in the 1930s and described as ‘Useless Machines’ (Macchine Inutili) could be seen as an argument against the Futurists’ unquestioning technophilia. Later in his career, Munari tended to refer to his ‘Futurist past’, a witty contradiction in terms and a way of distancing himself from the fascist associations of the group.
In 1930 Munari founded the graphic design studio R + M with his friend Riccardo ‘Ricas’ Castagnedi and together they designed spreads and covers for various magazines. Munari’s compositions often juxtaposed the mechanical with the biological: an airplane posed as a mermaid’s tail, a propeller in place of a torso. Although he questioned the value of machines, he was fascinated with their potential and how they might function in tandem with humans. ‘Artists ought to take an interest in machines…’ he wrote in 1938. ‘They should start to learn about mechanical anatomy, mechanical language, to understand the nature of machines, to strain them by making them function in an irregular fashion, to create works of art with the machines themselves, with their very means.’
Munari’s work has much in common with that of László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian artist/designer who was born in 1895 and taught at the Bauhaus in the 1920s before emigrating first to London and later to the United States in the mid-1930s. Both had a fascination for the potential of the mechanical that led to their experimenting with kinetic structures. Likewise they both moved between two and three-dimensional media with ease and were untroubled by working between the fields of art and commerce. They were polymaths in a way that, sadly, no longer seems possible.
Extending the ideas he developed in his pre-war man-machine collages, in 1963 Munari wrote a critique of nature as if it were a man-made phenomenon. Published in a tiny book simply titled Good Design, it focuses on oranges, peas and roses. The tone is a parody of Munari’s own analysis, yet for all the self-mockery, Good Design still offers a highly original and valid commentary.
Discussing oranges, Munari pointed out, ‘Besides the juice, the sections usually contain a small seed from the same tree. This is a little gift that the production offers to the consumer just in case he should wish to have his own personal production of these objects. Please note the economic unselfishness of such an idea.’ And peas he described as, ‘Food pills of various diameters, packing in double valve cases, very elegant in form, colour, material, semi-transparent and easy to open.’
Roses however fared less well. According to Munari the flower is ‘an absolutely useless object for man.’ It is ‘made to look at, or at the most sniff at, an object that simply can’t be justified. It is an object that invites a worker to daydream, an object that can even be called immoral.’ The only virtue that Munari was prepared to allow a rose was ‘formal coherence’, a term he used in place of beauty on the grounds it allowed for objectivity. ‘A thing is not beautiful because it is beautiful; as the he-frog said to the she-frog, it is beautiful because one likes it,’ he wrote.
Like roses and beauty, Munari also gave fashion comically short shrift. ‘What does fashion actually do?’ he asked rhetorically in an essay titled ‘The Stylists’. ‘It sells you a suit made of a material that could last five years, and as soon as you have bought it tells you that you can’t wear it any longer because a newer one has already been created,’ he answered. Worth noting, however, that photographs of Munari invariably show him elegantly suited and tied. For all his suspicion of stylists, Munari had a great style.
The link between Kilgour and Munari is creative director Carlo Brandelli and Munari’s shared respect for the circle. In various books for both adults and children, Munari celebrated the properties of the shape. ‘It is easy enough to find circles in nature,’ Munari wrote. ‘We only have to throw a stone into calm water.’ He also wrote, ‘The circle has always represented and still represents eternity, with no beginning and no end’ and ‘The circle is essentially an unstable, dynamic figure’. Natural, eternal, dynamic: circles have it all. They make corners seem pointless.
Among Munari’s best-known essays is ‘What is a Designer’ published in Design as Art. This text concludes that the designer is the artist of today. ‘Not because he is a genius,’ Munari explained, ‘but because he works in such a way as to re-establish contact between art and the public, because he has the humility and ability to respond to whatever demand is made of him by the society in which he lives, because he knows his job, and the ways and means of solving each problem of design. And finally, because he responds to the human needs of his time, and helps people to solve certain problems without stylistic preconceptions or false notions of artistic dignity derived from the schism of the arts.’
This definition of the designer, with its emphasis on humbleness and humanity, remains highly pertinent. It matches the aspirations of the most ambitious designers working today.
Emily King is a freelance design writer and curator who writes for publications including Frieze and The Gentlewoman.
Bruno Munari in Milan, 1950. Photo by Federico Patellani. Regione Lombardia / Museo do Fotografia Contemporanea, Milan.
A piece from Munari's 'Macchine Inutili' (Useless Machines) series. Photo by Pierangelo Parimbelli. Collezione Nicoletta Gradella, Brescia.
A piece form Munari's 'Macchine Inutili' (Useless Machine) series. Photo by Pierangelo Parimbelli. Collezione Nicoletta Gradella, Brescia.