From the outset, the design discipline has been marked by a dialectic between two opposing conceptions of the object, the decorative approach of the applied arts and the rationalist approach generated by the industrial society. Starting from this dichotomy, for at least a century (from the end of the 1800s to the 1980s) the design of furnishings has wavered between the spectrum of more ornate, figurative languages, linked to the progress of visual art, and that of abstract, structural languages, which stand out for an ‘architectural’ idea of the product as an interpreter of functionalist efficiency inside the capitalist paradigm. Architectural thinking, in particular, has played a decisive role in the development of modern interpretations of the useful object. The ‘historical mission’ of the architectural discipline, which pursues insertion of its works in a wider context of meaning with respect to that of the clientele beyond which it should endure, has in fact been shifted into furnishings, which during the last century assigned themselves the task of carrying out the rational reconstruction of the society.
In questo processo di trasferimento della vocazione a trascendere del manufatto materiale è rimasto fuori l’altro grande portato del pensiero architettonico, quello relativo al potenziale “rappresentativo ma non figurativo”, che riconduce le opere edificate ad aeree di senso eccedenti la vita dei singoli individui (come nel caso del potere politico e religioso). Nel suo travagliato percorso di individuazione di una propria via alla modernità, il design storico ha fatto riferimento quasi esclusivo alla logica costruttiva della composizione architettonica, lasciandone da parte la capacità di evocare, senza esplicitare, contesti di riferimento più ampi.
In this process of transferal of the mission of the material artifact, what has been left out is the other great contribution of architectural thinking, the one related to the “representative but not figurative” potential which leads constructed works into areas of meaning that go beyond the life of the individual (as in the case of political or religious power). In its troubled pathway towards modernity, historical design has made almost exclusive reference to the constructive logic of architectural composition, neglecting the ability to suggest wider contexts of reference, without being explicit. It was not until the postmodern that the formal organization of abstract elements such as ‘façades,’ ‘walls,’ ‘columns,’ ‘architraves’ and ‘pillars,’ interpreted on the smaller scale of the domestic object, became a central motif in décor complements, transfigured into a no longer rational though not avowedly figurative presence.
The postmodern was also the moment that marked the end of historical design, opening the way for the contemporary design era, where the progressive arrival of languages in a wider middle zone populated by quasi-figurative, post-rational but never openly representative forms leads to projects like the OgniDove sculptures in travertine by Gumdesign for Alfaterna Marmi and Ma.Vi. Maioliche Vietresi, or the Marcello, Massimo and Vittorio ceramic vases created by Virginia Valentini and Francesco Breganze for their brand LatoxLato, direct heirs of the Italian postmodern, all the way to the reference to the metaphysical architecture of De Chirico. Another example is the Dome table by the Chinese designer Ren Hongfei, which elegantly surpasses its own rational framework to allude to something beyond itself, without openly displaying it.
The same sensation of a ‘beyond’ suggested by the reaction to the rigorous framing of a ‘before’ can be perceived – with a subtler level of sophistication – in the Archway and Arcade mirrors by the New York-based studio Bower, which take the symbolic meaning of the object to a human scale, involving the user in the everyday mystery of those finite yet infinite, closed but open surfaces that are mirrors. Actually, the very fact of applying this ‘evocative’ aesthetic to the mirror is symptomatic. The mirror, in fact, is a worldly type of object, but at the same time it ‘projects’ us, by its nature, into another dimension. Hence the Miasma project by Donut Shop is also a mirror, conceived as a just barely more figurative table divider, even soberly ornamental, but still with a solid architectural matrix, thus capable of presenting itself as a small, solemn portal to be crossed through the relationship between fellow guests kept at a safe distance. Elsewhere, the curved functionalism of the Deviation Space system by Bilge Nur Saltik twists the body of the product on the edge of rationality, never denying it but – once again – pushing it to demonstrate its ornamental potential (see the article “Non-Euclidean Rationalism” in Interni no. 691).
The spread of quasi-figurative rationalism in these objects responds to a precise need in our current period, offering a possible path to the reconstruction (philosophical, more than material) of a dimension of order in a time which the pandemic has made uncertain and threatening. Unlike historical rationalism, it does this by taking advantage of its own expressive potential, in alignment with the omnipresent preponderance of the visual dimension, to which we have become accustomed due to emoticons and icons. Furthermore, since this is on the crest between abstract and figurative, rational and narrative, this trend boosts the role of domestic interiors as ‘set design,’ a role they have reinforced in the era of smart working and remote meetings (see “Temporary Eternity” in Interni no. 707). This reference to the phantom-like consistency of digital spirits has also been poetically approached in a spectacular art installation like Opera by Edoardo Tresoldi, a series of ethereal columns made with vector line drawings but scaled to the real environment of the waterfront of Reggio Calabria, as if to sustain – or, again, to suggest – the unsustainable openness of the sky.