“Group” design is a characteristic of the radical spirit of the past. Is the era of thought movements over?

Visionaries, rebels, transgressives. Dissidents by vocation, subversive and in some cases openly revolutionary. The designers who, throughout history, have "made school" are not many. And they are, for the most part, confined to the era of great social changes. Why?

We asked this question to Nina Bassoli, Milanese architect and researcher, professor of Architectural Design at the Milan Polytechnic. Bassoli has recently co-curated with Pierluigi Nicolin, Gaia Piccarolo and Maite García Sanchis, the exhibition Marco Zanuso and Alessandro Mendini Design and Architecture inaugurated at the ADI Design Museum.

The ingredients for teaching: freedom of thought and external influences

"A real revolution in design in Italy", she explains, "begins around the 1970s. A watershed moment for the country and for Italian production. Design was born with the great post-war reconstruction and developed with companies, with a strong synergy and interaction between entrepreneurs and architects.

But it was 1968, with protests and counterculture, that profoundly influenced the thought of changing things. They are also the first years of environmental attention, in 1973 there is the first oil crisis, the hippies are working on the first ecological responses. Everything is characterized by a great freedom of thought, there are many influences from other disciplines such as art and philosophy ".

In this context, Radical Design was born in Florence, also known as Anti-Design or Counter-design, with Archizoom and Superstudio. It goes to Milan and then takes off outside Europe, where it will be known as Italian radical design, introducing itself to the world thanks to the exhibition at MoMA - Italy: The new Domestic Landscape - which will go down in history. Exactly 50 years ago.

The critique of the status quo

The prevailing aesthetics, the importance of the product, the institutional dynamics are criticized, despite the fact that the movement has its own fortune in terms of market and product. Among the most influential artists: Gaetano Pesce, Gianni Pettena, Riccardo Dalisi, the Strum Group and Alessandro Mendini, who enhances the poetics of Radical design by publishing the poster in Casabella magazine. He famous the cover in '72 in which a huge gorilla emerges from the jungle and beats his chest at the imagined scream of Radical Design.

"Mendini's thought" continues Nina Bassoli, "was influenced by Jean Baudrillard and by French modern post, such as Derrida, but also by the poor art of Germano Celant, who not only coined the term, but had a great influence on radical designers.

The radical ideas are based on the fact of overcoming boundaries, thus drawing on other disciplines, expanding thinking beyond design and architecture, drawing on theater, advertising, art, communication".

The experience of Global Tools lasted two years, from '73 to '75, a school (not a school) founded by designers, planners and artists of various kinds - Sottass, Mendini, Franco Raggi, Dalisi, Branzi, De Lucchi, Ugo La Pietra (and many others) - who together play with the counterculture of design and define themselves as anti-institutional.

They find themselves drawing up a sort of manifesto program for a hypothetical movement that will never start, but which generates many seminars, free and fun, which today we look at with admiration, based on self-construction, on the relationship of 'object with the body and with nature in a sort of cross-disciplinary performance.

Are there any radical designers after Radical?

“The radical thinkers, those who will then teach school”, continues Bassoli, “in reality they are misunderstood when they react, otherwise they would not be defined as such. Another wave of designers arrived around the 2000s , with groups that had a return to Italy thanks to the Salone del Mobile, a key moment for experimentation.

For example, the collective Droog, Dutch designers who for some years have brought innovative ideas with some works proposed from schools, such as the Design Academy Eindhoven. This is where this new wave of radicalism starts - for example Marcel Wanders - which extends design to other themes, thinking in terms of hospitality in a different way, linking human behavior to the economy, or thinking about feelings , like death and fear ”.

To be radical you need optimism

But Nina Bossoli does not think that today there is a radicalism comparable to that of the past: "It is certainly difficult to separate design from the social context, we should probably look at situations that occur outside the product circuits. Perhaps, however, radical thinking needs optimism which, in this historical moment, is not exactly easy to find".

Cover photo: Groninger Museum, Groningen, The Netherlands, 1989-1994. Ph. Erik and Petra Hesmerg.