The famous photograph made by Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris of a man jumping in a huge puddle conveys a sense of the past (why is the man jumping?) and of the future (the pool of water, still perfect, is about to be disrupted). The beauty of the image lies precisely in its ability to exploit the evocative power of the medium, leading the observer to perceive more than is shown, considering the fragments of a larger, still indefinite narrative plot. A similar mechanism can be seen in what Alessandro Mendini called “narrative design,” that particular approach to the design of furnishings which in the 1990s marked the end of the historical phase of design and the start of the contemporary era.
From that moment on, in fact, design began trying to mend a rift that had been opened in the previous period between modern rationalism and postmodern aesthetics, attempting a harmonious welding through the reshaping – but not erasure – of the artistic intensity of the product, which thus found a more mature, delicate form, compatible with the functionalist orientations cherished by modernism. This formula, which since then has united poetry and pragmatism in contemporary design, seems to be more lively than ever, providing a pathway for the fusion, pertaining to our era, between the material body of the product and the immaterial scenarios of the digital.
To understand the impact of this phenomenon we have to recall how the fall of the postmodern meteorite smashed the historic parameters of design, freeing up hard-to-control creative energies that had given rise to extreme experiences, like the reckless Dutch empiricism, as well as a series of efforts (mainly in Italy, but soon imitated in other countries) to regroup those energies around a center of gravity of vigorous narration. The latter have converged into narrative design, characterized by a ‘solid’ product nucleus from which a widespread poetic atmosphere spreads, which can offer the key for the re-composition of design culture in the post-pandemic age.
The acceleration towards what seems to be emerging as a post-real stage of design has recently taken on such momentum as to trigger the spread of 'imaginary objects' in exclusively virtual format, as if bytes were a new material alongside traditional wood, foam and polymers (see Interni no. 711, "Materialità dolce"). But this shift, rapid as it may seem, cannot leave physical objects behind. Digital aesthetics and material structure require a formula of coordination that can safeguard the force and necessity of both. This is precisely narrative design, i.e. the 'expanded' product, which conserves the central status of the real object while suggesting a wider-ranging story, 'emanating' like a wave that crosses the entire domestic environment, which is in turn 'extended' though digital projections on social networks and in video conferencing.
Examples include the ‘landscape’ sofas, like Asymmetry by Pierre Yovanovitch and Nexi Chic by Andrea Arena for Aerre Italia: the first is woven with filigree patterns, while the second is an heir to historical experimentation on the morphology of upholstered furniture. Or the tables of the Fat & Slim collection by Alain Gilles for Faïencerie de Charolles, whose volumes spring from the dialogue between two extreme formal concepts: the soft, puffy ceramic base and the taut, slim metal top. The pieces from the Flowing Fragments collection by Richard Yasmine are more explicit in their essence, as the name implies, bits of a lost-rediscovered world, post-post-modern archaeological phrasings that resuscitate the aura of a great geography of meaning buried amidst things.
The 'rebooting' which the pandemic has brought about in the world of design (see terni no. 703) has further intensified the need for bridge-objects between a material ‘before’ and a digital ‘after,’ objects like the Cactus lamp and Bola vases by Carol Gay, which have the same aesthetic efficacy on social media and in the real world. In truth, the affinity between these projects with the visual codes of art is far from coincidental, as can be seen when we compare the Concrete n°17 tapestry by Marei Rei with the Giddy mirror by Pierre Yovanovitch, or the pieces of the work Misfits by the artist Nairy Baghramian at GAM in Milan with the Feng divider designed by the studio Testatonda for Gebrüder Thonet Vienna, or the already mentioned Nexi Chic.
The continuity of landscape in these juxtapositions is so clear as to authorize another conceptual leap, meaning that just as in the past people talked about “applied art” in reference to objects made with artistic grace, so today we can talk about art as “non-applied design,” mooring the languages of art to those of design. This leads to an ‘epistemological’ inversion that confirms the timeliness of narrative design, the anatomical anchor from which the extended body of the product issues like a semiotic background radiation, which spreads to re-semanticize the domestic environment and then the entire dimension of living through digital channels, all the way to the ‘remote’ outcroppings of communication on the social networks.