The first thing you learn, when teaching history of design, is the beauty of playing by the war. It may seem a paradox, given that design is the creation of projects with a goal and that history should be lighting our way today. Yet when you find yourself in a classroom – a real one or one on Meet – with thirty students under 25, digital natives raised on social networks, you immediately understand that you have to get involved and revise method, objectives, tools.
Starting from time and its perception
For this reason, my first lesson is always dedicated to time and its perception. Because there is a linear time, the one in which, for example, exactly forty years ago Memphis arrived to unhinge the dominant taste and aesthetics. And there is a punctual time, in which Memphis still survives: only it should not be sought among bookcases and tables with bold patterns, but in those forms of creativity that have inherited its active principle, dissolving it in new challenges and radical languages. And this while in the mental feed of your students everything floats in a boundless ocean: Memphis who? With which hashtag should we search for it, prof?
Telling history through suggestions
The first warning you get from your more experienced colleagues is: “You'll see, you'll find just a couple in class who know if Sottsass's Valentine or Starck's juicer comes first. They read little and only get information on Instagram”. Which is a bit true, but the challenge lies in turning this surfing attitude into opportunity. Transforming a surfer into a diver is possible, proceeding homeopathically by suggestions, reconstructing the scene between one approach and another.
Our horizontal time
After all, we are not the first to make peace with horizontal culture (which is also the title of a survey on information and cultural consumption of young people signed a year ago for Laterza by Giovanni Solimene and Giorgio Zanchini). In fact, Alessandro Baricco cleared it with The Game, published by Einaudi in 2018, the same year in which the critic Marco Senaldi explained to us that our age is that of Instagram. That is to say that we live in an “eternal and frozen” time, an informative universe “in which one does not really move, where nothing happens over time, but everything seems to be present continuously”.
When different times speak to each other
So why not take advantage of this difficulty in finding a before and after and turn it on your side? Art and music can be excellent allies. For this reason, the first image I show in class is the Hall of Hercules of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome which for four years has infuriated historians because it brings together Canova's Hercules with works by Giuseppe Penone and Pino Pascali, eliminating the linear sense of time and multiplying, on the other hand, the suggestions, as the best design is capable of doing.
Another help comes from Retromania, the essay by Samuel Reynolds who, investigating the dictatorship of nostalgia in musical consumption, says a lot, albeit unwittingly, about the tyranny of vintage and retro even in our field. And a horizon of meaning also comes from another text from the mid-nineties, Ocean of Sounds by the English critic and musician David Toop who, exploring the music of the twentieth century, gives up every chronology to extract a single, wonderful core that brings together from Debussy to Miles Davis to techno. Which is the same logic according to which the smartest students grasp the topicality of an armchair by Mies or the Eameses, remaining indifferent to the self-styled novelties presented by many interior magazines.
Tasting design like wine
Domitilla Dardi, who with Vanni Pasca is the author of the successful Manual of the history of design published by Silvana Editoriale in 2019, uses the enological metaphor: “One of the ways of testing wine is ‘vertical’ tasting, which means analyzing the same wine and producer, but in different years. Even in history, sometimes we work for ‘vertical using typology as an invariant, see the famous stories and museums of the chair, for example”.
After all, if we had to wait until 2019 to have a ‘normal’ text on the history of design for use by schools and academies, it really means that the time factor is a difficult tangle to unravel. The Dardi and Pasca Manual was needed to fill a cumbersome void. And not even in this case the authors have managed to do without a double approach, combining the chronological level, from the Crystal Palace to the Formafantasma, to that of themes across the ages, filling the text with inserts and maps: "We realized ”Explains Dardi“ that the linear metaphor alone is extremely reductive. On the other hand, there are many cognitive studies that demonstrate how the vision of time is complex and that it proceeds using the most disparate visual figures. And then it is typical of our time: we talk about navigation when we search the web and then in navigation, when it is not improvised, we use precise rules and orientation systems, reference points and maps”.
Notice to sailors: to find yourself, you must first get lost.
* The author is a professor at La Sapienza, IED and Quasar Institute in Rome, he taught at ISIA Rome.
Cover photo: the Hall of Hercules of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome.