In 1985 Italo Calvino was invited by Harvard University to give six lectures on six ‘values’ to take into the literature of the new millennium. The lectures never took place, due to the writer’s sudden death, but he did have time to prepare the texts of the first five, later published under the title Lezioni americane.
The trajectory outlined by Calvino through the values of lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity already suggested a bridge between the ‘inertial’ consistency of the ‘short century’ and the information-based grain of the new millennium. That bridge seems to be precisely the path of the freshest trends in American design, combining the pragmatic, quick and concrete tradition of ‘frontier’ design with the guarded levity of so much of contemporary transnational design.
The first value chosen by Calvino for his series was lightness, based on a labor of writing in which the inventor of Marcovaldo had gradually subtracted weight from his characters, to the point of making them into two-dimensional ‘figurines’ without multifaceted development. Since then, the signs of design have also gotten lighter, slimmer and more figural, as in the case of the Miami Vertical Shape of Jonathan Muecke, an aluminium sheet profiled like the set of a cartoon.
Such lightness leads to speedier movement, and that brings us to the second value chosen by Calvino, quickness, seen not as a shortcut but as connective speed that unites the most distant conceptual nodes through the agility of links and the ‘fantasy of examples.’ Here we find the wooden lamps of John Procario that convey, with their sculptural approach, the quickness of ‘synaptic’ linkage in the age of the Internet.
Given the fact that connective trajectories are getting quicker and also more precise, exactitude represents the value identified by Calvino for the third lecture, seen as a definite design, an incisive profile, a scalpel that carves an ‘icastic’ figural lexicon to be held firm against the approximate wavering of the world. In this sense, the seats in recycled material by Chris Rucker give rise to a formal recovery of that vast material approximation (i.e. scrap) that remains as the result of production processes, contained here in a severe objectual design constructed by means of planes and right angles.
Now presenting an amorphous mass means already making it visible, which brings us to visibility, the fourth value inserted by Calvino in his list, where the writer asked himself if it would still be possible in the new millennium to ‘visualize’ other fantasy worlds, given the inflation of images to which we are subjected. In effect, images are so omnipresent today as to take on a truly tangible existence.
Nevertheless, it is precisely this augmented dimension, especially of digital imagery, that can perhaps supply a positive answer to Calvino’s question, as seems to be illustrated by a project like the Hex cutting board by Jonah Takagi, which gets its aesthetic meaning precisely from the three-dimensional thickening of an image.
Where the Renaissance figurative tradition created perspective space in the depths ‘beyond’ the painting, the three-dimensional digital product develops ‘on this side’ of the plane, erecting on the side of the viewer/user a holographic space not only to see but also to touch and with which to frenetically interact.
And to the extent that this thickening of the visible generates multiplication, we reach the fifth lecture, on multiplicity, seen as the labyrinth of the visible in which the user can easily get lost because he is not in front of something, but inside it. Illustrated by the rhizomatic weave of a wall covering like Square Root by Phillips Collection, this plot of connections returns to link up with the first value examined, that of light, rapid connectivity.
Because “each life,” Calvino says – and his words sound like a true design manifesto today – “is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.”
Text by Stefano Caggiano