The origins of design are to be found in the industrial revolution and in the development of mechanized production which took place from the middle of the 18th century until the mid-19th century.
The qualitative and aesthetic difference between objects created by industry and craft objects almost immediately posed the problem of qualifying new products based on new aesthetics, leaving behind traditional canons.
An architect-artist was Antoni Gaudí, who was able to capture the influences of art and translate them into architecture with a very personal style featuring Art Nouveau in the design of buildings.
After the First World War it was the Bauhaus that laid the roots for a more systematic theory of design and associated it with other disciplines such as art, architecture and manufacturing technique in order to unify artistic, aesthetic, practical and commercial interests.
The innovative school founded in Germany in 1919 by Walter Gropius – the 100th anniversary takes place in April of this year – represented a perfect combination of all the arts, a creative forge that set itself as a reference point for the so-called modern movement. The teachers, including some of the greatest artists of the time such as Paul Klee, Vassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, came from all over Europe. The strong influence of Russian Constructivism – emerging in 1913 and developing in the following years – on the artistic experiences of the Weimar Republic and on the Bauhaus is clear.
After the dissolution of the school and the persecutions of the Nazi regime in 1933, many artistic personalities brought the ideas developed by the Bauhaus movement to the United States.
The school continues its stylistic influences in the contemporary art as well, so much so that in 2007 the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei paid homage to Constructivism by proposing a reinterpretation of the 1920’s Tatlin Tower project inspired by the Tower of Babel: the sculpture by Ai Weiwei “Fountain of Light” is now preserved in the new Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi.
In 1932, the New York MoMA opened the first department of Architecture and Design Museum.
A few years later, in 1977, the multidisciplinary cultural center Center Pompidou was established in Paris, collecting works of modern art, design, architecture, photography, musical activity, cinematography and multimedia works.
In Milan, just a week ago the Triennale opened the Museum of Design, specializing in Italian design with over 1,600 items.
As we have seen, while some design icons have entered the homes of thousands of people, the same cannot be said of the exclusive and famous monochrome tables designed by the French artist Yves Klein in 1961, transparent plexiglass structures containing the trio of colors loved by the artist such as magenta pink, gold and blue that bears his name.
Picasso has extended his vast artistic practice to ceramics which, thanks to him, began in those years to be recognized as a real art, no longer simple craftsmanship.
Another example of an artist who has dedicated himself to this material is Lucio Fontana, who took his first steps in the workshop of his decorator-ceramist father, devoting himself to the design and production of particular furnishing components: his marvelous ceramic fireplaces still reach very high quotations at auction, even though they belong to a period much earlier than his research in spatialism.
The mixture of different disciplines has attracted many artists with different methods and techniques: for example, Le Corbusier, architect, painter, sculptor and designer, in 2015 his major retrospective at the Center Pompidou was opened for the occasion of the 50th anniversary since his death. The exhibition also celebrated the commitment of the Swiss architect in the field of classical arts, and the spaces of the museum highlighted the completeness and vastness of his artistic expression in the famous furniture, paintings, photographs, drawings and architectural projects.
Piet Mondrian, on the other hand, took inspiration from the architecture of New York to create his famous compositions of lines that, for the uninitiated, are real maps of New York and its skyscrapers.
The interpenetration of functionality and beauty, design and inspiration, feed and influence each other also in the case of the Memphis Group, a group of Italian designers and architects in Milan, active between 1981 and 1987, founded by Ettore Sottsass.
The use of bright colors and geometric shapes, in harmony with the pop culture of the time, creates objects that celebrate mass culture. The bright colors and the taste for the typographical technique of advertising and comics with the recovery of the typical puntinato are the basis of their unmistakable stylistic indicator in step with Pop Art.
In recent years there are many designers who have made the border between contemporary art, design and architecture even more fragile: Ron Arad could be one of them. For over 25 years he has been moving between different disciplines creating objects on the verge of design and sculpture. His limited-edition steel works, such as the Big Easy armchair or the Voido Rocking Chair have become the manifesto of his poetics aiming to overcome simple functionality.
Another example of design that becomes art is given by Les Lalanne, a studio formed by the French couple Claude Lalanne (who passed away just in these days) and Francois-Xavier Lalanne, who have often drawn from the Art Nouveau floral shapes and from the dreamlike dimension of Surrealism for their creations.
They showed us the magical side of nature and the animal world with a poetic and ironic language, able to talk to everyone overcoming the hierarchies between art, sculpture and functionality.
Among their collectors, Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford stand out; the Lalanne have been the subject of many retrospectives and their works can be found in museum collections around the world.
The opposite has often happened, namely artists who have collaborated with commercial companies creating limited editions for collecting. One of these is Jeff Koons, who created a limited edition case – only 650 pieces – for the famous champagne brand Dom Pérignon, revisiting the work Balloon Venus.
Even a “normal” restaurant can become an artistic experience, in this case the London restaurant is designed by Damien Hirst and is called Pharmacy, just like the collection of some of his works.
Instead at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, fans of Young British Artists can rest among Hirst’s most famous works in the Hotel’s “Empathy Suite”.
Instead a more economical solution for those who want the work of a great name in contemporary art, can go back on the home line designed by Maurizio Cattelan for Toilet Paper, in collaboration with Seletti.
That said, the Milan design week with its thousands of installations and proposals, contributes to promoting a redefinition of the relationship between art and design, no longer considered as distinct categories but as an entity in continuous evolution.
“The shades of the art rainbow are endless: choose your favorite!”