Parading to the notes of Nino Rota’s march for Eight and a Half by Fellini, like a revolving merry-go-round or a sushi belt, come the objects of Italian new design. The paraphernalia of daily life: coffee-cups with spoon incorporated, scrubbing brushes turned soap-holders, triple chopsticks - an eating hybrid, the tines of east and west - classic décolletés cast in soft polyurethane. Knick-knacks, tiny goldfish bowls, silicone moulds for ice cubes, clothes pegs, tambourines with a handle, clothes-horses with their own hood, PET bottles with a spray nozzle, silicone lampshades, shopping bags made out of floor cloth, etc. After the heroism and the utopia, the all-embracing visions from spoon to city, our latest design is stuck on the spoons! From expecting to find some major new virtuosos to pit against the foreign champions now colonizing our industry, we are confronted with a chorus of treble voices piping in a whisper. What is happening to Italian design? It is dead, say those still entrenched in the old clichés of an outmoded design mentality, those reluctant to change, for whom we were better off when the going was worse, or when quality was only for the few. And yet alive it is, as the splendid new Italian design exhibition for the Milan Triennale proclaims: “The mobile landscape of new Italian design”, from an idea of the coordinator, Silvana Annicchiarico, staged and curated by Andrea Branzi. Alive, with a new life of perhaps the only kind compatible with the present times of flux and confusion, as Zygmunt Baumann sees them, or the elasticity that anthropologist Marc Augé talks of. Our much lamented, inimitable, peerless masters (Munari, Castiglioni, Magistretti) did their bit in a simpler world where much needed doing and much was missing. Today there is just too much: the problem is no longer what to do but what to undo. In our welter of wares it is hard to leave a distinctive mark without it recalling someone else or belonging to a trend. Today’s youngsters are more realistic with fewer pipe-dreams. They do not claim or hope to change the world, or even people’s way of living. They would never dream of taking Le Corbusier’s stance with a Madame Savoye: “today domestic life is paralysed by the deplorable idea that we need furniture. The concept should be rooted out and replaced by apparatus” (Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happyness, Hamish Hamilton, London, 2006). They have no axe to grind, just small tips to impart. They begin with their own surroundings, their own desktop, one might say, and come up with minimal inventions to make the daily round more agreeable, more surprising. They show female sensibility and eye for detail. Their concern is with the routine gestures of home life, which few have bothered with. Not so much novelty of form as ideas to guide the user. In more northerly latitudes, Holland in particular, design has been revolutionised, decoration pressed into telling fairy tales. The designers give us worlds inhabited by gnomes and fairies, gothic atmospheres bristling with skulls and skeletons from the land of saga and magic. The Italian equivalent are stories about the home, breadcrumbs and ants and so forth, instructive tales from daily life, à la Bruno Munari, who could distil good design from the description of a pea (Good Design, Vanni Scheiwiller, Milan, 1963). What the exhibition proposes is obviously not the only landscape going, but it’s what the curator and selection committee (Silvana Annicchiarico, Andrea Branzi, Alba Cappellieri, Arturo Dell’Acqua Bellavitis, Carmelo Di Bartolo, Anna Gili, Stefano Maffei, Cristina Morozzi, Mario Piazza) judged most promising and original. It slowly grew from assessing over 800 entries, without any preconceived idea or position to uphold. Just conscientious, heartfelt soul-searching, and maybe a bit of heartache too, since one had somehow imagined a high-flying collection of exhibits which would make a splash. But no: what came out was a delicate whisper of a melody. Though with no claims to being exhaustive or definitive, this repertoire is enough to reveal an attitude of mind and prompt hopes of renewal. One is pleasantly reminded of the story of Muhammad Yunus, banker of the poor, economics Nobel 2006, who has saved millions from poverty by a fistful of multicredits: the twenty-first century can be changed even on the home front. As Andea Branzi writes in the catalogue: “not just by mega town-planning, but by flower vases too” (“The New Italian Design” ed. Mario Piazza, Milan Triennale, 2007). Not for nothing is the show called Landscape. That was adopted because assessment proceeded by changes of tack and afterthought like a natural landscape, not carved to an artist’s plan, but modelled by millennia of bradytely, erosion on erosion. The age-limit itself, originally set at thirty-nine and a quarter, slid to forty and settled on forty-five: which goes to show the difficulty of finding an upper bound to youth in a steadily ageing country. It was also a desire to include the related statements of designers who were ahead of others and of their times in making this lateral shift of perspective. Of chairs and divans, not a trace. The new generation’s essays in this field seemed to us mannered, insignificant in an already overcrowded scenario of meaningless shapes that say nothing. By contrast, Enrico Azzimonti’s boat-shaped sugar-lump (food design has its place in the exhibition) sailing across a tiny pool of coffee, is a sweet thought that gladdens the neurotic coffee ritual. A sweetener with a message: the boat sets forth, dissolves, and with it some of our stress. A coffee that captures the imagination can break the mood and save the day. Maybe it is this note of humour, matching the innocent lightness with which this exhibition is staged, that forms its most singular achievement. The profuse range of design (accessories, knick-knacks, jewels, food, furnishing extras, graphics, visual interiors) may lack muscle, but offers a smile of courtesy as it serves our needs.