Today, design is all about fun. That may seem paradoxical in these somewhat grim times when war and economic downturn have narrowed our horizons and left us bereft of utopias. But it is less absurd than it seems. When the future looks bleak, we turn to the past and our childhood, seeking comfort in the known. Risk-taking is the bedfellow of hope, and hope is in short supply these days. Designers no longer see themselves as missionaries; they no longer think they can save the world or make it a better place. At best, they hope to sell their projects, and wrack their brains to hit on a winner. Gone are the days of trying to educate the public!
In their desperate attempt to catch the public eye, they tinker with all styles, leaving no “neo” or “ism” unturned! Only Enzo Mari, his white beard even whiter, tries to stem the tide. Professional ethics, says Mari, requires the designer to stand up to industry – vultures, in his view, preying on designer creativity. His is a lone voice, though. Everyone else, young and not so young, seeks integration with industry, hoping to emulate the financial bonanza of a Philippe Starck or Stefano Giovannoni.
Looking at Giovannoni’s long series of winners, you realise that they are practically all playful objects. He was the inventor and promoter of the original design gadget; the first - followed by a shoal of imitators - to transform kitchen utensils and table-top objects into endearing little creatures, lifting them from the mundane into a fantasy, comic-strip world. It was Giovannoni who first turned the toilet brush into an amusing, fun object!
So playful design, the keynote theme of the 2004 Milan Salone, has been around for some time. Alberto Alessi realised very early on that if design was to become truly democratic, it would have to shed its technical aura, lighten and brighten up, and dress in all the colours of the rainbow. If design was to enter homes and not just museums, it would have to learnt to smile. Alberto Alessi makes no mystery of the fact that his “Family Follows Fiction”, begun in 1991, was inspired by the work of British psychoanalyst, D. Winnicot. In “Playing and Reality” (Tavistock Publications, London, 1971) Winnicot writes that humans, whether children or adults, are only creative when they play: only during play do we use our full personality, and only when we are creative do we understand ourselves. Moreover, communication is only possible through play. The “Fabbrica dei sogni” (Electa Alessi, Milan 2003), the book/catalogue of the company headquartered in Crusinallo, describes the project - or rather the “meta-project as “designed to meet the most delicate, intimate and sensory of human needs, uncovering our affective link with everyday objects”. The result was that famous family of loveable articles, each telling its “own fairy tale”, making a game out of daily-living functions and creating a “bridge to an enchanted world”.
“Bridges to an enchanted world” were not priority issues in the nineties. Design still took itself seriously then, striving to pare form to the bone. Not so today. Art reveals society’s malaise by becoming ever more cruel; design, on the other hand, eases distress by telling stories.
Tord Broontje, a London-based connoisseur of Dutch fairy tales secured worldwide success with his paper lace, felt laser-cuts and Moroso armchairs bedecked like brides. Everywhere, flowers and insects decorate tiles, vases, carpets and wallpaper. Similarly, the Brasilian brothers Fernando and Humberto Campana invite escape into enchanted worlds with their little armchairs made of furry crocodile toys bought on the stalls of a San Paulo market. Indeed the cuddly toy – once the acknowledged emblem of bad taste – has become a regular designer fabric. It should be remembered that already in 1988, French stylist Jean-Charles De Castelbajac set the scene with his then outrageous wool blanket coat.
Today nature is back, but in stabilised, stylised form. Young designer Alessandra Baldereschi has made Dilmos cushions and armchairs using real, ‘stabilised’ leaves – a process similar to mummification, carried out in Marseille, that embeds natural objects in latex, itself a completely natural material. In today’s world of realty shows, Baldereschi plays with the real and the artificial, blurring the line between the two. No longer is the artificial made to look real, rather the other way around. Prized wood sideboards by Laurameroni, the quality furniture brand, sport inlays in the shape of ants, designed by artist Mario Isgrò. Fashion stylist, Romeo Gigli, in a sortie into the design, has scrawled “love” in childish writing across other Laurameroni sideboards.
The word “love” appears on wall graffiti; hearts, usually found in schoolgirl diaries, now adorn carpets, divans and containers. Unabashed, designers remind us that the world needs love and are prepared to redeem kitsch if that’s what it takes. Yet, if managed well, kitsch opens up new horizons for design to embellish our everyday routine, not just simplify or improve it. 2004 has vindicated Abraham Moles who, in 1979, maintained that kitsch runs counter to simplicity; kitsch is art because it embellishes and decorates everyday life with a series of ornamental rituals, adding an exquisite complication: kitsch is an elaborate game, the signifier of an advanced civilisation (“Kitsch, The Art of Happiness”, Officina Publishing, Rome).
Our civilisation may be advanced but it is fast approaching decadence. Flowers, leaves, insects and other animals soothe, console and entertain but they all mask the absence of strong ideas. The spasmodic casting about for ways of adorning our interiors is leading to a sort of existential schizophrenia: our cities are increasingly degraded while our homes become increasingly ornate. Prolonging childhood shuts out real life and isolates in a sterile dream. But sooner or later children have to stop playing and learn to grow up.