Modern life and the future in the vision of an enlightened designer
This year, 2011, is the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy.
But in the very same year there’s not only one anniversary to take notice of: Forty years ago, Joe Colombo – one of the top Italian industrial designers of all times – died of heart attack, aged only 41.
This coincidence (1971-2011) brings to light an age when Italian design – along with the Finnish one – represented the aesthetics of a whole cultural phenomenon, which I personally would like to call Modernism.
Born in Milan, 1930, Cesare ‘Joe’ Colombo had a vision of the future dominated by an almost childish dream of re-building people’s living spaces and everyday life. Childish, I said, therefore incredibly serious (who said that children’s games are easy?), while paying attention to the smallest details. In his vision, simple objects like tables, armchairs and even ashtrays, clothes and shoes had to become something more. More appealing to the view, but also more practical, like a late Sixties science-fiction film (2001: A Space Odyssey was Colombo’s favourite film – you can easily perceive what interiors, volumes and general aspects that he wanted to highlight in his own work).
His contribution to the most important Italian furniture design houses was (and still is) immense. During the 60s, his revolutionary ideas and concepts were realized in an industrial quantity by the likes of Kartell, Zanotta, Oluce, Boffi, Arflex and Alessi, to name but a few.
Joe Colombo loved being photographed, often comfortably seated on one of his creations, with a grin and his pipe, a proper living-trademark of his own style. A white Elda armchair with its soft black or brown leather padding would have been fine for that, as he lived his design, like every user – he imagined – was supposed to do.
Contemporary life, from the early Eighties till now, demonstrates how mass cultural philosophy changed from the ‘design for living’ concept of the late Fifties to early Seventies to the ‘living for design’ ethos that explains – so far – how the more recent culture of brands replaced the whole concept of ‘life improvement through design’.
According to Colombo, design was the way to morally and physically make human life more enjoyable, in an age – the Sixties – when the term ‘future’ was about to be dominated by modular furniture and compact, all-purpose spaces that could have been taken from popular TV series like Star Trek or UFO, Joe Colombo had the intuition to turn ‘space age’ shapes, concepts and materials into normal life objects, with a fairly optimistic view of what the years to come should have looked like. The future is in your hands, the future is now.
But such a revolutionary man did not survive to his creations and had no time to see that the Seventies – aesthetically speaking – were about to be pretty much the way he imagined them. A good visual proof is the 1971-1976 seasons of European and American TV series, wherein interior design, furniture and accessories echoed Colombo’s vision.
What remains of Joe Colombo’s concept of the future? In an age – the twenty-first century – with a strong emphasis upon dull square/cubical shapes (probably suggested by the lack of creativity of designers and users); there is still a need for more rounded, compact environments. They now call it ‘vintage’ or ‘retro’ furniture, just to dismiss that very idea and bury it into an indefinite past, but – as we know – it couldn’t be more modern than that.
It’s neither vintage, nor retro. It’s not past at all.
It’s the future.
By Max Galli