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September 23 - November 14, 2003 at Italian Cultural Institute, West Los Angeles

by Judith Hoffberg

“Scultura da Viaggio in Ottone Nichelato,” 1965/1997, 21 x 11 x 39 cm, edition of 40.

I Prelibri / Prebooks," 2nd
edition by Maurizio.

Scatola di Architettura," 1963-2003.

"Macchina Inutile," edition 100.
In this era of global culture we should pay tribute to cultural ambassadors such as the Goethe Institute and the Italian Government Cultural Office, who spread the word of their artists, architects, film makers, musicians, actors, and playwrights, adding to the knowledge, appreciation and recognition by people outside of their countries. So it is not strange that a gentleman who dedicated his life to great design of all kinds, a Futurist, industrial designer, sculptor, children’s book author, theorist, poet and educator is introduced to us via a government supported exhibition. The designer Bruno Munari excelled in sharing his knowledge, lucidity, keen intellect and humor with all who knew him either in person or through his art.

Munari’s life (1907-1998) and career spanned the 20th century, and he was among the most seminal exponents of Italian design and graphic design. Yet he never received the accolades and recognition on an international scale that he so richly deserved. What sets Munari apart from other designers is that he engaged in a quiet, playful revolution, inventing and designing with humorous and modest creativity, challenging all conventions and stereotypes intelligently but without flamboyance.

The Italian Cultural Institute, Los Angeles, in collaboration with the Research Library of the Getty Research Institute and the collection of Edizioni Corraini, Italy, serves up this modest but important overview of the life of a man who lived design in every part of his mind and body. From documentation to actual artifacts, posters, lamps, sculpture, and books, the visitor can savor the vast culture of this man.

Starting with the square, circle and triangle, in an age when sophisticated materials took center stage, Munari shows how simplicity of means may result in poetry. From lamps to "animated" children’s books, his attitude of whimsy and sheer inventive imagination proves capable of delighting the child in all of us.

This writer remembers entering Studio Danese in Milano more than forty years ago and asking if one could buy items designed by Munari and his partner, Enzo Mari. The woman who met me was taken aback that an "Americana" would come from California to ask such a question. Of course, she allowed me to see the products at hand. I already treasured a Munari letter opener that in retrospect seems like a pre-Frank Gehry design, a stainless steel ripple of sheer delight for the hand which I’d picked up at the Museum of Modern Art’s bookstore at the time. It was not that Munari and Mari’s designs were not known, but their name was not "indelibly stamped" on their products like star material. It was not like a Gehry or Michael Graves design today, distinctive in detail and recognizably linked to the architect or designer. It was a product.

But Munari did not create "products," he created great design that consistently transcends utility. From the early days of joining the Futurists, creating posters and poems, to thinking in three dimensions, and creating experimental travel sculptures, simple yet exquisite lamps, or children’s books with vellum overlays, in all these endeavors he expressed his thesis that "Creativity is an end use of fantasy--indeed of fantasy and invention--in a global sense." He was a designer ahead of his time, creating Libri illegibili (Unreadable books), useless machines, travel sculptures, Xeroxes, and those wonderful books which may be examined in the facility’s library as a satellite exhibit of the art gallery.

Thanks to Edizioni Corraini, many of the books have been reprinted, including a remarkable architectural box which gives children a chance to build their own fantastic structures, reflecting the artist’s habit of creating workshops for children from 1977 onward. The evidence here confirms Munari’s exceptional ability to stimulate surprise, irony, harmony, and the playfulness which emanates throughout his work.