Disegno // Preconcieved Function and Meaning
With such epitaphs as Massimo Vignelli, Kartel, and the Memphis Group, for the last 70 years, Italy has been home to one of the globe’s most prominent design cultures. At it’s heart, design, or disegno in Italian, is a process of preconception. With roots from the Latin designare, meaning ‘to designate’ or ‘to mark out’, disegno is both the process of drawing as well as the act of ‘marking out’ an object before it has been brought into existence. While a shoe, a book, a house, or a street are all concrete objects, the process of inventing and planning such objects falls into the realm of conceptual imagination, the realm of disegno. In tracing the development of Italian design culture, a major congruency emerges in the exploration of embedding cultural meaning in designed objects, a process which puts to question the role of designers, their responsibilities to society, and how illusion in the process of preconception is a dangerous tool of professionals especially when subverted to the intentions of an individual in ignorance of a whole.
In Richard Sennet’s, The Craftsman, Sennet argues that the process of design is what defines humanity, distinguishing homo sapiens sapiens from other intelligent animals. While Sennet specifically discusses the process of tool making, indicating that while other animals use tools, humans specifically alter their environment, transforming ordinary materials into objects with endowed utility, he does not address the importance of emotion and meaning in objects. Although the field of professional design is only a cultural phenomenon of, at most, the past 500 years, Etruscan pottery, from the first Millennia BCE, shows strong evidence of preconception, of considering function and utility in shaping the material world. Examine the plethora of varied handle and spout forms extending from such simple blackened vessels. Without decoration, these pots shine as everyday objects, their form stemming from their intended use in the most classic design pedagogy of form following function. While the pure black form presents a stark, mundane beauty, the Etruscan’s decorated pottery provides a greater glimpse into their culture as well as shows how they constructed meaning from material objects. Imagine enjoying a glass of wine at a dinner party from an Etruscan chalice. While the shallow vessel may require more tact in preventing spilling than a deeper, modern wine glass, the flat surface at the bottom of the vessel provides ample room for decoration. As one finishes their chalice, they are greeted with an image, perhaps a story, a topic for conversation, or an inside joke between host and guest. Through the lens of Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory, design adds specific meaning and social implications to objects, granting efficacy to material beyond pure function (Latour, 4). Although Latour mostly focuses on contemporary society, in line with his Actor Network Theory, the Etruscans were masters of embedding cultural meaning in objects, granting physical material the power to become an actor in the social fabric of culture.
While Etruscan pottery tells a story of everyday life and social interactions, the role of disegno and the following process of creating reality from preconception changes dramatically when the social relationship is hierarchical. Designed by Apollodorus for Emperor Trajan, Trajans Market, located in the imperial forum, is a multi-purpose wonder of architecture and design. As a material structure, the market serves the function of bracing the Quirinal Hill, preventing erosion while also providing a social space for shopping, apartments, and offices. However, in contrast to the Etruscan pottery, in which the process of disegno, of preconception, was done by those who would be using the designed object, neither Trajan nor Apollodorus would have been forced to use or live in the market. Consider the tight corridors and damp shops of the market, as well as the design implication of a shop owner living in his store; when the designer is so far removed from such essential design interactions, the preconceived object will most likely fail to be optimally functional for those who actually use it. Furthermore, by building the market on the side of the existing forum, and erecting a barrier between the two, Apollodorus forced the constructed social form of separation on everyone who used the market. Ivan Illich, in his book Tools for Conviviality, questions why “people tend to relinquish the task of envisaging the future to a professional elite”, believing that design is at its best when the people who will interact with the designed object are directly involved with its design (Illich, 13). While the constructed meaning of separation and density of form found in Trajan’s market could be considered genius, a miracle of urban planning which we still honor, the lack of consideration given to the common people puts to test Apollodorus’ reputation. While Trajan may have been the visionary and patron, the market was for the people.
Between Etruscan material culture, and Roman urban interactions, Italian design has its roots in balancing function with meaning as well as a history of the patronage system, in which most objects of design and beauty are created at the behest of the elite. While the balance of function and meaning continues throughout the renaissance, it is during this time that the designer begins to function both as an individual and a visionary. In Plenitude, Juliet Schor cites how “past discoveries are the building blocks for further innovation”, while her contemporary, Charles Leadbeater, a scholar of amateur-driven movements, notes that “amateurs have a long track record of innovation, especially in emerging fields which are too young for there to be an organized professional body of knowledge” (Schor, 150) (Leadbeater, 16). While there are numerous examples of amateurs using past innovations as building blocks to further the fields of science, design, or engineering, especially during the time of the industrial revolution as well as the rapid economic growth following world war two, perhaps the greatest, if overlooked example, are the innovations of the renaissance. At its heart, the renaissance was the reemergence and reexamination of classical ideals in modern society. Rather than emperors, the new patrons were the wealthy elite, the Borghese, Medici, Farnese and others, as well as the Catholic church. While the wealth disparity between such individuals and the common populous was appalling, such concentration of wealth afforded funding the lives of artists and designers, inciting the rapid preconception of a new material culture. Take, as the prime example, Leonardo. While he disliked painting, his painting endeavors for various patrons funded his amateur explorations into science, engineering, and invention. Through his sketching, Leonardo preconceived new systems of war, agriculture, transportation, and urban life. While most of his inventions could be considered failures, having never been brought into reality in his time, the imaginary products of his amateur envisioning became the building blocks as referenced by Schor.
With his vast imagination, Leonardo is also the beginning of the half-truth in design. With no prior knowledge, one could examine Leonardo’s sketchbooks and believe that his inventions were drawn from life, that his fantasies existed in reality. This process of fantasia, of trickery, is perhaps best revealed in the invented prisons of 18th century printmaker and self-proclaimed architect Piranesi. His quintessentially dark, verging on Kafkaesque, imagined spaces demonstrate a society reproachful of itself. A society more rooted in the mind of an individual rather than the constructed common culture. The practice of solitary preconception can be incredibly influential. Piranesi shares this practice, almost intimately, with the early 20th century visionaries, the Italian Futurists. The Futurists vision of a society of energy, of constant motion, consuming its own history as it blazes a new path forward, greatly inspired the following decades of material culture. The shape and form of cars rapidly changed, the entire Art Deco style and resulting trend of streamlining in design can be traced back to Futurist sculptural forms, especially Boccioni’s Forme Uniche. It is hard to imagine how the monstrosity of the American highway system and energy grid could have been imagined without the visions of the futurists (with the essential connection point of Norman Bel Geddes Futurama exhibit at the 1939 NYC World’s Fair). Just as we must question Apollodorus’ responsibility to the common people, as well we must debate the role of the Futurists in the real-world designs their imagined-world visions inspired. Perhaps the Futurists could be held responsible for inciting the development of a now failing transportation and energy system.
The intricacies of responsibility in design grow even more complex when considering the global environmental effects of designed objects. Zygmunt Bauman, in his critique of contemporary consumerist society, implies that through the creation of prior unseen “needs, urges, compulsions, and addictions”, modern culture asks individuals to redeem their faults through consumption (Bauman, 161). Bauman sees that “there is a latent message behind every commercial promising a new unexplored opportunity for bliss” (Bauman, 173). While American advertising culture, especially through big tobacco, perfected the design of manipulative advertising, Italian emotional sensibilities paved the way for such developments. Historically rooted in the playful designs of the Etruscans, everyday objects imbued with cultural meaning, in contrast to American or German conceptions of contemporary society, Italian modernity is incredibly emotional and playful. Examine the poster designs and advertisements of Marcello Nizzoli. Unlike American ads of the time, which focused much more on argument and reasoning, Nizzoli relies almost entirely on image, creating an emotional affinity between the viewer and the platonic conception of the advertised product in the viewer’s mind. Nizzoli embedded cultural meaning in his advertisements and designs, an Italian tradition also justly represented by Alessi, Kartel, and the playful explorations of the Memphis Group. But such affetto in material goods, intentionally manipulative, is decisively dangerous. While so many of Alessi’s products, through playful forms and colors, incite an emotional connection in their users, such blind attachment masks the negative environmental and health effects of living in a world of plastic. Through the process of plastic degradation in oceanic gyres, Alessi is directly contributing to the destruction of oceanic ecosystems as well as playing their part in bolstering global cancer risks from swimming or eating seafood.
Design for function is useful, design with meaning is powerful. But the real danger lies not in design but the Italian concept of disegno, the preconception of an object, the imagination of function and meaning. Through disegno, skilled designers can manipulate an individual, creating societal conditions which may be beneficial to some at the detriment of others. As previously cited, “people tend to relinquish the task of envisaging the future to a professional elite” (Illich, 13). Furthermore, Milanese design sociologist, Ezio Manzini, deftly notes “only with modernity does socialization not subordinate the subject to the community, and not confine the individual search for happiness within the strict rules on which that community is based” (Manzini, 84). Since modern society has moved beyond the patronage system and into the realm of freedom through capitalism, designers must be held responsible for their designed objects. While the process of design, rooted in the preconception of disegno, is as old as humanity, only within the past two decades has the concept of design equity, and design as a subservient process to society emerged as a major trend of design theory and design sociology. Just as Apollodorus, Leonardo, or Piranesi, Boccioni, Nizzoli, or Sottsass, the contemporary avant-garde, through the preconception of future cultures, a process rooted in disegno, are constructing the foundations to be built upon by future visionaries and designers.
"when the designer is so far removed from such essential design interactions, the preconceived object will most likely fail to be optimally functional for those who actually use it."
"such affetto in material goods, intentionally manipulative, is decisively dangerous."
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