A brief history of Italian Design at Triennale
The establishment of a Design Museum at the Triennale and the themes of its permanent collection are inextricably linked. Their story also revolves around the definition of the discipline, and the Italian approach to it. Below is a summary of the main events that led Triennale Milano to set up the Permanent Collection of Italian Design first, and then to become the location of the first Museum of Italian Design.
The term industrial design was first used in 1951 in the thematic exhibition La forma dell’utile [Functional Form] at Palazzo dell’Arte, part of the 9th International Exhibition. It was curated by Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso and Enrico Peressutti (graphic design by Max Huber). The exhibition opened with a backdrop, emblazoned with the curatorial statement and the title, accompanied by an English definition in brackets (industrial design).
The backdrop framed a sculptural element designed by Max Huber meant to summarise and embody “the method of industrial design”.¹ On display was an international selection of industrially produced utilitarian objects, whose characteristics—“full adherence of aesthetic form to practical function; mass-produced; low cost”²—made them suitable to “adequately satisfy practical needs and spiritual aspirations, and reach the broadest possible distribution”.
The aim of the exhibition was to “make explicit the direction and limits for the design and execution of objects of daily use so that they meet the requirements of utility, economy and beauty indispensable to their efficiency”. The industrial projects included, both Italian and foreign, and related photographic documents were organised in eight sections: personal care; the production and measurement of energy; home utility systems; leisure; work; the transportation of things and people; communications, and exchange.
At the end of the IX Triennale, Franco Albini, a member of the Executive Committee of the International Exhibition, proposed to transform the Palazzo dell’Arte into a permanent Museum of Architecture and Decorative and Industrial Arts, pushing for the construction of a new building for temporary exhibitions.
Industrial design exhibition. Scale model of the installation, designed by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, 1954
In 1954 he inaugurated the 10th Milan Triennale: “the exhibition [...] is a vastly experimental event, which opens [...], not without some audacity, with the intent to be daring”³. The cornerstones of the programme were the unity of the arts and collaboration between the world of art and that of industrial production, and the solutions proposed all derived from a single line of research: the functionality of art. The theme, even if not explicitly stated, was mass production. This was the context for the Industrial Design Exhibition, which, as Augusto Morello stated in the introduction, told the story of industrial forms—that is, those born of the “collaboration between technique and imagination”⁴. Its curators included Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, Roberto Menghi, Augusto Morello, Marcello Nizzoli, Michele Provinciali and Alberto Rosselli. The 150-something objects were displayed on platforms positioned under twenty-two large bell-shaped lighting fixtures made of white canvas and suspended from the ceiling—an exquisite set-up designed by the Castiglioni brothers—and were accompanied by technical drawings, photographs, and semi-finished products so as to “link the form of the object with its function, mechanism, manufacturing method, and the market”.
Between 29th and 30th October 1954, Triennale also organised the first International Conference of Industrial Design, featuring Giulio Carlo Argan, Max Bill, Gillo Dorfles, Lucio Fontana, Augusto Morello, Tomás Maldonado, Ernesto Nathan Rogers and Vittoriano Viganò, among others. Among the temporary exhibitions, one was dedicated to an award established by La Rinascente: The Compasso d’Oro for product aesthetics.
At the conclusion of the 10th Triennale, in view of the relevance of industrial design themes, Gio Ponti revisited Albini’s 1951 idea. Ponti felt the need to preserve the memory of the extraordinary treasury of objects that transited through Milan for the Triennale International Exhibitions. He envisaged a permanent Museum of Applied Art located within the Triennale or, even better, within the newly established Museum of Science and Technology. The need to gather objects of daily use in a museum collection —and especially industrially designed ones—became apparent. This heralded a long debate that lasted over fifty years on the feasibility of a Design Museum in Milan, a heated debate .with contrasting voices, foiled hopes and, of course, drama.
In the subsequent editions of the Triennale Milano international exhibitions, industrial design, with its complexity and increasingly blurred boundaries, became the subject of numerous interpretations that focused on the sociological, political and cultural aspects of the discipline as well as the aspects more related to design and production. The first was the International Exhibition of Industrial Design curated by Gillo Dorfles, Leonardo Ricci, Alberto Rosselli and Marco Zanuso, with exhibition design by Sergio Asti and Gianfranco Frattini and graphics by Giulio Confalonieri. It was presented during the 11th Triennial in 1957, which focused on the historical and cultural foundations of industrial design. In 1968, at the XIV Triennale, the exhibition was dedicated to the Grande Numero [Large Number]. In 1973, for the XV Triennale, the International Exhibition of Industrial Design was curated by Ettore Sottsass and Andrea Branzi, where objects were absent and the focus was on the predominant role of audiovisual communication.
A coherent rationale for a design collection would not emerge until the XVI Triennale in 1979. The programme orientation was to transform the institution into a sort of permanent laboratory, where International Exhibitions would be the endpoint of a continuous programme of experimental activities, debates and local projects: a museum in progress. Among the themes defined by the Executive Board, The organisation of design proposed, among other things, to collect Italian industrial design materials through flexible, frequent exhibitions. The intent was to start an inventory of documents from industry research centres and “from various institutes, trade unions, cooperatives, and craftsmen’s associations, and collect them in a library … the task of cataloguing [this library of documents] would pertain to the museum in progress [...]”⁵.
The road to establishing a collection began in 1995 when the Triennale launched a cycle of exhibitions presenting an extensive census of Italian design. The first, entitled 45-63 A Museum of Industrial Design in Italy: Project of a collection was curated by Manolo De Giorgi. The exhibition celebrated “the primacy of design” and, as Pierantonio Berté—then-President of the Triennale—stated in the preface of the catalogue, it was intended to form the first nucleus of the Triennale Design Museum. The project was completed in 1996 with two exhibitions curated by Andrea Branzi: Italian Design 1964 1972: From project to complexity, and Italian Design 1973-1990: A museum of Italian design.
Both exhibitions would provide the seed materials for the future Museum of Italian Design. In 1996, Triennale was transformed from an institution into a foundation, which definitively marked its transition from operating on a three-year basis to a permanent one. In the same year Giampiero Bosoni was asked to establish the first nucleus of the Permanent Collection of Italian Design, starting from the very projects selected for the Italian design exhibitions by De Giorgi and Branzi.
Italian Design 1973-1990: A museum of Italian design. Triennale Milano, 1996 © Triennale Milano