Book Review

Design as Art by Bruno Munari

i read a book that's aged badly and reflect on bad times

I’ve been reading a lot over the last few weeks. I’ve been uncharacteristically working far from where I’m sleeping, so have ended up spending more time on the tube than I’ve been used to for many many many years. Though this obviously has its negative aspects (loss of exercise, enforced, tinned proximity to other people and their many unpleasant peopley smells), gaining over an hour most days to sit down and read is a real fucking treat for me. I’ve dipped back into fiction, back into poetry, and – with this one – back into nonfiction, essay innit. Though, yes, the tube can often be noisy and thus distracting, I have found that running Spotify’s ESSENTIAL playlist of White Noise at maximum volume through my headphones cuts out the slurred businesstalk, the crass “o no i missed my stop better cum 2 urs” flirting and – obvs – the constant barrage of people (male/female, old/young, fat/thin, gay/hetero, cis/trans, posh/provincial1) who want to make friends with my dog. My ears protected and thus my mind given free reign over the page in front of it, I turned my readerly attention to Bruno Munari’s 1966 (English translation Patrick Creagh, 1971) nonfiction classic, Design as Art. It’s part memoir, part manifesto, and both a relaxed and engaging read. However, reading the book now (it is 2018) it is hard to ignore that a lot of the ideas here – flouted as revolutionary 50 years ago – now seem as old hat as the old hat I’m wearing as I type.

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For those of you who don’t know, the worst year of my life was spent working in a folk art gallery. Now, for those of you who don’t know what folk art is, I’m not going to go into huge detail here, as I went through said definition over and over again to hundreds of disinterested people while my mental health collapsed to the point of despair 18 months ago. If I stick my memory into that dark, depressed fog (lots of fantasies of drowning), I can pull out the following thread:

I’m pretty certain that folk art is almost accidental art, it is functional (and decorative) objects that have been made by craftsmen, rather than artists. Things that are beautiful because the people that made them wanted them to be beautiful, not because they wanted potential punters to think they were beautiful. Hand-crafted furniture originally made for a rural home, outsider art pieces meant to decorate (privately), traditional costumes, tools that have a simple majesty to them. Things that are beautiful not because they have to be, but because they are.

Munari was an artist slash designer, active in Italy from the 1920s until like the 70s/80s(ish). His essential point – made repeatedly in this book – is that everything made by a human (be that hand or machine) has to have been thought through in some way at some point, so why not think through aesthetics with as much rigour as practicality? He writes about the distinction between the plastic and the visual arts (are those the right words? Who cares!?) and how time has eroded this gap.

By the second half of the 20th century, people no longer thought of “art” as exclusively bronze and marble sculptures or oil paintings flat on a wall. He writes about the development of different artistic approaches, different artistic movements, about how the rapidity of social and technological change in the decades following World War One – which kinda kicked everything off, people forget that (I know I do) – led to people yearning for, needing, evermore elaborate and transgressive forms of expression. In the 60s we had “the sexual revolution” (sounds like a bad nightclub or a KILLER disco track), but that came about due to gradual erosion of Victorian morality etc, and in part it came about due to the increased progressivism and liberal messages being pumped out by artists and writers from the trenches onwards.

Life became more urgent, youth became more prized: as people became more aware of the reality of their own mortality and lost the primitive belief in an afterlife, it became more important for people to seek their own happiness, their own contentment, in this life. And things that look beautiful are an easy way to make life more pleasant.2

Everything that is beautiful in nature, Munari writes, is beautiful BECAUSE of its function. Nothing is completely accidental, leaves are the shape they are, trees, flowers, mountains, rivers, are the shape they are because of natural forces, natural needs, the combination of millions of years of trial and error. The fact that symmetry and simplicity looks beautiful to us is ingrained, is irrevocable, is important.

Sorry, I’ve been typing into this on and off for many days and I’m nearing the 1,000 word mark as I sit on the floor of an inter-city train after 2 hours of sleep, on my way to do a daytime poetry reading.

The book’s interesting, but it’s not crazy out-there to want to urge all manufacturers of all objects to take care w/r/t the appearance of their works. It’s an engaging read and it has been listened to and acted upon in the decades since it was written, which is great.

I’m too sleepy to write more. Gonna have a poo and a nap, I think. Back properly soon.

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The poo was absolutely massive.

The way I wanted to tie this post to discussion of folk art was by saying that people throughout non-mechanised spaces have been deliberately making things more beautiful than they need to be for all time, and it was only with the rise of mass production that aesthetics got lost as “businesspeople” made things fast and cheap and easy for massive profits. Wanting beautiful things is a natural, ancient, human instinct: we have evidence of artful production dating back tens of thousands of years; Manuri only had to write this tract due to a couple of hundreds of years of lazy human manufacture. I’m glad it was listened to, I’m glad it was heeded, because now the mass producers of objects have their heads into aesthetics and we get to be surrounded by inexpensive, consistently more beautiful, objects than we did 70 years ago, right?

Well, some of us do. Manuri never gets into class, which is what really dates this book. Other than that, though, it does what it’s meant to.

Bang.


1. I don’t mean that posh and provincial are opposites, far from it, they’re incredibly similar. I mean that middle class self-hating metropolitan people like me, and the people I’m friends with, would never approach a stranger to ask to speak to their dog, unless they were disgustingly – and I do mean disgustingly – intoxicated. The only people who feel comfortable invading the personal space of a stranger to interact with a dog are those who are used to treating the world like it’s one big friendly playground: i.e. people who’ve either been told they’re Hot Shit from birth OR people who’ve spent too much time relaxed in the countryside and not enough time hating themselves because they don’t feel 100% on board with the societal role they have been handed. Over-familiarity is a disgusting habit: it should be banned. People should only be allowed to speak to people who have actively opted in to receive conversation from that specific person. Online rules should be applied in life, it would be LOVELY. 

2. This reminds me of one of my own poems: “Yes, / Nice things Are nice / But / Nice people are nicer.” 

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