Bruno Munari: Art as a profession

He used his creativity and his poetry in many aspects of communication but, above all, he taught us to see the world through the eyes of a child.

Nico Zardo

“Useless machines”, “Unreadable Books”, “Constructions for Wagging the Tails of Lazy Dogs”, “Fossils of the year 2000”, “Talking Forks”… re-reading the titles of his works, what may come to mind is the activity of an anarchic contester in search of provocation. In reality, the titles of his works represent a prologue and an extension of the work itself: a stimulating introduction that captures the attention and establishes a basis for a decisively original relationship with the interlocutor.

We are speaking about Bruno Munari, a great “agent of communication”, a man who requires the use of at least three nouns in order to be best described: artist, designer and educator. Several exhibitions have been dedicated to him (two in Milan and one in Parma) in honor of the centennial of his birth and the decade of his death.


“I HAVE TRIED TO COMMUNICATE WHAT OTHERS CAN’T SEE; FOR EXAMPLE, TO VIEW THE RAINBOW IN PROFILE”. “Complicating things is easy, simplifying them is difficult. (…) Simplification is the sign of intelligence. An antique Chinese proverb says: what cannot be told in few words cannot be told even in many”. These two sentences embody the synthesis of his philosophy and the spirit of his works.

Munari was born in 1907 and passed away in 1998. The artist spanned the entire twentieth century as a protagonist of deep cultural changes and an author of original and innovative proposals.


IN THE THIRTIES, following pictorial experiences in the field of the surrealism of Prampolini and Marinetti, Munari experiments with geometric and essential works that will lead him to the creation of the first “Useless machines” (1934): lightweight sculptures made of geometric elements hanging from threads and moved by the air. This idea of “moving” aesthetics where technique and function come into play to define a balanced and changing object, will imprint many of his creations, translating into works of graphics, objects of design, children’s books.


HIS APPROACH TO THE PROJECT IS CHARACTERIZED BY A SINCERE CURIOSITY TO FIND SIMPLE SOLUTIONS, using new techniques and instruments or using the existing ones in an innovative way. His lack of prevention leads him to re-invent things, starting from the objective conditions of his time, requiring simple production processes, technologically appropriate materials, ideas capable of supplying a strong added value to the product. With this spirit, he designs lamps and containers for the Danese company, and many of these – despite the fact that we live in a time of extremely brief product obsolescence – are still on the market!

In the creative process, Munari is often tempted by his artistic and poetic vein: he designs the folded “Travel Sculptures” (so we can take part of our own culture along when traveling), the “Chair for very brief visits” (a Singer 5000 still in production by Zanotta) with a sloped seat in order to discourage interlocutors who are not too fond of synthesis. With “Twenty-first Century Fossils” he underscores the obsolescence of technology, immerging thermo-iodic valves in transparent prisms made of polyester resin and proposes a metaphor of nature that includes insects in amber.

Munari confronts himself in more direct fashion with the “fourth dimension” by designing “Ora X” (1945 and re-proposed in 1963): a clock where the hands are comprised of transparent half-circles in the primary colors that, through their movement and superimposition, create all the other colors. With the “Free time” wristwatch designed for Swatch, the artist suggests a new abstraction of the idea of time, placing twelve small discs corresponding to the hours between two pieces of glass on the dial plate so that they can move freely with the motion of the wrist.


STARTING FROM 1930 MUNARI IS INVOLVED IN EDITORIAL GRAPHICS and designs advert campaigns for Campari; in 1942 he publishes with Einaudi the book “Munari’s machines” where he represents improbable devices to tame alarm clocks, wag the tail of lazy dogs or smell fake flowers. In 1945 he places his experience of fatherhood to work (his son Alberto was born in 1940), publishing with Mondadori a series of children’s books that will constitute the basis for the educational principles that he will develop subsequently. With his “Unreadable books” (1950) he suggests a different idea of the book by proposing a square, 32-page publication (10x10 cm) with no words except for the title, pages of different colors and shapes, cut, perforated: an invitation to search and discover, for an elementary perceptive experience.


IN 1954 HE WINS THE COMPASSO D’ORO DESIGN AWARD FOR A FOAM RUBBER TOY (ZIZI THE MONKEY) and in 1957 for his Ice bucket. In 1958 he offers an example of communicative capability by presenting the “Speaking forks”, where traditional cutlery takes on a joyful and expressive gestuality. His fame starts to diffuse also abroad: he exhibits in Europe and in the United States, makes frequent trips to Japan, finding in that country’s culture a strong affinity with his way of thinking. The graphics of the covers of the “Nuovo Politecnico” series of books by Einaudi (1965) with the red square on white background makes these books immediately recognizable but also recalls an affectionate tribute to the Japanese flag.

Among his graphic works, great popularity was attained by the Campari poster (1960) made by Munari through a collage of old advertisements so that it could be read “on the fly” by the users of Milan’s new metro. Once again attracted and “provoked” by new technologies, in 1964 Munari proposes his “Original Xerographies” and upsets the way of looking at the photocopying machine, turning a means for serial reproduction into an instrument for unique and unrepeatable works.


IN 1967 HE IS INVITED BY HARVARD UNIVERSITY to hold a course in visual communication at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From these lessons the book “Design and visual communication” is born and joins a series of volumes in which he illustrates his ideas on design.


HIS INTEREST IN CHILDHOOD, born with his experience as a father, leads him to maintain his book production constantly active: play that helps a child develop curiosity for the outside world and refines his or her sensory capabilities.

Books (just like the “Unreadable Books”) become games: pages not connected to each other, with color drawings printed on transparent plastic, may be freely superimposed to compose stories that are always different. Pages of motley materials offer children new sensory experiences. Differently shaped pages may be used as a trace to draw new forms. And still for children, in 1971 he designs “Abitacolo”, a multi-functional structure in steel that, in a minimal space, allows the child to create a habitat to use and live in as he or she personally chooses.


MUNARI’S ROLE AS EDUCATOR IS STRUCTURED INTO CHILDREN’S LABORATORIES (born officially in 1977) and becomes a patented pedagogical method that uses didactic games and small books containing very few words, privileging the observation of nature and considering the child’s cognitive process more important than the final result.

Defined as a “Peter Pan of the stature of Leonardo”(Pierre Restany), through his works, Munari has left us a precious inheritance and a light and poetic example of life, one that may help us to “see the rainbow in profile”. •

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