Superstudio: Radical Italian Design of the 1960s
Keywords: Italian Anti-Design, Superstudio, Adolfo Natalini, Cristiano Torelado di Francia, Cultural Revolution, Archizoom, Andrea Branzi, Gilberto Corretti, Paolo Deganello, Dario Bartolini, Lucia Bartolini, Massimo Morozzi, Fragments From A Personal Museum, Il Monumento Continuo, Continuous Monument, Zanotta,Quaderna
The Italian Anti-Design movement was made up of various avant-garde groups. One of the first was Superstudio, a group of radical young architects founded in Florence in 1966 by Adolfo Natalini and Cristiano Torelado di Francia. Members of Superstudio had a strong agenda. They were disillusioned with Modernism, which had dominated architecture and design since the 1920s, but they also questioned the fundamental nature of design and the role of the designer.
All through this period, conventional Italian design was seen as the pinnacle of good taste and elegance. Consumption was very elitist and narcissistic, with products being traded as status symbols in an almost fetishistic way. Anti Designers tried to break this tyranny of good taste. Di Francia, wrote: “It is the designer who must attempt to re-evaluate his role in the nightmare he has helped to conceive.”
Superstudio was not alone in its concerns. The collective emerged at the moment when the technocratic optimism of the early 1960s was souring. The turning point was the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in China in 1966. Faith in Communism was shattered by Khrushchev’s exposure of Stalin's brutalities. Mao Tse-tung gave Western intellectuals a new cause to believe in after a decade of disillusionment. Events in China made Western society seem spiritually barren at a time of growing concern about the Vietnam War. In the visual arts, radicals rebelled against the extrovert imagery of Pop Art in favour of the politically engaged work of Fluxus artists like Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik. The rising tide of political frustration culminated in the 1968 student riots in Paris, London, Tokyo and Prague. Women formed feminist movements such as the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes in France and the Women's Liberation Front in the USA. Decades of oppression against gay men and women erupted in a pitched battle in New York, when the police tried to close the Stonewall, a gay bar in the West Village and a politicised gay rights movement exploded.
Superstudio's response was to develop 'Anti-Design' projects along with other radical architects and designers, notably the members of Archizoom, another Florentine group consisting of Andrea Branzi, Gilberto Corretti, Paolo Deganello, Dario and Lucia Bartolini and Massimo Morozzi. Both groups were founded in 1966 and their first important project was to express their theories about the crisis of modernism in the Superarchitecture exhibition in Pistoia, Italy. A year later, they refined the ideas aired in Superarchitecture in a joint follow-up show in Modena. This is how Superstudio described its work in a catalogue the group produced to accompany the 1973 exhibition Fragments From A Personal Museum at the Neue Galerie in Graz, Austria:
In the beginning we designed objects for production, designs to be turned into wood and steel, glass and brick or plastic - then we produced neutral and usable designs, then finally negative utopias, forewarning images of the horrors which architecture was laying in store for us with its scientific methods for the perpetuation of existing models.
Superstudio’s main tactic was to produce provocative photo-montages, films and exhibitions that were satirical, subversive and often iconoclastic. One of their most famous “designs” was a proposal for a grid-like superstructure that would wrap around the world. They called it Il Monumento Continuo, or Continuous Monument (1969). It was an anonymous uniform megastructure that would eventually cover the entire surface of the planet, stamping out all local cultures and leaving the Earth completely featureless; it would have been an endless, uniform suburb. This was a comment on globalisation and the spread of a uniform, homogenous architecture. They felt that the world was becoming swamped with international Modernism, which damaged historic cities and eradicated local cultures.
Superstudio did produce some actual design products. They designed a range of office furniture called Quaderna (1970), which was manufactured and sold by Zanotta. It consisted of stern, geometric forms covered in cheap plastic laminate. In fact, it looked very similar to the Continuous Monument. This was deliberately banal design. The Quaderna range was a criticism of consumer culture. It was comment on the excesses of Italian design and the continuous drive for novelty.
At that time, there was a conservation movement in Italy, which was spearheaded by a campaign called “Save the Historic Centres”. This was meant to protect the centres of Italy’s historic cities, such as Rome and Florence. Superstudio were radicals rather than conservatives, and they turned their back on the conservation movement. They unveiled a proposal to flood the centre of Florence by blocking the river Arno, leaving only Brunelleschi’s dome rising above the surface. Again, this wasn’t a serious proposal; they were attacking the clichéd idea within conservation circles that everything old is valuable. There was also an element of disdain that the past was being turned into a saleable commodity, which is what the heritage industry tends to do.
Superstudio’s work featured in an international exhibition called Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, which was a show of contemporary Italian design held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1972. A book with the same title was published and has become something of a classic.
The group was given prestigious international forum in 1973 when it was surveyed in a retrospective exhibition – Fragments From A Personal Museum – at the Neue Galerie in Graz. By then, most of the members of Superstudio were teaching at the University of Florence, where they had met as students. The group remained active throughout the mid-1970s, but closed in 1978 when the five founders concurred that they had lost momentum as a collaborative force and that they might be more effective working independently.
Superstudio's ideas have been more enduring than the group itself. Quaderna tables are still in production at Zanotta. The group's collages and drawings have been acquired by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The group's once radical theories about the environmental impact of architecture, the negative consequences of technology and the inability of politics to untangle complex social problems are now core concerns of self-aware architects and designers.
For more information on anti-design and radical design, see: