Radical Design was the latest in a number of shows, including a special exhibition at the 1996 Architecture Biennale in Venice, devoted to the “radicals” of the 1960s and 1970s.1 That exhibition made clear that the “radical” approach did not concentrate on objects exclusively, but was in fact rather expansive: “from the spoon to the city.”2
In the beginning, Radical Design was an informal network, consisting primarily of young Italian architects who had forged friendships over their shared interests.3 Lacking building contracts, they began experimenting on a 1:1 scale, producing objects in practices that straddled the lines between design, art, and theory. This plainly adhered to the Italian tradition of architects who are active as designers and intellectuals as well. But in contrast to the representatives of earlier generations, these new Italian radicals came of age during a period of crisis. Graduates of architecture schools were extremely hard-pressed to secure building contracts in the 1960s.4 Their predicament was exacerbated by an increasing disillusionment with the “great masters” of modernism. Additionally, consumerism and mass production had become facts of life. The young Italians could not tolerate the idea of simply producing attractive objects that would then be absorbed by the systems of unfettered capitalism. Instead, they endeavored to develop designs that would resist mass consumption. Groups like Archizoom and Superstudio, and architects like Gaetano Pesce, Ugo La Pietra, and Ettore Sottsass, sought to challenge the limits of “good taste.” Their designs traded in the banal and the trivial, the absurd and the provocative, the fantastical and the contradictory. What emerged were a number of projects. Of these, only seven were on display in Weil am Rhein.
A small number, to be sure. And they were not exhibited in the Vitra Design Museum itself, but rather in the museum's Schaudepot, a visible storage center (Figure 1). In fact, Radical Design was the first show in the building, which was designed by the Basel architects Herzog & de Meuron and opened in June 2016. The exhibition space is very limited, but it offers the opportunity to show design in a larger context.
The temporary exhibition was installed in the main hall of the building, among four hundred other pieces of furniture from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—just some of the roughly twenty thousand objects that make up Vitra's collection. The hall is a long space with a gabled ceiling that recalls Herzog & de Meuron's VitraHaus. Tall metal racks stand in five rows that divide up the exhibition space. A circulation corridor is left open along the room's central axis. The racks, which contain exhibits arranged in chronological order, partition the space into four large zones through which visitors can move. These in-between spaces have various dimensions, allowing temporary shows to take place in the two larger areas.
To distinguish the Radical Design exhibits from the various objects in the collection surrounding them, the curators placed Alessandro Mendini's chair Lassù in the central corridor between the racks. The version of the chair displayed was a rarity—Mendini set fire to two identical versions for the cover photo of the July 1974 issue of Casabella, an Italian architecture magazine. One of them was displayed in the Schaudepot. The chair exemplifies some of the themes that characterize Radical Design: creation and destruction as anthropological constants, reflection on the objects of everyday and ritualized use, and evocations of the Italian arte povera movement.
Mendini's idiosyncratic object was flanked by two additional pieces of furniture. On one side was the seat La Mama (1969), from Gaetano Pesce's Up series of armchairs. That work's connection to art from the 1960s is also clear, with its bright-red fabric and striking allusions to feminine curves that recall pop art. Physical contact with the chair becomes its own happening of sorts, drawing attention to the way we interact with feminine bodies. Pesce's piece was contrasted with another object on display, Superstudio's coolly rational Quaderna table (1969), the surface of which consists of white squares within a rigid grid of black lines. The table is based on the group's concept of using exclusively square and cubic forms, thus precluding creative gestures within design. Superstudio's films La vita and Ceremonia (both 1972) played on the wall behind the table. They depict a world in which objects have become superfluous, which leads humankind to coalesce once more around its rituals.
On the other side of Mendini's chair stood Guido Drocco and Franco Mello's Cactus (1971), an unusual coatrack of polyurethane foam. It was situated next to two “stools” shaped like stones. Behind them sat a polyurethane foam chair, this one designed by the group Studio 65 to look like the capital of an Ionic column lying aslant (1971). While Cactus also evokes pop art, the allusions of Studio 65's work are more historical, aligning it more closely with architectural postmodernism. Additional films played behind these pieces. They were projected on the rear wall of a lower-level room in the Schaudepot that is visible from the exhibition space in the main hall. The videos showed specialists discussing the subject of the exhibition. Along with the Superstudio films, they served as the theoretical framework that held the exhibition together.
The objects featured in this show could not be described as representative of Radical Design as a whole, as the projects associated with the movement are too varied to be encapsulated in only seven examples. Instead, the exhibition attempted to present the objects in their broad historical context. They were surrounded directly by works of design from the decades that preceded them, and works that immediately followed the movement were displayed in the second half of the temporary exhibition in the rear of the hall. There, a shelf contained the room divider Carlton (1981), by Ettore Sottsass Jr., produced for the Memphis Group. The surrounding shelves were filled with additional objects from the recent past that would likely be familiar to architectural historians but not to a broader audience.
To incorporate even more diversity, the exhibition included a large virtual component as well: a smartphone or tablet app containing detailed digital information on the various objects on display. The app also enabled users to draw connections between the works featured and others from the collection that were not included. In this way, the exhibition offset the insularity characteristic of storage spaces with visibility and accessibility. Synthesizing these opposing qualities in a single project was a worthy homage to the practice of the radicals themselves.