Brain Pickings

Bruno Munari on Design as a Bridge Between Art and Life

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“The designer of today re-establishes the long-lost contact between art and the public, between living people and art as a living thing.”

In the preface to his 1966 classic Design as Art (public library) — one of the most important and influential design books ever published — legendary Italian graphic designer Bruno Munari, once described by Picasso as “the new Leonardo,” makes a passionate case for democratizing art and making design the lubricant between romanticism and pragmatism.

Revisiting Munari’s iconic words is at once a reminder of how much has changed, and how little — but mostly a timeless vision for design’s highest, purest aspiration.

Munari begins:

Today it has become necessary to demolish the myth of the ‘star’ artist who only produces masterpieces for a small group of ultra-intelligent people. It must be understood that as long as art stands aside from the problems of life it will only interest a very few people. Culture today is becoming a mass affair, and the artist must step down from his pedestal and be prepared to make a sign for a butcher’s shop (if he knows how to do it). The artist must cast off the last rags of romanticism and become active as a man among men, well up in present-day techniques, materials and working methods. Without losing his innate aesthetic sense he must be able to respond with humility and competence to the demands his neighbors may make of him.

The designer of today re-establishes the long-lost contact between art and the public, between living people and art as a living thing. … There should be no such thing as art divorced from life, with beautiful things to look at and hideous things to use. If what we use every day is made with art, and not thrown together by chance or caprice, then we shall have nothing to hide.

In the introduction, he cites Maxim Gorky:

Munari cautions against holding on too stringently to conceptions of what art is and isn’t:

Anyone working in the field of design has a hard task ahead of him: to clear his neighbor’s mind of all preconceived notions of art and artists, notions picked up at schools where they condition you to think one way for the whole of your life, without stopping to think that life changes — and today more rapidly than ever. It is therefore up to us designers to make known our working methods in clear and simple terms, the methods we think are the truest, the most up-to-date, the most likely to resolve our common aesthetic problems. Anyone who uses a properly designed object feels the presence of an artist who has worked for him, bettering his living conditions and encouraging him to develop his taste and sense of beauty.

Munari cites from the school prospectus of Walter Groupis, who founded the Bauhaus in 1919 in what is considered the birth moment of design, with a lens on art education that parallels Isaac Asimov’s vision for science education:

‘We know that only the technical means of artistic achievement can be taught, not art itself. The function of art has in the past been given a formal importance which has severed it from our daily life; but art is always present when a people lives sincerely and healthily.

‘Our job is therefore to invent a new system of education that may lead — by way of a new kind of specialized teaching of science and technology — to a complete knowledge of human needs and a universal awareness of them.

‘Thus our task is to make a new kind of artist, a creator capable of understanding every kind of need: not because he is a prodigy, but because he knows how to approach human needs according to a precise method. We wish to make him conscious of his creative power, not scared of new facts, and independent of formulas in his own work.’

Munari ends on a note reminiscent of Lloyd Wright’s ethos, arguing for beauty as a kind of right:

When the objects we use every day and the surroundings we live in have become in themselves a work of art, then we shall be able to say that we have achieved a balanced life.

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