Modern Venetian Handicraft

Originally posted April 22, 2010 on

Last week (2010), Venice hosted a Design Leadership Summit that brought together a few hundred design leaders from the United States to discuss things that design leaders discuss. I was not invited, nor did I get a T-shirt. I did, however, find a book (in Brooklyn) called “Artigianato Veneto,” or Venetian Handicraft. Published in 1971, the book showcased recent work in fields such as glass, metal, ceramics, jewelry, wood, lace, printing, and textiles, while also tracing the traditions and history of these crafts as practiced in Venice.

The timing of the book suggests a civic purpose in terms of celebration and promotion. Being planned at the time was the seminal exhibition of Italian design to be held at MoMA in 1972 under the title “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape.” More to the point, held the year before, in 1970, was an exhibition in Milan called “Milan 70/70” that was both a retrospective of a century of design in Milan and a celebration of a decade that elevated Milan to the center of the design universe. For all its glorious craft traditions and modernist achievements, Venice was probably feeling like a second city, and “Artigianato Veneto” was probably an attempt to redress this imbalance while promoting Venetian crafts to the world (the text was printed in English, French, and German, as well as Italian).

Tradition and history are a source of civic pride, and the region around Venice, which includes Verona, Padua, and Murano, has a rich history of artisanship, manufacture, and trade. These histories are referenced for each of the crafts discussed, but the thrust of the book is forward-looking, toward the mid-20th century and beyond. How else could Venice respond to Milan’s indisputable leadership in conceptual, utopian, and anti-design? How else to compete with Joe Colombo, Vico Magistretti, Gae Aulenti, Achille Castiglioni, Flos, Artemide, and Kartell, but with a handicraft rooted in a glorious past yet creating a sort of beauty organically linked to the present? It is worth noting that plastic—both symbol and medium of 60’s avant garde Italian design—is not even mentioned in “Artigianato Veneto.”

What is mentioned, and what occupies the largest section of the book is, of course, glass from Murano. The catalog here shows masterworks of modernist glass in both technical and artistic capacity. Richly illustrated with works by Venini, Barovier, Seguso, Toso, Vistosi, Salviati, Barbini, and Martinuzzi, the glass section alone commends Venice to the attention of modern design enthusiasts, though the greater works are of mid-century rather than late 60’s origin. Shown here are vessels by Aureliano Toso and colorful turkeys by Venini.

Beyond glass, the book shows children’s furniture in wood by Gigi Sabadin, pottery and ceramics “in modern shapes” by Gastone Primon and Marisa Sartoretto, and a ceramic sculpture by Federico Bonaldi, very much in a late 1960’s idiom. Still, it is the metal work that catches the attention as the region’s second most interesting modernist craft. Padua shares the spotlight here with Venice, as it was home to Paolo de Poli, the enamalist who collaborated with Gio Ponti on a famous series of enameled animals, pictured here. Also shown is a fretwork silver vase by Andreina Rosa, a mirror with a zinc and lead frame from Artigiano Peltro, and a gold necklace by Atelier des Orfevres. Thrown in for good measure is a vignette of scarves by Tiziana Carraro.

Forty years later, the 60’s design from Milan remains conceptually compelling and, not incidentally, marketable. The best work produced in the Venetian region during this period, if less radical, still looks important and fresh, and as for marketability, I see a trip to Venice in my future. Hear that Leadership Committee?

Goldfinger on British Design

Originally posted April 8, 2010 on

Sorry, that would be Erno, not Auric. Born in Hungary, the modernist architect and furniture designer Erno Goldfinger (1902-87) moved to Paris in 1921, where he fell under the sway of Perret, Mies, and Le Corbusier. He moved to London in 1934 after marrying Ursula Blackwell, heiress to the Crosse and Blackwell fortune. The modernist scene Goldfinger encountered in Britain was conservative and stodgy compared to America and continental Europe. Sans Gropius, Breuer, and Chermayeff, all laid over in England pending transit to America, it might even have flatlined (apologies to Welles Coates and Betty Joel).

A comparison of “The Studio Yearbook,” a British publication, and “Domus,” the Gio Ponti-edited Italian publication, bears this generalization out visually. So too does the direction of the modern design market. In furniture and lighting design, at least, technical, stylistic, and conceptual innovation apparently skirted the British Isles. The Festival of Britain, held in 1951—exactly one century after the Crystal Palace Exhibition—was, like its predecessor, both an acknowledgement of cultural deficiency and a concerted effort to improve the situation.

Still, it would be polemical to call early postwar British design moribund. Erno Goldfinger’s “British Furniture Today” was published in 1951, and it shows a pulse to British modernist design prior to the impact of the Festival. Goldfinger reserved the cover for his own table, but whatever his merits as a designer—and I like the table on the cover—he was a perceptive and discriminating editor. His small and slim volume (5 inches by 7.5 inches by .5 inches) includes future icons by Ernest Race (the Antelope chair) and Robin Day (the so-called Festival chair), as well as the Saarinen-inspired shell chair by Dennis Young, Breuer’s plywood lounge for Jack Pritchard’s Isokon, the popular Stack-A-Bye chair of tubular steel and sheet metal, and the unit case series by Robin Day and Clive Latimer that won first prize in a 1950 MoMA low-cost furniture competition.

The value of Goldfinger’s book lies beyond these touchstones, however. A high percentage of the examples in the admittedly short book show what I would regard as dynamic and even edgy modern design. Goldfinger’s text, oriented toward rational, ergonomic, low-cost, mass-produced precepts (note that Goldfinger was commissioned to design offices for the Daily Worker newspaper and the British Communist Party headquarters) belies the expressive, joyously sculptural character of many of his selections.

Among the little-known pieces of avant-garde modernism identified by Goldfinger are the following, illustrated here: a radically curvilinear lounge chair with cutaway arms that channels Finn Juhl or Carlo Mollino by Neville Ward and Frank Austin; a slightly less radical wing chair in tune with the just-published work of Vladimir Kagan; an elegant and progressive-looking adjustable reclining chair, maybe Royere meets Kagan, by Clive Entwhistle for Design Research Unit; a demountable wooden chair along organic design principles by the design group Arcon; a garden seat in wood by the design historian and theorist David Pye (subject of a future post) that resembles the tradition-inspired modernist work of Charlotte Perriand or Clara Porset; a graphically interesting, Knoll-looking sideboard on hairpin metal legs by Ian Bradbury; and a stabile-like adjustable floor lamp by B.M. Schottlander.

Unfortunately, the pieces illustrated here, as well as most of the other interesting pieces shown by Goldfinger, failed to reach a large audience. I can’t think of many examples on the market today or even in the past decade. Perhaps more exposure to these pieces would lead to a renewed appreciation for early postwar British design. As it is, Goldfinger’s book points to the presence of young design talent in England, and provides a snapshot of a nascent cultural flowering, even if that flowering wasn’t realized until the mid-1960’s.

For the record: after a conversation on a golf course with a cousin of Ursula Goldinger’s, Ian Fleming named his Bond nemesis. Erno was not amused.