The Mihir Chronicles

Design As Art by Bruno Munari

September 28, 2022

I. Brief Summary

Design as Art is a collection of Munari’s essays on various topics concerning design and art. He was among the most inspirational designers of all time, described by Picasso as 'the new Leonardo'. He insisted that design ought to be beautiful, functional and accessible. He shares his thoughts on visual, graphic and industrial design and the role it plays in the objects (lamps, road signs, typography, posters, children's books, advertising, cars and chairs) we use everyday. The book is precise, smart, and humorous on the topic of relationship between art and design. His writing is meditative. His ability to share thoughts on when design needs to step back and when it needs to step up and his maddening account on the various types of chairs or knives are still relevant in contemporary times. Munari’s mid-century Italian humour pairs well with his immense knowledge of the tradition of commercial design as an art form. It helps you engage with everyday objects as not just objects of utility, but expressions of culture and aesthetic value.

II. Big Ideas

  • If art asks questions then design answers them.
  • Design is planning: the planning as objectively as possible of everything that goes to make up the surroundings and atmosphere in which men live today.
  • Stylists
    • The problem with that is that styles tend to go out of fashion. By styling your design with the latest trend you put an end-of-use date on that thing you’re designing. The design of the object is no longer itself, it’s something external–something fickle. We decorate and style those objects in a superficial coat, that has no purpose other than to look attractive. We look at the world of art in art galleries, or the world of architecture of great old Renaissance villas, and we transfer it to our own designs for everyday objects.
  • Japanese designs
    • Throughout the book Munari keeps going back to Japanese design, which he approves. Japanese designs thrive because it’s designing the object as the object itself, and not an imitation of something else.
    • Another important element of Japanese design is its close connection to the materials used–an intelligent use of each material depending on its looks and properties. As a result, Japanese design embodies the object with both, its function, and the properties of the materials used.
    • Take chopsticks. Two pieces of wood. The same pieces of wood can be served to anyone, regardless of their status, and regardless of the occasion. They are simply designed, light and easy to make. They are cheap and you can throw them out after a meal. Compare this to Western cutlery. You can buy all sorts of knives, forks and spoons. They can be cheap, expensive, steel, silver, funny, serious, light, heavy, and so on, and never mind the various utensils and knives designed specifically for different dishes, whether that be some Parmesan cheese, or a rack of lamb. Moving to a new house? You better make sure you’ve bought all the various cutlery you’ll need. The Western utensil is an explosion of complexity where as the chopstick is an eating tool reduced to its simplest form.
    • The ancient Japanese word for art is Asobi, but it also means game. Bruno Munari sees art–not something exclusive to the halls of elite exhibitions, but something exploratory that involves the viewer as much as the artist.
  • Useless machines
    • Throughout the book Munari introduces some of his own inventions, pieces of art he calls useless machines. Munari’s playful, experimental approach is inspiring and original.
    • For example, one such thing is something you would hang on the ceiling that’s made out of fine metal mesh, curved on itself several times over. The resulting object will wobble and rotate slightly as the air passes around it, but the real point is the shadow that it casts–something that looks like a pencil sketch due to the metal mesh pattern, but at the same time animated and flowing, like a cloud. It’s art that breaks out of the old two dimensions of paintings, and becomes three and four dimensional with the addition of time through animation. It is also spontaneous art–the object takes the properties of its material and produces something unique to itself with little direction from the artist.
  • Nature
    • ‘Copying nature’ is one thing and understanding nature is another. Copying nature can be simply a form of manual dexterity that does not help us to understand, for it shows us things just as we are accustomed to seeing them. But studying the structures of nature, observing the evolution of forms, can give everyone a better understanding of the world we live in.
    • The designer of course does not operate in nature, but within the orbit of industrial production, and therefore his projects will aim at a different kind of spontaneity, an industrial spontaneity based on simplicity and economy in construction. There are limits of how far simplicity of structure can be taken, and it is exciting to push things to these limits.
  • Form
    • An object should be judged by whether it has a form consistent with its use.
    • A leaf on a tree, is beautiful whether you have ever thought about it or not. It has the unique beautiful form because it belongs to a certain tree, where it fulfills a certain function. This unique form that the leaf has — its structure — is determined by the veins and capillaries which carry the sap. The leaf is beautiful, not because it is stylish, but because it is perfectly natural — it has been created in its exact form, by its exact function. This beauty is what an ideal designer should try to create in his work — the work should feel as natural, as does a leaf on a tree.
    • A designer is a human being with his own tastes and preferences, but he does not suffocate his work with his personal ideologies, he tries to be objective. He simply helps that object, to make itself, by the proper means.
    • If we look around us we see a lot of art and design trying to represent something else. Art is trying to depict certain scenes of our own world and nature, design trying to mimic other objects.
    • In his view the role of a designer is to create the thing in itself, in the form of itself, not an imitation of something else. The form should be almost spontaneous, governed by the function of the thing and the materials used to create it. Other factors that will influence the design are cost of manufacture and transportation–important factors of industrial design.
  • Luxury
    • A laugh is an external sign of inner balance, while a gloomy face is the sign of gloom in the spirit. (Zen)...this is particularly true of Italians, who have a mania for luxury.
    • What does luxury consist of, for the vast majority of the people who buy or rent homes? As a general rule, value is confused with price, and the things that cost most are the most luxurious. Someone accustomed to using an enamelled chamber-pot thinks that luxury means having a gold one. He will not change his habits, but he must have the most ex- pensive thing of its kind: a gold chamber-pot.
    • But it is not marbles, chandeliers, panoramic windows and outrageously expensive things which make a gentle- man's residence. If the person living in it is a gentleman the house will match him: it will be modest, quiet, hospitable, and will have all the necessary comforts without falling over backwards to achieve them.
    • These are uncluttered houses, built by uncluttered builders for uncluttered tenants.
    • Luxury is the manifestation of uncivilized richness that wants to impress who is poor. It is the manifestation of the importance given to exteriority and reveals the lack of interest for cultural erudition. It is the triumph of appearance over substance.
    • Luxury is a necessity for people who want to feel a sense of dominance over others. But if those others are civilized they will understand that luxury is pretence, if they are ignorant people they will admire and even envy those who live in luxury. But who cares about the admiration of ignorant people? Perhaps fools. Luxury is indeed a manifestation of foolishness. For instance: what do you need golden faucets for? If from those faucets it comes out polluted water wouldn’t it be better to spend money on a water depurator and use regular faucets? Then luxury is the wrong use of expensive material that does not improve function, and therefore it is foolish.
    • When a lot of money comes along before culture arrives, we get the phenomenon of the gold telephone. And when I say culture I don’t mean academic knowledge, I mean information: information about what is happening in the world, about the things that make life interesting.

III. Quotes

  • A designer is a planner with an aesthetic sense.
  • The designer of today re-establishes the long-lost contact between art and the public, between living people and art as a living thing. Instead of pictures for the drawing-room, electric gadgets for the kitchen. 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.
  • 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.
  • Design came into being in 1919, when Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus at Weimar. Part of the prospectus of this school reads: s'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 health. 'Thus our job is to invest a new system of education that may lead to a complete knowledge of human needs and a universal awareness of them.'...What Gropius wrote is still valid. Tis first school of design did tend to make a new kind of artist, an artist useful to society because he helps society to recover its balance, and not to lurch between a false world to live one's material life in and ideal world to take moral revenge in.
  • The vase once had an extremely common use. Most probably it was used for cooking-oil. It was made by a designer of those times, when art and life went hand in hand and there was no such thing as a work of art to look at and just any old thing to use.
  • The greatest freedom comes from the greatest strictness. — Paul Valéry
  • 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 gave achieved a balanced life.
  • To understand means to be capable of doing. — Goethè
  • People haven’t got time to stop in the street, size a poster up, see what it refers to and then decide whether or not it interests them. Communication must be instant and it must be exact.
  • When one studies something characteristic of a people it is wise to look at its best side, at least if one wants to learn anything. Ugly things are ugly in much the same way the world over. Only the best can teach us, and the best of anything is individual. Each country excels in some things, and in the rest is just the same as other countries: mediocre.
  • The stylist works by contrast. After a season of violet, one can predict a season of yellow.
  • It is certainly quite wrong to read a poem in a hurry, as if it were a telegram.
  • What is a car, for many people, if not a piece of travelling sculpture?
  • As long as art stands aside from the problems of life it will only interest a very few people.
  • What then is this thing called Design if it is neither style nor applied art? It is planning: the planning as objectively as possible of everything that goes to make up the surroundings and atmosphere in which men live today. This atmosphere is created by all the objects produced by industry, from glasses to houses and even cities. It is planning done without preconceived notions of style, attempting only to give each thing its logical structure and proper material, and in consequence its logical form.
  • By designing without any stylistic or formal preconceived notions, and tending towards the natural formation of things, one gets the essence of a product. This means using the most appropriate materials of the correct thickness, reducing working hours to a minimum, combining a number of functions in one element, making all attachments simple, using as few different materials as possible for each single object, trying to abolish the need for finishing off in detail, doing any necessary lettering during the original pressing, and bearing in mind that the object should take up as little storage space as possible and should assemble itself automatically when ready for use.
  • I TAO PI PU TAO’: If the idea is there, the brush can spare itself the work. (Ancient rule of Chinese painting.)
  • An artist is a man who digests his own subjective impressions and knows how to find a general objective meaning in them, and how to express them in a convincing form. — Maxim Gorky
  • A poem only communicates if read slowly: only then does it have time to create a state of mind in which the images can form and be transformed.
  • Any knowledge of the world we live in is useful, and enables us to understand things that previously we did not know existed.
  • Concern yourself with things before they come into existence. — Tao Te-ching
  • Naturally, this puts an end to the already tarnished image of the work of art as a rare and even unique thing, independent of what it expresses.
  • According to an ancient Chinese saying, infinity is a square without corners.
  • We therefore have an object that is absolutely useless to man, an object good for nothing better than being looked at, or at the most sniffed (though it seems that some producers have now invaded the market with roses that do not even have the virtue of scent). This is an object without justification, and one moreover that may lead the worker to think futile thoughts. It is, in the last analysis, even immoral.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.’
  • ...these are certainly not objects produced by designers, for designers do not have such raging imaginations. They confine themselves to making candlesticks that look like candlesticks.