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Bruno Munari's Design as Art

Bruno Munari’s collection of essays is ‘the purest delight’ of Penguin Classics’ series of reissued design and art books, says Robert Harbison

Design as Art, by Bruno Munari. Penguin, 2008 (first published 1971), 224pp, £8.99

Penguin Classics has reissued a set of books on art, design and media from the 1960s and 1970s. They include Susan Sontag’s On Photography (originally published in 1977) Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s The Medium is the Massage (1967) and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972).

The purest delight of the batch is Italian graphic designer Bruno Munari’s Design as
Art (1971). You may have noticed Munari in the recent exhibition on pre-1945 European photomontage at the Estorick Collection in London, where his work stood out among all the propaganda for its lightness and wit. As well as collage, he turned his hand in a long career to advertising, children’s books, homely objects like lamps and ashtrays, and various sorts of projection art.

He preaches a Bauhaus-like functionalism that retains unlikely traces of the futurism
and surrealism with which he grew up. A constant feature of both Munari’s designs and his writing is a kind of playfulness that delights in imagining incongruities; such as designing spyholes toward the rear of automobiles that make parking easier.

The puritanical residue one expects in a functionalist comes out in the form of jokes. He loathes car design as it is mostly practiced (he views the plethora of accessories for improving them as proof they’re not designed well in the first place), but describes cars amusingly as part machine and part drawing room.

Design as Art consists of 40-odd brief pieces that originally appeared in a Milan-based newspaper. Each one takes up a design question or problem, such as wear and tear. That particular subject is illustrated by the archetypal wooden spoon found in every kitchen, whose sheared-off shape is created by use and shows the designer how the spoon should have looked to start with. The special Munari touch is the observation that we have eaten the missing part of the spoon, which has slowly over time mixed up in our soup.

My favourite is his essay on life in a traditional Japanese house, a subject I have already thought and read a fair amount about. It’s treated here with remarkable freshness. He mentions what is missing and what is present, noting that the house incorporates the key principles of contemporary Western thinking – modules, prefabrication, mass production – and still manages to convey direct existential pleasure in being able to ‘put the walls and windows where one wants them… walls moved with a fingertip that run in grooves scarcely wider than a scratch’. He describes the ventilation of the Japanese house with the lucidity he brings to all his explanations of how things work, suffused with pleasure at the idea of these economical little strokes of human ingenuity.

Towards the end, how-to chapters demystify Munari’s own practice as an artist, telling you how to design a poster, project a dragonfly’s wing at wall size, a miracle of design in itself, or create colour symphonies using polarised light.

Showing the skills that made him a writer of children’s books, Munari can make the unlikeliest subjects interesting, such as the mixing of 12,000 different colours. He sees this as a problem he must solve before your very eyes, pulling back near the end of the essay because he imagines all the samples on a single extended strip that is getting too long to fit in the room we are in.

It is this mischievous realism that makes Bruno Munari such an entertaining teacher and such a convincing spokesman for his democratic vision of the function of art.

This spoonful of Munari’s teachings is worthy of a second serving

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