Fabio Fornasari – Architect and Museologist
Two Simple Things
My present task is to accompany the reader in getting to know the Design Collection which the Museo Omero has accommodated within its premises so that it can be observed and explored.
A simple operation. Collecting is a propensity which distinguishes us as human beings. But as practised by the Museo Omero it is a propensity which always exhibits particular features. The Museo Omero does not just collect, organise and display its contents within a given space; it has set itself the task of “reading with the hands” or deciphering through touch. But the items can also be looked at – sight is not precluded.
These are the first simple rules for approaching any project involving the Museo Omero. For regular readers of this review they are self evident. But this is a useful starting point for me to say something equally simple for those who know the museum.
I deliberately said that the items are there to be touched but that they can also be viewed, putting it that way round. The reversal of priorities is fundamental because it shows us, in a nutshell, that this approach reminds us of the democratic principle on which the Museo Omero is founded: everybody has the right to construe by using their own faculties. Exploration through touch is a deliberate challenge to the established order.
Touching, looking and listening are the three main gateways of perception and they underlie any dialogue between the Museo Omero and its multiple publics. It is this that might be called the Museum’s “added value” and which Aldo Grassini and Daniela Bottegoni continue to show us in their work today as in the past.
It may not seem very helpful to recount how the Design Collection was conceived and developed, but in the words of Enzo Mari, “everything we do is political; the difference is whether we are aware of it or not”.
Enzo Mari was one of the most important Italian designers. More than anyone else, he took on the role of the person who was fully conscious, fully aware that Industrial Design was not merely about producing goods but a project for democratizing society.
From the post-war period onwards, the transformation from an agricultural to an industrial society has changed Italy and the Italians. Today we can say that the outcome is not yet perfect; we live in an Italy which still has much to do, much to correct. This was clear to those very designers who were the first to militate for a multisensory society, one that could break away from tradition and custom and accommodate the new needs which were beginning to emerge.
But if we find ourselves today talking about a Design Collection in a museum where the original works can be touched, it is a sign that a change has taken place. And it is not the only evolution of its kind in Italy. Precisely because of Covid we have become conscious of how much care we all need. The museums have had time to develop a new awareness conducive to reconnecting with those publics which in the meantime had been kept at a distance. And this has stimulated attention.
Design as Procedure
The opening of the Design Collection demonstrates the continuity of the Museo Omero’s policy which now has the endorsement of museological studies.
For the writer it has also been an opportunity to show what it means to plan a museum experience following a rationale which starts from the tactile and expands to involve all the senses – a way to show what the designer reflects on, to show how he acts and what he acts upon when he passes from abstract thought to producing an artefact which is sensible matter.
It is not enough by itself to say “It is forbidden not to touch”, even though it is a legitimate provocation. Giving pre-eminence to the experience of exploring the object with one’s hands overturns the proprieties, the grammars and writing codes of an exhibition. It affects layout and itinerary. It is a proceeding which revamps the interactions between things and us.
The entire exhibition area works to enable this possibility, this priority, and for the museum-goer it is a necessity. It is the rule which determines the design of the display, the interaction with space, the relations between people.
The Term Design
The term design refers to the activity of devising objects, products or tools, whether for domestic or work purposes, which can be produced either artisanally or industrially, where technical features coexist with aesthetic ones (design = project)
This is an opening passage by Andrea Branzi published on the Treccani website. It is the first part of a text which goes on to show us much of the thought that revolves around design, understood not only as the production of objects but as objects in relation to society. Discussing, showing things in relation to their interactions with society is necessary if we are to understand society.
It is interesting to note the reference to the aesthetic dimension. In common parlance, design is usually seen as a world of things apart. Not the totality of things, but certain things: those that make it a rule to combine expressiveness (aesthetics) with technique (production process).
The collection which we exhibit proceeds from a recognition of this bond. There are museums without a collection, museums which display processes, use the potentiaties of the public, their emotional input placed in a certain spatial relationship, in order to generate the experience which becomes an exhibition, for themselves and others. These are the relational museums which operate through that immaterial dimension which is linked to Experience Design, to Relational Design, and which involves the individual embedded in society. But our collection is in the sphere of product design. This is an important distinction because design is an umbrella word which covers a wealth of meanings.
Our collection is in fact based on solid principles which identify design with that array of artefacts which used to constitute everything that “Made in Italy” stands for and which gets its fullest recognition in the Compasso d’Oro Award.
The Compasso d’Oro is not just an award; first and foremost it is an acknowledgment which allows the Associazione per il Disegno Industriale-ADI to promote Italian design research. ADI was founded in Milan in 1956 and includes among its members companies, designers, journalists, scholars and, more generally, anyone involved in design. It is considered to be the most important recognition of all.
This is why we turn to it as a beacon in searching, among the wealth of objects produced over time, for those we believe to be most useful, those which reveal the aesthetic dimension alongside the technical. The Compasso d’Oro award is the Oscar of the design world. It turns the spotlight on the entire output of the winning firm or designer. So, not all the artefacts displayed are themselves prize winners but they are, as it were, illuminated by the same beacon. Our purpose is inseparable from what was outlined before: it is imperative for us to add tactile values to the selection criteria. If the essential is invisible to the eye, then the essential article – the one to include in the collection, to exhibit and to explore – must first of all be chosen by touch of hand.
This is a word which is used a lot when talking about design – a word, like one or two others, which is not always beloved because overused and misapplied. But for us it is a sign of the attention received by a particular object among all the others. It is the hallmark of that object.
The iconic dimension of an artefact is therefore not only visual; it is the whole rhetoric surrounding its history which makes it important to us.
The Design Collection assembles objects illuminated directly or indirectly by the light of the Compasso d’Oro award and which the critical literature on design describes as iconic, major landmarks.
These were the criteria for selecting the artefacts and shaping the collection.
The number of exhibits is limited to 32, an apparently arbitrary number but one which prompts a musical digression with conceptual implications. In music two major composers – Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven – produced two works which, had they been design products would be called iconic. Both works are a set of 32 variations. Put very succinctly, Bach’s Goldberg Variations express a response to the idea that time, filled with sounds, generates rhythms, solids and voids which compose architectural structures in sound. In Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, it is the more emotional dimension, linked to the feelings explored in the pianism, which speaks to us of the variation as a basic dimension for holding ourselves together, for ensuring our inclusion, not amid oppositions but amid continuous modifications.
In a similar way to the two sets of variations, the Design Collection seeks to display the “gradations” by which we inhabit the world through our use of things. All the artefacts exhibited are small “architectures” made up of rhythms, solids and voids, but they also testify to emotions and feelings. How many chairs do we know or have we tried? The collection puts on show varieties, or “variations”: variations on a seat – in the form of a glass wave, a sack, a mouth, a dog, a rocking horse. All are variations, in terms not just of technology but attitudes to life. The Design Collection is this: a response to our way of occupying space, of using it with things, over time.
All the objects that we acquire are contained, sold, transported in boxes. These containers are not only there to protect the product during transportation; they are also a vehicle of communication, conveying information, narratives, stories about the thing inside. They contextualize it on the product market and in the collective imagination which it feeds.
One example is the packaging for the articles designed by ALESSI, with the figure of Alessandro Mendini, designer and design theorist. The box is an organ of communication which puts the designer’s face on the cover and flanks it with thoughts about design in general and the product in particular. Another example also comes from the early years of the century: the Swedish low-cost furniture manufacturer, IKEA, is famous for the instruction leaflets included in the packaging; they have become synonymous with the company’s identity.
So the purpose of the box is not simply to protect the article; it communicates the identity of the product, contains instructions for its use before it is even seen or touched, before its imaginative and symbolic identity is recognised.
Our first thought is to repackage the objects, to construct a new box around them so as to introduce them, display them, suggest how they might be used.
The design of the box is linked to three things. The most important is the die, which cuts out the icon of the artefact from the material – resulting in the visual absence of the thing which becomes tactile presence, a border and a boundary to be touched. This is what we sense as we come in the main entrance to the Mole Vanvitelliana, the driveway which passes over the small bridge with its portal in the finest white Istrian stone.
As we walk up the brick-vaulted corridor, we notice the the small temple to Saint Roch ahead of us is perfectly cut out from the volume of the gallery. The gallery seems to have been fashioned deliberately to display the temple and allow our gaze to skim over it, as if inviting our vision to become almost tactile.
The die-cutting machine is backed up by a black relief print which isolates some freatures of the object from an iconic standpoint, showing how it works and its geometric, functional variation.
It also serves to enhance the account of each artefact in the collection, written by Chiara Alessi.
Relation and Interaction among Scripts
“Tante care cose” (‘So Many Dear Things’) is the title of a book by Chiara Alessi. Reading this work we realize that, for her, design is not merely a product but the living environment in which she has grown up, in which she has developed as an observer, harvesting and gleaning all that is said about design. She is the perfect person to narrate a story, to spin a yarn around the box, on the walls which enclose the exhibits. It is not just her accounts but the quality of her attention, her lightness, which we have found so useful in redesigning the box which contains the artefact.
The boxes do not merely provide explanations; they furnish interesting readings which extend over the containers that surround the artefacts while remaining open in the front. There is a Braille tablet in front of each exhibit – the first design object replicated thirty-two times, apparently always the same. Just as repackaging enhances the presentation of all the “dear things” on display, so Braille is the instruction leaflet for those who cannot see.
Unlike Chiara Alessi’s texts, these texts educate us in tactility, or responsiveness to stimulation of the sense of touch; they guide us in approaching the article, in what to search for when exploring it. The description of the product recalls the text in relief, but written in black. But its aim is to help, through tactile exploration, the development of what Montessori calls stereognostic sense: it is the three-dimensional, multisensory image of the object which not only the blind form in their minds through haptic perception; it is the tactility which is concentrated in the body.
These two texts are to be read in different ways: Chiara’s with the eyes, the Braille with the hands. They are two distinct texts which at once raise a relational question: if a sighted person wants to read the text in Braille, they can do so by using their eyes to translate it letter by letter or by asking an unsighted person to read it for them. The museum can be visited on one’s own, as we shall see, but the fullest experience is to be had through the interrelations between people interacting through different channels.
The museum was created with the idea that the exhibition can be visited in complete autonomy. There are two components which help to make this possible: the structure with its long counter which, like a ring, crosses the entire space, and the innovative digital technology which monitors and directs the visitor’s position in the display area.
The artefacts are mainly arranged along this counter which recalls a showroom: the commercial area where I can buy the articles on display, but repackaged within the form of communication mentioned before, communication which revolves around tactility. The counter is a feature which we all recognise where articles are exhibited in a linear fashion. It is serpentine in shape, which enables people to remember the arrangement of things better.
But what is fundamental and innovative is the chance to complete the itinerary autonomously thanks to digital technology: the two bracelets worn by visitors guide them along virtual corridors towards the objects to be touched. On arrival at the objects, two soundtracks start up: one in the exhibition area, the other heard only by the wearer of the bracelets.
The first soundtrack is the audio biography of the artefact. Created together with sound artist, Paolo Ferrario, it reconstructs an ideal sound environment around the object which does more than merely present the article in a didactic way; it questions what it might have heard of the life around it. It wonders, in a sonic key, what the artefact might have dreamt. It is a sound narrative at once poetic and artistic.
The second soundtrack is only heard in the headphones. It is a bone-conduction headphone which does not obstruct the outer ear and allows the wearer to hear Chiara Alessi’s text.
Everybody Out Room
While work on the project was in progress, the Museo Omero acted on an idea of Andrea Sòcrati’s for a neurodiversity room. The idea led to the creation of a protected environment with an exclusive emphasis on design. The aim of responding to the needs of those who seek a safe environment in which to be by themseves for a while was the spur to design a dedicated space, one which reflects the lives of the girl or boy who needs a little solitude to rediscover their equilibrium.
It is a area which takes its cue from a work by Carlo Antonelli (Einaudi, 1996) in which he interviews a generation of young Italians in their bedrooms, “a generation in their own room”. Here an intuitive grasp of the need for seclusion becomes an opportunity to introduce other objects akin to the thirty-two on display, other Compasso d’Oro award winners like Bruno Munari’s “Abitacolo”, or multifunctional bed, emblematic of a space free of the parental presence – and perhaps a good place to wind up.