Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Bruno Munari the Explorer



Bruno Munari was an Italian, more specifically a Milanese, who chose to be a Futurist and is remembered as a designer. The preceding pronouns are all valid descriptions yet Munari was ultimately an explorer and expressed his respect for human imagination as the motivation for progress through research, industrial design, and graphic work. His individual contributions to society, from initial ideas to concrete executions, sit harmoniously within the perpetually evolving account of collective design history.

Bruno Munari was born in Milan, Italy, on October 24th, 1907, just around the explosion of modernist movements.  The first Futurist manifesto was produced by Italian writer and theorist Felippe Marinetti in late 1908, solidifying the progressive movement characterized by raging speed and intense dynamism. Marinetti’s violently expressive poetry is easily comparable with the typographically significant poem, “Un coup de des”, produced by French poet Stephane Mallarme in 1897.  Mallarme was satisfied with his execution because it did not push “far enough forward to shock, yet far enough forward to open people’s eyes” which contrasts greatly with Marinetti’s successfully shocking and purely Futurist work. (Hollis 37)  Bruno Munari participated mainly in Futurism and reflected the movement’s energy, dynamism, and autonomy in his work but with a subtle, less aggressive tone like Mallarme’s poetry. A non-purist, Munari also explored early Surrealism and Constructivism, giving himself creative flexibility.

The momentum of 20th century Modernism contributed greatly to the diverse materials and techniques used by Munari but the cohesiveness of his creative endeavors resulted from his grasp on his own intrinsic fixations and lighthearted nature.

Though Bruno Munari was born in Milan, he spent his childhood in the Italian countryside, where he was able to cultivate and preserve his intuitive interest in machines, objects, and nature. Removed from Milan’s busy exchanges of industrial materials and intellectual conversation, a young Munari built a mobile structure with friends that floated along the local river, propelled by a wooden wheel of a water mill. Munari later wrote about this “Great Machine”, “ that might have been built by Robinson Crusoe himself”, and proudly retells his fascination with the workings of the wheel alongside the beauty of the surrounding landscape. His childhood interests and the essence of untainted imagination motivated him from many angles, which solidified his work. (Munari)

Munari defined machines as “movable parts fixed together” to produce a result and this generalization allowed him to use the term when discussing objects. In 1933, he began building a series of “useless machines” from modest materials that figuratively pulled the abstract forms out of a Kadinsky painting and into a true atmosphere.(Munari) They were to be machines without purpose, functioning as concrete shapes interacting unpredictably with each other, giving viewers a sense of time and place.  He did not get much national praise at the time because the shift in Fascism in the 1920’s had the public and critics of Italy focused on the Novecento Italiano Movement and when comically describing the reaction of his friends, mostly Futurists, Munari said, “everyone laughed” at his useless machines, even those he ”most admired for the energy they put into their work.”(Munari) This rejection did not keep the well-calculated mobiles from being a critical part in the mechanical movement, which later joined with the Kinetic Art Movement, because they communicated the delicacy of a system of equilibrium.

Over the span of Munari’s profession obsessive research with temporary fixations left him with a plethora of elaborate conclusions about everything from circles to squares, posters to children and clocks to faces. In the 1960’s, Munari explored his interest “to know what bamboo means to the Japanese, how they grow it, use it, work it, eat it.” The bamboo, he concluded, was a beautiful material because its’ natural, yet very precise, form and the Japanese produced commendable crafts with it because they used it “according to its inherent nature”.  With this concept overhead, Munari wanted to apply the natural construction of excellent form seen in the bamboo to a lamp, a modern functional object. He settled on mere stockings and tubing to construct it and in search of knowledge of light fixtures, he went to a lamp factory with his materials and requested help, already understanding that manufacturers usually have “fixations” that  “impose limitations on themselves.” Eventually, he was able to get the necessary information from the company to experiment with lamp making. The lamps produced from this process became concrete forms, emerging from the elasticity of the stocking, the tension of metal rings, and gravity. As a product, the lamp could be shipped in a flat box and pulled out at its destination to grow into its final form before the buyer’s eyes. This final characteristic of the lamp is a small detail of many that spreads creative thinking to various types of people. This specified account illustrates the creative journey of Munari’s endless interests as they each evolved from a thought to a reflective object in society.   (Munari)

Munari described a child as “trying to understand the world he is living in”, “groping his way ahead from one experience to the next.( Munari 93 ) . He believed that adults couldn’t always communicate with children because adults are sometimes older in vain. Munari’s disappointment with this societal issue inspired him to make several toys and books that nurtured the conservation of children’s “creative and elastic mentality.” (Tanchis) His award winning bendable monkey and wire form Flexy, created in the 1960’s, proved that minimal material and context were important when designing for the innocent mind of a child. Munari felt that “study should be made of these instruments that take the form of playthings but which, in reality, liberate” oneself. (Tanchis)

As for books, Munari argued that children were far less interested in fantastical stories of princes and princesses than they were in simple stories about animals and plants. Munari saw a distinct difference between fantasy and creativity in that fantasy cannot be thought of in practical terms. Munari created children’s books with basic storylines and large colored illlustrations “drawn with clarity and precision.”(Munari)  “The Zoo” and “The ABC Book” are good examples of a basic Munari book that gives children clear images of the subjects as concrete objects instead of conceptual settings. One of Munari’s most imaginative children’s books is “The Circus in The Mist” which stimulates a visual progression through pages of semi-translucent paper, to a climatic circus of colorful construction papers with well planned circles cut throughout. 

Meticulous attention was given to each side of every page so that every layout would provide an image that was different from the last with remnants of the forms that created them. This would allow the hole through a page to act like the sun in one instance then a clown’s ball in the next. Prior to making “The Circus in The Mist”, in 1968, Munari had experimented with paper and created a few “pre-books” for children who were to young to read to themselves. These books gave control to the youngest of children to be involved in the “reading” of a book through their “sensory apparatus.” They tell a story that can’t be written but one that is “visual, sonorous, tactile, thermal and physical.” (Tanchis) The early introduction of a wordless book to children was meant to prepare them for “the book”, which to Munari could be seen as a machine of culture and knowledge, so that they understand the surprises and enjoyment of education.

Bruno Munari explored life, people, and objects for most of the 20th century, with motives independent from political and social institutions. He was able to find a convenient balance between being an individual and being part of a group as he participated in the intellectual exchanges of movements around him while still focusing on his specific personal passions. The development of collective design depends on strong individual development and Munari exemplifies how one can create greatness for society and for self at the same time.


Works Cited:

Hollis, Richard. Graphic Design: A Concise History. New York : Thames & Hudson , 2002.

Tanchis , Aldo. Bruno Munari. Cambridge: Idea Books Edizoni, 1987.

Munari, Bruno. Design as Art. Penguin Books Ltd., 1971.


Bruno Munari was an inspiration for the menu I designed for 360 Primo, an Italian cafe in central Austin. I didn't want to pull from the Munari's final products but rather from his design philosophy. I allowed myself to play with different types of paper and materials in order to create something that is uninhibited, much like the way Munari explored with materials. The basic shape in the menu is a square with a central circle that drills through each page was inspired by the crisp simple shapes that Munari favored over busy overwhelming compositions. I think it is the modesty of my menu paired with the hard lined shapes that successfully carry the spirit of Bruno Munari. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you.