Fifty years ago, the design world received the equivalent of a massive blow to the head. Only instead of stars, designers saw soaring blades of grass, polyurethane cacti, and pillowy vermilion lips—soft enough to nap on.
From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Italy’s Radical Design Movement shook traditional design loose of its underpinnings, helmed by now-iconic design incubators like Zanotta—made famous for its brazen use of industrial materials, including the adaptation of Fiat car manufacturing technology into furniture production—and Gufram, whose seminal Bocca sofa still invites sitters into its kiss. It was a period marked by intense creative growth, playful conceits, and the unprecedented intermingling of serious social activism, incisive political commentary, and design.
“We usually think about those years as the epitome of change in habits and morality…years identified with revolution and anti-establishment non–conformism,” says Gufram CEO and Global Creative Orchestrator Charley Vezza. “Radical Design was a profound disruption, and it changed everything.”
Italy’s radical designers were fixated on upending tradition: They turned their backs on a past tarred by racism, fascist politics, and war, and forged a new path forward, wielding unorthodox materials and highly saturated colors as their tools. “Radical Design showed, in a provocative way, how individual objects could extend well beyond simple utilitarian function to become elements of a different future,” says Giuliano Mosconi, CEO of Zanotta and its parent company, Tecno. Though radical designers frequently referenced historical objects in works like Capitello, a luxury chaise lounge evoking ancient Ionic columns, such pieces were deliberately divorced from their cultural context and reappropriated to subvert traditional notions of good taste—another social standard more radical designers attempted to smash to smithereens. From leopard print to plastic, tractor trailer seats to disco balls, anything that might be deemed tacky or low-brow was seized and assimilated into Radical Design, yielding artifacts that were simultaneously weird, wonderful, and sharply critical of prevailing bourgeois cultural norms.
Though Radical Design dwindled by the late 1970s, its impact reverberates to this day, embedded in products being fabricated in an era defined by hyperpolarized political discourse, chaotic social media feeds, and selfie sticks alike. Gufram, for one, embraces the plurality. “Looking at our catalogue and thinking about the political situation in Italy [today], our Broken Mirror can be seen as a symbol,” says Vezza, referring to a Gufram mirror that, in homage to the mischievous style of Italian Radical Design, appears as a sliver of sky made visible through a crack in a wall. “It reflects perfectly the social and political climate: There is a breach in the wall concealing a mirror, and everyone will be more narcissistically interested in looking at themselves than in fixing the wall.”
Though he sees Zanotta’s portfolio as less subversive, Mosconi believes that Radical Design remains a vital force in the brand’s lifeblood. “Our catalog still contains all of the objects designed for us by the central figures of the radical period,” says Mosconi. “[Alessandro] Mendini, [Ettore] Sottsass, Superstudio, Gatti-Paolini-Teodoro with the Sacco [beanbag-style chair]. Their whimsical and occasionally ironic presence still lies at the core of our company’s DNA, providing the foundation for our new designs.”
Revolutionary historical legacies can be a torment to live up to, which is why Gufram and Zanotta choose to celebrate the past with eyes set firmly on the future. “On the walls at [our] headquarters we’ve written, ‘Redesign the future in the future work,’” says Mosconi, emphasizing Zanotta’s dedication to creating spaces that are responsive to the needs of today’s digital citizenry. “When we develop new products, we do not want to think about the functional needs of the past. The boundary between work and free time no longer exists: In the workplace there need to be areas for thinking, for sharing, and to spark creativity. Working spaces now contain more and more objects that, until recently, were considered purely residential.”
Beginning this fall, Gufram and Zanotta will come together as part of a momentous in-store collaboration with Barneys New York at Madison Avenue. “It’s a great achievement to be exhibited at Barneys,” says Vezza. “[They have] translated glamour into a thorough search for quality and the unconventional. That’s why Gufram fits so well. Barneys has never chosen the obvious, and this collaboration proves it.”