Review of ‘Design as Art’ by Bruno Munari

Design as Art is Munari’s 1966 book of essays bringing together his thoughts and musings on design and art. Is there a difference between an artist and a designer today he asks? Munari thought the designer was the artist of his day.

‘The designer of today re-establishes the long lost contact between art and the public, between living people and art as a living thing….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.’

Munari’s book read in 2011 comes across as an affront to the cognitive, UCD and UX focus group obsessed design so loved by corporations. Munari advocates a more emotional and empathetic response to the objects we design for people. Less User Centred Design and more Object Centred Design. He implores us to design from our humanness, from the being that is our culture and which we cannot escape. No greatness ever came from designing by numbers, a multitude of opinions or ROI analysis. It comes from form, from empathy for the function, from understanding and from the risk of being wrong. Taking risks is the key – if you dare not design without knowing what your audience says they want now then you will never design what they may want in the future. You will never make the leap of greatness. You will design within the ‘styles’ of the day, never to break out of the monotony of nowness.

‘A leaf is beautiful…because it is natural, created in its exact form by its exact function. A designer..does not smother his object with his own personal taste but tries to be objective. He helps the object, if I may so put it, to make itself by its own proper means, so that the ventilator comes to have the shape of a ventilator.’

It is as if Munari is telling us that the big push to ‘prove’ designs are the ‘correct’ ones for a certain market or user group through statistics is the beginning of the end of design. It is the flabby middle, middle of the road, middle aged, middle class and middle Britain/ America/anywhere type of design every artist come designer would have run a mile from some time ago. But today, with budget cuts and constraints, fat cats and skinny jeans, digital everything and analog fashions, it seems design and art, the separated at birth siblings, have been reunited, not in the joyous reunion hoped for by Munari in his book, but in the house of the Man. The Man, that evil personage from the past so hated by the hippies, has now become the sugar daddy of us all, and no longer do we mind or winge about asking for his patronage (sucking satan’s dick as Bill Hicks put it), we actively pursue it, running after The Man as he jogs his early morning power run, pleading for a job because he is the one holding the key to the golden chalice of our times – financial security.

Munari foresaw the complete capitalization of design and art, where both become just an obedient mouthpiece of the corporation’s economic choices for art and culture. It seems we are no longer able or willing to make sacrifices for our art. We either ‘make it’ and pay off the mortgage, or we go do something else. X Factor is proof of how beauty has disappeared with the masses. It may be time for a return to Munari’s future where we design for beauty’s sake, and everything else takes care of itself.

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