• Design: Radical Design
  • Ralf Würth
Design: Radical Design

MILAN — There is an ancient Chinese game in which a bunch of skinny wooden sticks are thrown into a pile on a table and each player has to pick them up without dislodging the others. Typically, there are five different colors of stick, each of which is worth a specific number of points. At the end of the game, the winner is the player whose sticks are worth the most points.

Back in the early 1970s, three Milanese architects, Jonathan De Pas, Donato D’Urbino and Paolo Lomazzi, were so intrigued by Sciangai, as the game is called in Italian, that they chose it as the basis of a useful object, the type of thing that they and their friends might use every day. By enlarging eight sticks and binding them together with a central hinge, they devised an ingenious wooden contraption, which opens up at the top and bottom to resemble a twisted wooden bundle. It functions as a coat rack, when hats and coats are hung on the tips of the sticks. The Sciangai coat rack has been manufactured by the Italian company Zanotta since 1973 and is still a familiar sight in homes and offices.

Picking a mundane object, seemingly at random, and transforming it by exaggerating its size was a recurrent theme in the work of the Radical Design movement, which dominated avant garde Italian design and architecture in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mr. De Pas, Mr. D’Urbino and Mr. Lomazzi, who were part of the movement, applied the same strategy to assorted objects over the years, including Lego bricks and a baseball glove: turning the first into shelving and the second into an armchair. Those pieces, together with colorful inflatable chairs and their futuristic architectural projects, are exhibited in a retrospective of their work running through June 17 at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan. Like its contents, the exhibition has a joyful spirit that reflects the characters of the three men, who were close friends as well as professional colleagues.

“To my mind, of all of the Italian designers of the 1960s and 1970s, they were the ones who were able to marry Radical Design with real life — and with commerce,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who grew up in Milan and remembers the designers and their work from her childhood.

De Pas, D’Urbino & Lomazzi, as their practice was called, was formed in 1966, when the three co-founders were in their early 30s. They worked together for 35 years, mostly in a building on via Rossini, which had housed so many artists’ studios that it was known locally as “Ca di Pittur” or the “Painter’s House,” until Mr. De Pas died in 1991. Ms. Antonelli remembers him as “the nicest instructor” at the club in Sardinia where she learned to sail as a child. Like his colleagues, he was obsessed by sailing. Mr. D’Urbino and Mr. Lomazzi have continued to collaborate since his death.

Despite being less well known, especially outside Italy, than some of their contemporaries — including Joe Colombo, Ettore Sottsass and the Castiglioni brothers — De Pas, D’Urbino & Lomazzi produced several objects that are recognizable even to people who have never heard their names. The Sciangai is among them, as is Blow, an inflatable chair, and Joe, the armchair they designed as a giant replica of a leather baseball glove and named after Joe DiMaggio, the star center fielder for the New York Yankees from 1936 to 1951. Both Blow and Joe are imbued with elements of parody and kitsch, which were typical of Radical Design.

Conceived as a protest against both the tasteful restraint of the post-war “good design” movement and the excess of mid-1960s consumerism, Radical Design was also characterized by cynicism and anger. De Pas, D’Urbino & Lomazzi ignored its dark side by producing pieces, which were unfailingly cheerful and affectionate, without seeming overly sentimental: qualities that undoubtedly contributed to their popularity. Ebullient though their work could be, it was saved from appearing vulgar or showy by its intellectual clarity. As Mr. De Pas put it: “A design must be organized around an idea, which the final project must express with immediacy, without ambiguity.” For Blow, the idea was the then-thrilling technological innovation of inflatable plastic, which the three designers reinvented in the familiar form of an archetypal armchair.

And for Joe, it was the notion of the human body nestling into the comfortable cushion of a baseball glove, as a ball does after being caught. In principle, both concepts seem implausible, but they were so well chosen and clearly articulated in the finished objects that the outcome is convincing.

About 40 years after Joe’s design, the American philosopher Robert Grudin praised Charles and Ray Eames’s Lounge Chair for having “the warm receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt” in his book “Design and Truth.” He did not mention Joe in the book, but his observation synchs neatly with the thinking behind De Pas, D’Urbino & Lomazzi’s chair.

Not that their work was always as compelling, as the weaker pieces exhibited at La Triennale illustrate, but their strongest projects were both smart and playful. Junior, a brightly colored plastic children’s chair made from four interchangeable components, shares the humor and precision of Blow and Joe, as does the port-holed PVC tunnel they designed for the 1968 Triennale exhibition in Milan and a transparent domed structure for the 1970 Universal Expo in Osaka.

While Augh, a stainless trivet that pulls out to form the shape of a star, which Mr. D’Urbino and Mr. Lomazzi developed for the Italian manufacturer Alessi in 2000, evokes the elegant wit of Sciangai. “They may not have had the continuity and reliability of a Castiglioni, or the passion and genius of a Sottsass, but they are respected and loved,” Ms. Antonelli said. “And pieces like Blow are absolute pillars of Italian design history.”

  • Ralf Würth