MILAN — Every so often a design project emerges that design purists love, but lots of other people hate, including many of those who were intended to use it. A prime example is the 1972 New York subway map, a masterpiece of visual ingenuity, which depicted the labyrinthine network as an orderly series of straight lines, all running at 45- or 90-degree angles from the stations.
The hitch was that the map’s designer had to ignore geographic reality in order to “tidy up” the tangled system. Some New Yorkers were outraged by the result, and voiced their concerns loudly. Why was Central Park shown as a square, when it is three times longer than it is wide? And how could the Lexington Avenue 63rd Street station be placed beside 68th Street Hunter College, which is five blocks away?
The complaints did not stop, and the New York City Transit Authority conceded defeat by replacing the map with a conventional geographic one in 1979. Rightly or wrongly, those furious New Yorkers had rebuffed the efforts of a gifted Italian designer, Massimo Vignelli, to impose his desire for visual order on their subway. Not that this setback stopped him or his compatriots from deploying their talent with greater success in their own country and others, as an exhibition of modern Italian graphic design running through Feb. 24 at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan shows.
The latest of a series of annual surveys of Italian design to be presented by the Triennale Design Museum, “Grafica Italiana,” or “Italian Graphics,” is the first to be devoted to graphic design. Its predecessors focused on furniture, cars and other objects that are typically associated with Italian design. Graphics did feature in the best of the shows, the gloriously idiosyncratic collection of objects and imagery assembled two years ago by the designer Alessandro Mendini in his visual essay on Italy’s cultural identity, “Quali Cose Siamo,” or “The Things We Are.”
Graphic design is a particularly eloquent medium with which to explore design’s influence on a nation. First, it is highly expressive. Graphic artifacts like posters, books, magazines, visual identities and typefaces can be produced so swiftly and inexpensively that it is possible for them to reflect their context with greater speed and sensitivity than the products of more onerous industrial design processes.
Secondly, graphic design is a ubiquitous element of daily life that we are exposed to whenever we venture out onto the street or open a newspaper, regardless of whether we wish to see it. Silvana Annicchiarico, director of the Triennale Design Museum, illustrates the point neatly in her essay in the exhibition catalog by describing how the characters in one of Italo Calvino’s short stories leaned out of the window of their dreary attic room to admire the surrounding landscape only to have the illuminated letters G, N A and C in a cognac sign on a nearby roof to glow so brightly that they erased everything else.
“Grafica Italiana” begins with the staccato typography produced in the early 1900s by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Fortunato Depero and other members of the Futurist movement, which influenced designers and artists all over the world. Dynamic though the futurists and other avant-garde groups were, it was not until the early 1930s that their thinking was reflected in mainstream Italian graphics.
The landmark year was 1933, when a team of progressive designers, printers and photographers started the magazine Campo Grafico, and Studio Boggeri was founded in Milan by the designer and photographer Antonio Boggeri as a bastion of “International Style” graphics.
Studio Boggeri employed many of the most influential Italian designers of the time including Marcello Nizzoli, who is renowned for his work for the office equipment manufacturer Olivetti, and Albe Steiner, best known for his projects for radical political groups.
It also forged a close rapport with many of the Italian companies, which would pioneer the commercial use of modern graphic design during the mid-20th century, including the tire maker Pirelli as well as Olivetti. Ensuring that their corporate logos, advertising and other visual manifestations of their businesses looked elegant, intelligent and contemporary was critical to their success.
Other prominent late 20th-century Italian graphic designers engaged with different disciplines too, like Bruno Munari, an engineer-turned-artist who designed books and magazines as well as producing his own books on visual theory. Enzo Mari started out as an artist, before turning to product design, and then graphics, while Ettore Sottsass, A.G. Fronzoni and Mr. Mendini also practiced architecture.
The vitality of Italy’s graphic scene encouraged talented foreign designers to work there. Max Huber moved to Milan from his native Switzerland to produce compelling designs for Italian companies like the retail group La Rinascente.
The Dutchman Bob Noorda devised the graphic component of one of Italy’s most ambitious early 1960s design projects, the Milan subway system, before teaming up with Mr. Vignelli to co-found the Unimark International design group. By the mid-1960s they had moved to New York, where their commissions included the signage for the city’s subway system and, eventually, Mr. Vignelli’s controversial map.
An interesting subtext of “Grafica Italiana” is the international influence that he and his peers exerted through their work both in Italy, for export-oriented companies like Olivetti, Pirelli and, later, Fiorucci and Benetton, and in other countries. Mr. Vignelli’s projects in New York, where he is still based, included the corporate identities of American Airlines and the Knoll furniture group.
Germano Facetti was a prominent figure in British book design when he worked for Penguin in the 1960s. Wherever they worked, Italian graphic designers imbued the rigor of the modernist style with a distinctive playfulness.
“Grafica Italiana” demonstrated how they did so in traditional printed media, such as books, magazines and posters in the last century. Will the current crop of Italian designers and their successors instill a similar spirit in phone applications, Web sites and other digital products, which will dominate graphics in future?