4 November 2014 -

Design in the 1970s: a still misunderstood decade
Vigo 252: Living room, Casa blu, Milan, of 1967-1971

Since 2010 I have been working on a book I would like to publish about design, styling and entertainment in the 1970s. This study concerns the three Rs; these being revisionism; radicalism; and 're-semanticisation'. The survey will argue that the 1970s was not a stylistic travesty, but instead can hold its own with any other decade of C20th design, albeit somewhat as the century's dark horse or black sheep. As a revisionist re-evaluation, I would therefore like to argue that at its best, the 1970s was high calibre and fearless in terms of design and could still have didactic lessons for reforming the conservativeness of design since 1990. By 're-semanticisation' this account means in the words of Manfredo Tafuri, 'the subjective need to communicate' through recognizable symbolism and that this could be 'an instrument of enrichment, rather than as a device meant to destroy the “modern” tradition.'

Although politically disenfranchised, culturally and, above all, in terms of individual self-expression (sartorial, sexual preference, choice of literature) personal emancipation triumphed in the 1960s over 1950s restraint and these victories could not then be statutorily reversed by the Establishment. Once radicals realised they could not reform the world outside of the traditional political system, they either returned to conformity (in the second half of the 1970s) or refused to conform and instead expressed their radicalism artistically. This pathway was the modus operandi of the 1970s, though intellectually grounded in the 1960s.

My intended book is arranged into case studies on a series of reforming designs or cultural manifestations comprising a matrix involving informational quests that are representative of the 1970s by means of: 1) two interior designs (including an Italian interior by Nanda Vigo); 2) two buildings; 3) two objects; 4) two car designs; 5) a quotidian design (in this case David Mellor's 'Chinese Ivory' cutlery design from 1975); 6) fashion and glamour (David Bowie style, 1974-79; and female style and icons); 7) entertainment, music and nightclubs; 8) a thematic study: the rise of electronic music; 9) a retail operation (Fiorucci, New York City branch); 10) a Manhattan nightclub; and 11) postscript: 1970s revivals since 1979.
If I could concentrate here on just two of the case studies above, a 2014 Design History Society Research Grant has enabled me to interview Philip Monaghan in New York in January this year. Monaghan was involved with Fiorucci, N.Y., in one way or another from Christmas 1978 through to February 1985. His involvement included creative, art and visual direction, press and public relations including events, advertising and some aspects of store design for N.Y. as well as U.S. and Mexico franchises. Over the course of nearly three hours on the coldest day in New York in twenty years Monaghan was able to give a completely holistic view of the Fiorucci operation.

Established at Milan in 1967, Fiorucci was the first retail operation to marry art, performance art, pop music and rag trade retail together and in so doing would be hugely influential on the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Marc Jacobs and Dolce and Gabbana, to name just a few. And so by 1979 Fiorucci was a huge franchise operation run by a workaholic, Elio Fiorucci, who 'works in a silent, stark, white office in Milan, far removed from the ordered “chaos” of his high-pitched, multi-coloured, bi-leveled creations. It may be prefab chaos, but it sure looks spontaneous.'
My case study is probably the first to attempt to understand what the New York City branch of Fiorucci was like from a design point of view and also to fathom what all the fuss was about for the store was perhaps the most acclaimed, as a newcomer, in New York of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Originally opened in 1976 more as a showroom than profit-maker, the New York store, 9,000-square-foot large, was actually one of only three Fiorucci retail stores owned by the Fiorucci family. Fiorucci was a decisive break with the jumbled boutiques of the 1960s, where every inch of space was used, introducing instead a sleek Italian modernity and with thundering disco music, in-store cabaret to promote new fashion seasons, a party atmosphere was enabled, giving it the soubriquet 'the daytime Studio 54'.

The second case study here was a chance to interview Nanda Vigo for a second time. Although difficult to view in complete isolation to her other work, Milan-based Vigo's architecture and interior design has been somewhat eclipsed by her role as an artist and even she is partial to regarding her architectural activity as a way of earning a living, as opposed to unadulterated artistic expression. As Vigo puts it, she is an architect by the side of the artist. I want here, though, to focus on her somewhat neglected architecture/interior design, which was so singularly intense in the late 1960s/early 1970s that it could be a struggle imposing her ideas on her then clients. Vigo's life-long preoccupation with light even inflects her approach to furniture design; just one instance being her Utopia table lamp (1970-71) for Arredoluce and featured in MoMA's acclaimed 1972 survey of Italian design. Spanning 1959-1971, Vigo's early interiors can be read as a series of monochromes: Casa Pellegrini (Zero House) of 1959-1962, Casa Meneguzzo of 1966-69 and Casa Remo Brindisi of 1967-1971 are all white; Labirinto cronotopico (Quadriennale, Rome) of 1964 appears green; Casa blu of 1967-1971 blue; Casa nera of 1970 black; and Casa gialla of 1970 yellow. Reality; illusion; dematerialisation; time-space and the cosmos; and above all light are the constituent concerns that inform Vigo's work.

Vigo 472: Living room, Casa blu, Milan, of 1967-1971

Vigo 249: Living room, Casa nera, Milan, of 1970.

Vigo 265: Living room, Casa gialla, Milan, of 1970

Belonging to a deeply serious intellectual as well as highly formalist Italian tradition, Vigo's oeuvre is complex, if not philosophical in its demands, but perhaps less well known in the U.K. With an intrinsically Italian artist's understanding of design, formal concerns and craft-materials, Vigo fashions complex design problems into objects/anti-objects and interiors of fascinating beauty, skill, talent and reservoirs of ideas. In so doing Vigo responded to the move in late 1960s Italian interior design towards environments over just assemblies of alluring domestic objects. As characteristic of late 1960s and early 1970s Italian radical design, Vigo's work is an act of research, in her case concerned with a 'Chronotopical' (from the Greek, space-time) theory of space and time and the refractive properties of light.

Having interviewed Vigo more generally in 2012, on 23 September 2014 I was able to interview her at her studio-home in Milan, which is an apartment within a C19th block of flats that she completely remodelled in 1970. This and her Casa Pellegrini of 1959-1962, which I was also able to visit, are perhaps the only two survivors of a series of seminal interiors that she has designed and that have now been sadly destroyed, well within her own lifetime. Within the last month or so, a whole house she designed outside of Milan has been destroyed too, though some fittings salvaged. The 1970s might be 'in' amongst Shoreditch or Brooklyn hipsters but if a developer can make money from a site, 1970s design is under serious negation, in Milan or London. If I could go back in time, Casa blu would have to be the interior of Vigo's that I most yearn to experience. With this in mind, I was hoping that her archive would retain preliminary studies or models of some of these interiors but Vigo said that in the 1960s we had 'a day by day attitude' and could not then envisage future interest in her work. Only photographs survive of these mysterious interiors. As it happens -and I didn't know this until 23 September- Vigo has a show in London at the moment (The Mayor Gallery, Cork Street, 10 September-24 October) featuring her 'Chronotops' from the 1960s; structures of fluted glass and aluminium that capture light by means of diffraction and reflection. Twelve years after her last visit to London, it seems (for this writer) a neat coincidence to see Vigo again so soon; with 16 October marking a re-opening of her London show to coincide with the Frieze art fair.

Oliver Bradbury


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