Innovative Design in Italy: from Renaissance to Postmodern


Fig. 1 The dome of Florence Cathedral designed by Filippo Brunelleschi (1420-1436)  Source:

Fig. 1 The dome of Florence Cathedral designed by Filippo Brunelleschi (1420-1436) Source:

Text/Yan Yong


As far as its semantics is concerned, the term “design” (Disegno) seems to be destined to be synonymous with “innovation” from the beginning. During the Renaissance, the term was one of the most important pieces of equipment carried by humanists onto the stage of art history. Giorgio Vasari claims that design is the father of architecture, painting, and sculpture, for it is a visual expression and clarification of an inner concept in artists’ minds, and creates all of them. Federico Zuccari even compares design to God’s Creation, and believes that the actual artistic representation, be it pictorial, plastic or architectural, is nothing more than the “external design” (disegno esterno), while the “internal design” (disegno interno) as a human creative activity is similar to God’s sacred act of creating everything in the world. 1 In the historical situation at that time, this discussion of “design” helped to distinguish artists from craftsmen, and showed the awakening of modern cultural consciousness.

However, as far as the Renaissance is concerned, if we tried considering the design works themselves rather than the concept of “design”, we must admit that there has never been “innovation” of “creating out of nothing” in this great era. Filippo Brunelleschi, for example, built the famous dome of Florence Cathedral (Fig. 1), which on the one hand, apparently revived the elegant and harmonious classical style of antique monuments like the Pantheon in Rome, while on the other hand, quietly inherited the structure of Gothic architecture which was popular in the 13th century. Here, the design innovation, as well as the cultural innovation based on it, is actually concerned with the way to inherit the cultural tradition. According to Italian humanists at that time, Gothic was the result of a barbarian invasion that destroyed ancient culture, and the purification of interest meant the reuse of the resources of national culture. However, Renaissance architects might feel more strongly than other artists that the so-called “Renaissance” can only be carried out on the premise of drawing from the ancients what modern people need. What modern people don’t need can be ignored and abandoned.

Hundreds of years later, it was the reuse of the native design cultural resources that dramatically contributed to the miracle of Italy’s economic recovery and rise of design culture after World War II. From 1951 to 1962, Britain’s exports increased by 29%, France’s by 86%, West Germany’s by 247% and Italy’s by 259%. 2 The last striking number can easily be regarded as a by-product of the Italian design of this period, which is often called "beautiful design" (Bel Disegno). It is characterized by the “Italian Lines” (Linea Italiana), a sort of clear, elegant and exquisite outline, which is strongly reminiscent of the drawings of Italian artists since the Renaissance. Gio Ponti, known as the father of modern Italian design, is one of the most outstanding creators of “Italian lines”. Among his design products, even the ordinary toilet (Fig. 2) has become an organic sculpture with an elegant form, amazingly showing the balance between the functional requirement and the aesthetic creation. 

Fig. 2  A toilet designed by Gio Ponti (1953) Source:

And by introducing the Baroque outline and curved surface, Carlo Morino from Turin even made a piece of ordinary furniture (Fig. 3) exude enchanting, charming temptation. What is more important than “Italian lines” is the continuation of modern cultural consciousness since the Renaissance.

Fig. 3  A coffee table designed by Carlo Morino in 1950. Source:

In working with manufacturer and collaborating with businesses, Italian designers have always been the envy of artists from other countries in that they are encouraged to maintian their artistic individuality.

showing their unique personality and overflowing talent as their ancestors did in the 15th and 16th centuries, their great fame is also injected into the product like some sacred serum. No matter what kind of product it is, as long as it is created by a celebrated designer, it could immediately soar into an extraordinary position, with some incredible light radiating from it. Hence many companies employed the names of famous designers to sell their products. No wonder the “Design star effect” has become an important way for Italian products to enter the international market.

However, any passionate representation of native cultural resources alone will inevitably follow the principle of entropy increase and to the point of exhaustion. Thus, a strategy that has often seen pragmatic effectiveness is resorting to an alternative approach that does not stick to the purification of taste, i.e., seek opportunities for entropy reduction in the design history or, in the broader sense, the cultural history of the “other”. In this regard, the famous Memphis Group might be an excellent example. It is said that on the evening of December 11, 1980, Ettore Sottsass invited a group of young designers and architects to discuss the future of design. During that first meeting, Bob Dylan’s record “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” repeated continuously, and Sotersas suggested the group to name themselves Memphis. All members thought the name “Memphis” was great, for it would be reminiscent of different cultural experiences: on one side, the blues, Tennessee, rock and roll, the suburbs of the UnitedStates; on the other, Ancient Egypt, the capital of pharaoh, the Holy City of the god Ptah.3  The creative vitality of the Memphis group is indeed attributed to the convergence and collision of multiple cultural sources. 

In its works, you can always find many factors derived from American consumer culture – Art Deco, Hollywood movies, ancient civilizations, etc. – being grouped strangely to build some comprehensive significance.

Fig. 4  Carlton room divider by Ettore Sottsass for Memphis, 1981  Source:

The Carlton room divider (Fig. 4), designed by Ettore Sottsass, is perhaps the group’s most famous work. It is made of medium-density fiberboard and cheap plastic laminate, brightly colored, and the pattern on the pedestal is drawn by a computer. The whole structure is in a tiered, anthropomorphic form with obscure semantics: it may be a metaphor for the gates of the ancient Egyptian underworld, the characters in primitive art, or even the robots in the 20th century. The ambiguity of its function also breaks one’s understanding of the established function of an object. It can be regarded as a room partition screen, a wine cabinet to store wine, a bookshelf that hardly holds books or even an independent sculpture. Now in this kind of design, a single function is split into multiple signs, and the product is given symbols that can “resonate” with emotions and produce multiple interpretations. As Andrea Branzi commented: “if something is designed by Memphis, it is not only meant to provide light or a place to rest or to support something. One also attempts to visualize something and to design it formally in such a way that design becomes an expressive semiotics system whose contents are partially cultural.” 4





1. Erwin Panofsky: Idea: A Concept in Art Theory, New York: Harper & Row, 1968, pp. 61-62, 85-88.

2. Jonathan M. Woodham: Twentieth–Century Design, Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, p.121.

3. Bevis Hillier, Kate McIntyre: The Style of the Century, Translated by He Lin, Shijiazhuang: Hebei Education Press, 2002, p.244

4. Nina Börnsen–Holtmann: Italian Design, Hohenzollerning: Taschen, 1994, p.112.