The second half of the 1960s coincides in Italy with a period of redefinition of the identity of graphic and industrial design and of their role in society.
Facing the advance of the American-style “full service” advertising agencies (as Simona de Iulio and Carlo Vinti recently underlined), in the debates promoted on the pages of Linea Grafica, Franco Grignani identified industrial design as a new frontier of experimentation and research: “Advertising, as it has arrived today, marginalizes graphics. […] It has become a description, that is, it operates a descriptive act to provoke certain stimuli. Graphics, where it still intervenes, is only to arouse areas of particular visual interest, but it is no longer so significant, so crucial in the advertising composition, where, instead, the image, especially the photographic one, has become prominent. Graphics today are more useful elsewhere. […] Great graphics today walk with design.” (Grignani, Struttura e decorazione: una scelta della grafica. Linea Grafica, 1, 1973)
The Exhibition Design group (ED) was born in Milan on such premises in those years. This research, design, and dissemination group, founded and coordinated by Silvio Coppola by 1968, would see the participation of the major graphic designers of the time, such as Giulio Confalonieri, Franco Grignani, Bruno Munari, Pino Tovaglia, and, by 1970, Mario Bellini, with the aim of investigating the convergence between the methodologies of graphic design with those of industrial design, in particular on the so-called ‘pre-design’, that is, “the activity that precedes the actual project and has as its object the collection of material and technological data” [from “Graphis”, n° 145, 1970].
Even if working independently, their projects were often signed collectively, with the precise intention of didactically present their operating way.
On September 22, 1969, the first exhibition of the Milanese group, Design ricerche plastiche (Design plastics research), was inaugurated at the Sala delle Cariatidi of Palazzo Reale in Milan, with a sequence of 22 experiments – put in the middle of a large curious audience remarkably photographed by Ugo Mulas & Luciano Ferri – conducted around the Formica® plastic laminate, carried out thanks to the collaboration with the two companies Soc. Laminati Plastici (who provided the material, being licensee in Italy for Formica Intl. Ltd.) and G.B. Bernini & Figli (who assisted with the preparation of the exhibition). “This last research was carried out by a group of designers who reciprocally exchanged the results of the individual experiments, thus obtaining a set of models in which all had participated in the realization” [from Bruno Munari in “design” magazine, n° 3, 1974]. “The group presented the resulting pieces of this research for new uses of the same material outside the use that is normally made of it in the field of furniture surface coatings” [from “Ottagono”, n° 22, 1971]. “The designers now plan to explore the problems of spatial design which are rapidly gaining in significance in our own age” [from “Graphis”, n° 145, 1970].
As Michele Galluzzo has recently underlined, for the collective group this was an opportunity to meet the public opinion and to share the results of their surveys and working methods. “The designers Giulio Confalonieri, Silvio Coppola, Franco Grignani, Bruno Munari, and Pino Tovaglia, have formed a group to organize special exhibitions … relating to design … the group will work with various experts in fields relevant to their research, following design methods that are as objective as possible” [from the exhibition catalog]. Therefore, it was not the finished product and its aesthetic aspect, but above all the logical method, that the group wanted to show to the public. In fact, in a small article appeared in the magazine “Abitare” (n ° 78, Sept. 1969) entitled “story of a strip” (with reference to “these characters who walk around the corridors and courtyards of a factory with a long strip of flexible material”), it is highlighted that “the resulting objects may have points of resemblance to what is now called sculpture or programmed research, but the authors who work or sign in the group have not worked with intentions of art but have been stimulated by the curiosity of free experimentation.”
Among the various subsequent initiatives in the field of industrial design, the ED Group developed a series of ceramic tiles for the Milanese company Cilsa that allowed individual designers to develop their own personal research through new media and new contexts, in tune with the principles expressed in the exhibition “Italy: the new domestic landscape” dedicated to Italian design which was set up in 1972 at the MoMA in New York.
The research work of the group is inevitably intertwined with that of the individual designers. Thus, this methodology can clearly be found in the Grignani’s Matassa tile, which evolves the theme of the Woolmark logo with a quadrilobed optical decoration. Similarly, for Ceramica Gresparma, Franco Grignani, for his part, will produce another modular tile: “this floor has modular composability with a chiaroscuro structure and using the perspective vision it proposes illusory plastic-dynamic effects” [from “Franco Grignani: Struttura e decorazione: una scelta della grafica”, inside “Linea Grafica”, 1, 1973]. The modular design was taken from previous studies dating back to 1966:
Grignani pointed out: “The diffusion of the decoration acquires increasing resonance with the advent of the machine. The explanation essentially is that the machine favors the creation of repetition in a decorative sense. Let’s think of the textile sector, ceramic production, etc.”. The use of screen printing on ceramics was also evidenced by the tile Spica, designed by Grignani (1976) for Ceramica Faetano, for which Munari and Tovaglia also worked: an exhibition entitled “Author’s Surfaces” was set up in October 1976 at the Domus Center in Milan to introduce the new tiles.
In 1971 the ED Group took part in the M.I.A., the Mostra Internazionale dell’Arredamento (International Furniture Exhibition) in Monza (Milan), and in the contemporary Salone del Mobile Italiano (Italian Furniture Expo) at the Milan Fair with “signed” fabrics for blankets, curtains, pillows, and Kakemono for Tessuti Mompiano: “recently some Italian visual designers have decided to operate in the field of furnishing fabrics because these are crucial for the insertion of a certain type of visual message in homes. […] It is the first time in Italy that a homogeneous group of architects and designers, preliminarily coordinated, operates in the field of furnishing fabrics” [from “Ottagono”, n° 26, 1972], “completely subverting, in a positive sense, the image of a well-known weaving factory in Brescia” [from “Corriere della Sera”, 11/09/1971].
Grignani, Coppola, and Tovaglia also worked together for a series of curtains called Vistarama, by MB in Milan. On his own, Grignani also designed carpets for Montedison, taking advantage of the dyeability of Meraklon fiber (1973), and on the occasion of the textile collection designed for Driade, he explained the declination of his personal research in the passage from paper to fabric with a jacquard structure, whose design is an alternating modular iteration, further enhanced in the optical suggestion by the material and chromatic differentiation of the two yarns used, making his awareness of the technical possibilities of weaving evident, as the slogan for art-tes (1974) indirectly suggested: “il tessuto nell’arte / l’arte nel tessuto” – “fabric in art / art in fabric”.
At the beginning of the 70s, Alessi, a company until then devoted to traditional and classic gift items, entrusted the ED Group with the design of the Programma 7 collection, with the aim of bringing, through reasonable prices, products that were conceived according to experimental methodology to a wider audience. These projects allowed the group to emphasize the designer’s social responsibility and his role in educating the public, by raising the cultural level of demand, once again.
At the end of 1974, Programma 7 was released on the market primarily with “three variations in 18/10 stainless steel on the theme of the tray”, involving Grignani, Tovaglia, and Coppola:
Grignani, Munari, and Tovaglia also collaborated together for the design of objects in silver engraved for Bacci in 1970: “the new collection presents shapes consistent with the different personalities of the designers involved in the ever-current theme of the representative object of the house” [from an ad in “Ottagono”, n ° 17, 1970].
The college of architects of Barcelona first, and that of Seville immediately after, organized graphic design exhibitions in their respective cities with public round tables about the problems of research in visual communication: as a result, in 1971 Olivetti in collaboration with Hispano Olivetti organized in Madrid, Barcelona and then in Copenhagen, some visual communication exhibitions of the members of the group together with Franco Bassi, graphic designer of Olivetti (6 graphic designers italianos presentados por Hispano Olivetti), presented with a catalog composed of 6 interchangeable diptychs, each one with the curriculum of each designer, the cut-out profile of their face, and reproductions of some of their designs:
This initiative aroused so much interest that a new research group was formed, made up of some young Spanish architects and Silvio Coppola, who joined the one from Milan.
“The success of the Milan group is evidenced among others by the numerous invitations, including from the Louvre and some countries of South America, to organize exhibitions of research experiences” [from “Ottagono”, n° 22, 1971].
In the spring of 1975, the exhibition Progetto Struttura Metodologia del design (Project Structure Methodology of design) was also held, included in the calendar of the 1st Biennial of Contemporary Art organized by the Progressive Museum of Livorno, which was born in 1974 under the guidance of art critic Lara Vinca Masini (1923-2021), at a time when Italy still had very few institutions of contemporary art (its logo is another creation by Grignani: “The d is two-dimensional in the project and at the same time becomes three-dimensional to symbolize the artifact”); the poster of the exhibit was displayed in 1976 at the Warsaw International Poster Biennale. Thousands of projects and sketches by six of the most important Italian designers of the moment were displayed for visitors. The structure of the exhibition was replicated in the pages of the catalog, conceived as an educational aid aimed primarily at students, for whom free distribution through xerographed copies was provided on demand.
When the exhibition in Livorno was inaugurated, Franco Grignani had just concluded a great solo show in Milan, at the Rotonda della Besana, with a preface to the catalog by Giulio Carlo Argan, who established his leading role in the visual arts, not limited to the field of graphic design: the poster of that event was among his works exhibited in Livorno.
The work of the ED collective laboratory, whose parable fades away in around 1976, witnessed a new paradigm of the dialogue between demand, production, and designers, and was able to propose a concrete reflection on the role of the designer in society, on rethinking the exhibition space as a place for dissemination, sharing and dialogue, and on investing in experimentation.
[a] “Domus”, n° 481, 1969
[b] “Ottagono”, n° 15, 1969
[c] “Graphis”, n° 145, 1970
[d] “Ottagono”, n° 30, 1973
[e] “design”, n° 3, 1974
[f] “Linea Grafica”, 1, 1973
[g] “Linea Grafica”, 3, 1967 (with reference to the 1967 exhibit in Milan, Grattacielo Pirelli)
[h] “Ottagono”, n° 26, 1972
[i] “Domus”, n° 543, 1975
[l] “Ottagono”, n° 22, 1971
[m] Libreria El Astillero, courtesy of Pablo Capurro Ferrer & Beatriz García Pablos
 Museo del Marchio Italiano
 GARADINERVI, courtesy of Robert Rebotti
 AIAP / CDPG Centro di Documentazione sul Progetto Grafico: 1 & 2, courtesy of Lorenzo Grazzani
Last Updated on 11/07/2021 by Emiliano