The second half of the 1960s in Italy coincides 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 identifies 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, on what comes before the finished product.

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 – conducted around the Formica® plastic laminate, carried out thanks to the collaboration with the two companies Laminati Plastici / Formica and Bernini.

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.”

The poster of the exhibit was also shown in Chicago, at the 500-D Gallery, in 1970.

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].

Franco Grignani for Ceramica Gresparma
Franco Grignani for Ceramica Gresparma [*]

Grignani adds: “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.”.

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 (Furniture Expo) at the Milan Fair with “signed” fabrics for curtains and bedspreads for Tessuti Mompiano. Grignani, Coppola, and Tovaglia worked together also for a series of curtains called Vistarama, by MB in Milan. On his own, on the occasion of the textile collection designed for Driade, Franco Grignani 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 clear, 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.
In 1975, 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 subsequently Coppola.

In February 1971 the works of the ED group were exhibited in Barcelona and Madrid (6 graphic designers italianos presentados por Hispano Olivetti), together 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. 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”). 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.

Franco Grignani & ED group, Progetto Struttura Metodologia del design, Livorno, 1975
Franco Grignani & ED group, Progetto Struttura Metodologia del design, Livorno, 1975 [7]

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.

[*] “Linea Grafica”, 1, 1973
[4] Museo del Marchio Italiano
[6] GARADINERVI, courtesy of Robert Rebotti
[7] AIAP / CDPG Centro di Documentazione sul Progetto Grafico: 1 & 2, courtesy of Lorenzo Grazzani
[11] AIS/Design

[this post is not CC BY-NC 4.0 due to some adaptations from AIS/Design by Michele Galluzzo, based upon the book “Pre design 1969“]