Bruno Munari’s Design as Art is one of the most popular books in architecture. I have always turned to books not only for a sense of escape but also to better grapple with the problems that face me, which nine times out of ten involve some type of creative block. At times when I couldn’t wrap my head around a project I was working on, I turned to the words of my favorite writers or designers, to understand what they thought of the daunting process. Somehow, words written on a page have always had empathy for the problems I go through. The books I read helped me not only overcome my block but helped me start to think about design critically. A big part of how to begin designing also comes, I think, from how you view the final product AND the process. Some call it art, and others call it engineering. But the truth is, the design is a beautiful amalgamation of both, the fantastical realized as the practical.
A book that helped me better understand how I could read design better was Design as Art by Bruno Munari. The book is a collection of essays by a designer who Picasso described as ‘the new Leonardo’. He was a designer who insisted that design should be beautiful, functional, and accessible, and the essays in the book address this philosophy.
‘The designer of today re-establishes the long-lost contact between art and the public, between living people and art as a living thing’
He cites Gorky in his introduction and also asks the reader to not hold too tightly to their conception of what art is and isn’t. Following that, the essays are grouped into five areas: Designers as stylists, Visual design, Graphics, Industrial Design, and Research.
The essays in the book are part of social commentary, part musing and part criticism about the world of design, filled with “abused objects” and the tone of them sets the book apart from most other research tomes that otherwise dominate the world of design thinking. It is filled with observations and thoughtful reflections of the material world, which is one of the most powerful tools a designer can have.
One of the ideas I enjoyed reading about that truly questions the relation between art and design was Munari’s reflections on ‘wearing’. He asks us to look at how an object is ‘worn’ and becomes ‘worn’ with use. He then asks if we should design on the sole merit of aesthetics or if we should limit ourselves to user-needs? Munari suggests that maybe we should design objects after observing how they have become worn with time.
Another interesting insight in the book is how Bruno Munari thinks about Japanese design. He begins by pointing out how the word for art in Japanese, Asobi, also means game and reveals that is how he processes to design as if playing a game, trying different strategies to see what works. He goes on to talk in praise about the simplicity lightness and adaptability of a traditional Japanese home.
The book is full of mental jiu-Jitsu that truly makes you think about the design of everyday objects. As Andrea Branzi describes it, Munari has a subversive style of thinking that might strike a chord with any designer trying to do something different with his practice without going overboard. For example, in one essay Munari describes an orange, a pea and a rose as though they were industrial products. He proposes that the rose is “an object without justification, and one moreover that may lead the worker to think futile thoughts. It is, in the last analysis, even immoral.” Impeccable reasoning, absurd conclusion: a perfect illustration of Munari’s mental jiu-jitsu in action.
One reason why I think designers should pick up this book is that we live in an age where design and technology go hand in hand. A product must be properly designed not only to showcase the technology but to appeal to the consumers. Munari’s experimental approach to design is thus inspiring and might provide different ideas and approaches to design problems. The ideas he talks about are still very much applicable to this day.