We present artistic books on the pages of our print magazine, and the fact that we do is thanks to, among others, one Italian artist. He is loved both by children and by such intellectual masters as Umberto Eco.
“Never seen so much snow,” is how the Italian artist Bruno Munari starts the story of the Little White Riding Hood. On subsequent pages, we follow the story of the little girl dressed all in white, who is wading through snow drifts to get to her grandma, whom she hasn’t seen for a long time. Because of the blizzard, you can’t see a thing. The pages are white and the story unfolds, naturally, in our imagination. In his other book, The Circus in the Mist, the city of Milan is enveloped in a milky fog. On the pages, made of semi-opaque tracing paper, there are silhouettes of vehicles, street lamps and pedestrians hurrying in different directions. Ploughing page by page through the misty city, we finally arrive at the circus tent. We enter, and that’s when the book explodes with colours.
Reading each of Bruno Munari’s (1907–1998) more than 70 publications is an adventure, even if, in contrast to the majority of his readers, we are more than a few years older. The Milanese artist, graphic designer and designer is famous for his projects directed at the youngest audience. And even though Picasso called him a “new Leonardo”, Pierre Restany – a “Peter Pan of the Italian design”, and Umberto Eco added that he worked with paper as if he were tuning a violin, the fact that he chose this particular path – the design field, underrated for such a long time – meant that Munari’s work entered museums and art galleries for good only a decade ago. But there is probably not one person in Italy who didn’t encounter his designs as a child.
Munari started off as a Futurist. When he was 18, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti took him under his wings. In 1927, Munari took part in an exhibition of 33 Futurist painters organized by Marinetti in Milan. Later, in 1948, he was one of the founders of Movimento Arte Concreta, a Milanese group of abstract painters. However, from the beginning – as the art critic Claudio Cerritelli noted – he had a tendency to not take the art world too seriously. And even though we can find sophisticated painterly studies among his works (such as the series Negativo Positivo, inspired by Gestalt psychology) or superb design projects (his most famous one is the Falkland lamp created for Danese in 1961), he is much more closely associated with the 1944 Fotocronache photo-reportage in Domus magazine, in which he watches with tenderness and amusement human efforts to find comfort in a badly designed armchair; with the 1958 sculpture Talking Forks, where bent cutlery prongs imitate human gestures; or the humorous addendum to the Italian dictionary from the early 1960s explaining the complexity of body language typical to the residents of the Apennine Peninsula.
His openness, curiosity towards the world, flexible mind and visual imagination meant that he quickly found a lot in common with the youngest audience. It was for them that in 1951, in collaboration with the Pirelli tyre manufacturer, he created the first toys in the world made of foam rubber – Meo Romeo the Cat and Zizi the Monkey, whose limbs are pliable thanks to the copper wires hidden inside. Several years later, he designed the ‘ABC’ game consisting of 26 elements of varying shapes that could be put together into any letter of the alphabet (or anything else), and, in collaboration with the educationalist Giovanni Belgrano, he created ‘Plus and Minus’, a set of transparent cards with drawings on them, which, when put one on top of another, created different compositions.
However, he paid most attention to books, and wanted even the youngest of children to have access to them. Libri illeggibili, designed in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as Prelibri of the 1980s, were created for small children who couldn’t yet read. Instead of traditional stories based on linear narratives, Munari created book-objects for them, which allowed them to discover and experience independently. The children’s imagination was to be stimulated by varied materials (paper, wood, fabrics, felt, sponge or plastic), textures (corrugated cardboard, feathers), colours and shapes. Like in contemporary ‘touch and feel’ books, they lent themselves to being ‘read’ with all the senses.
Munari also encouraged children to be independently creative. During workshops led by him in the 1970s (for example, at the Milanese Pinacoteca di Brera), he urged them to create their own ‘tactile stories’ – sticking materials of different textures to wooden boards, which, when touched with the fingertips, told complex stories. He also used available technologies in an unconventional way – he used Xerox machines, which had just entered the market, and together with the youngest he created Xerografie originali, unique images/prints made of objects collected and composed on the plate of the photocopier. He believed that there is creative potential hidden in every person, as well as innate curiosity and the need to discover and experience the world around us in as full a way as possible. What mattered the most was not losing this potential and developing it further through games that engage all of the senses. And if that proved too gruelling, you could always use his 1993 Libro letto – a large format book made of soft fabric which you can wrap yourself in as if it were a blanket and fall asleep.
Translated from the Polish by Anna Błasiak