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The paradigmatic value of the anonymous: from Achille Castiglioni to Jasper Morrison

By Marco Romanelli. If you asked yourself what Achille Castiglioni, Jasper Morrison, Bruno Munari and Enzo Mari have in common, apart from being, or having been, great masters of design, what would your answer be? If it’s any help, I might suggest a milking stool (for A.C.), a book without words but full of spoons (J.M.), the Golden Compass “for the Unknown Designer” (B.M.) and an exhibition of scythes (E.M.) …. Then the answer becomes self-evident: these four great giants all shared a deep-seated love of anonymous objects. From Chiavari chairs to straw brooms, carpenters’ rulers, drawing pins, light bulbs, wine racks, thimbles, straw-covered flasks, paperclips and wooden chopping boards. All things designed by human hand and by time, in a centuries’ old process that has lent them an intrinsic absoluteness in which the blend of functional value and formal perfection is almost too good to be true. It is fair to say that, if one wished to be picky, no object can probably be truly anonymous: once upon a time there must have been the very first man to look at his cupped hands while drinking from a water source and think about carving “something” out of wood/stone? and designing a cup or a spoon. No offence to this anonymous prehistoric designer or to his 19th century colleague, wrestling with the industrial revolution, but there are hundreds of perfect and perfectly evolved objects that constitute a real paradigm. One that Castiglioni, Morrison, Munari and Mari took on board and turned into method: “How do you know when a work is finished?” Munari mused in 1986. “When people understand immediately what it’s for, when its appearance is as natural as that of an insect or a flower, and not secondary process. When, as in terms of function, it could hardly be simpler.” These days, when looks are paramount and just as futile, this phrase takes on a powerful (and deliberate) controversial connotation, both with regard to the designers who pull yet another “surprise” out of the bag, and to those who slavishly “reference” the past. The quest for simplicity and authenticity inherent in anonymous objects also applies to their users, or rather those of us who decide to buy a whatever: never dismiss the fine art of “knowing how to look.” Knowing how to look and anonymous design have always gone hand in hand. Jasper Morrison confided to me in 2013: “It’s very simple for me: if, for example, I see an old wineglass, a really beautiful one, in my eyes it becomes a heroic object … [belonging] to a sort of unconscious encyclopaedia of shapes. This is my source … For me everything stems from training myself to look at things …”.

Looking teaches us to choose and choosing teaches us to preserve – a beautiful, well-designed object will be part of our lives for a long time, a very long time, it may even be able to pass from our hands into those of our children. 

I believe the first lesson contemporary designers should learn from anonymous objects is how to design without letting a sense of “urgency” take over, not allowing their imaginations to run riot because, as Italo Calvino says: “fantasy is a place where it rains,” but being mindful of the fact that each and every design can constitute a small step forward on the road to typological development or just a nod to current “fashion.” 

Thus, anonymous objects these days have a fundamental role to play as antagonists of so-called “signed objects,” in which the signature no longer certifies the uniqueness of the piece, but becomes its raison d’être. 

What, then, can anonymous objects teach us? Certainly not to block creativity or go back to a sort of innocent primitivism, but to fuel a desire to create “objects of poetic reaction”, i.e. extraordinarily beautiful, silent and perfect things … but, mark this, this takes time!