THE SHORT CENTURY OF ICONS

by Secondome

There is a sixty years time lapse between the moka invented by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933 and the “moscardino” – the piece of cutlery that is both fork and spoon – invented by Giulio Iacchetti and Matteo Ragni in 2000 for Pandora. In between all the best years of Italian design. Years when creatives and brands gave life to beautiful, useful and pleasing objects. In a word: icons.

We might even call those years the short century of the icons. And it’s been over for a long time. This is the thesis that Chiara Alessi develops in her last essay, both a family novel and an inquiry about design. Curator, historian and professor at the Politecnico in Milan, Chiara is first and foremost descendant of two historical families of Italian entrepreneurs: on one side the moka’s Bialetti, on the other the homeware’s Alessi. Two families that somewhere along history become related producing design upon design, stories upon stories. That’s why Chiara knows these stories both first hand and as an academic. So the tale that emerges from her “My great-grandparents coffee-makers” mixes two levels: one more intimate and sentimental, the other scientific.

But why did Italian design stopped producing icons as were and still are lamps such as the Arco by Castiglionis, Tizio by Richard Sapper or the Sacco by Zanotta? The first reply we might be tempted to give is that is too early to judge a recent product and predict if it will be considered an icon later on. But it’s not true. There are past icons which became such immediately. The other hypothesis is that we are not into objects like in the past. “Far from true” answers back Alessi. The point is that “today more than ever what work are the “things” not necessarily meant to work or last, but are able to give strong, immediate, emotions”. It’s as if we don’t ask the object to have a definite function or last long. That’s why, for instance, the long queue of people lining to get the last Apple item is more iconic than the actual i-Phone.

 

In this world where emotions prevail over function and the feeling is given by the appearance, the disappearing of icons is most likely an inevitable consequence. Because we don’t believe anymore that an object such as a radio, an armchair or a piece of furniture can shape the future, as they believed in the past. We live in an eternal present day, where the future is seen as absent or uncertain, so we cannot imagine any object that defines it. “The authors of our icons” explains Chiara Alessi “worked deeply buried in their present, were able to relate to it, and yet their ideas were not perfectly aligned to the ones of the time, and this discrepancy is what made the birth of these objects possible. They embodied and were able to tell the tale of that distance. Their efforts would be supported even later in the future”. So to say, we’ll go back to producing icons, when we’ll go back having a future. At least one we can tell about.

 

 

Images: Courtesy of Museo Alessi e Famiglia Alessi

Grafica: Yoshiko Kubota