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It was the prominent architect and designer, Gio Ponti, who first ironically proposed that Italy had been created half by God and half by architects: "God made the plains, mountains, lakes, rivers and sky, but the profiles of the cathedrals, facades, churches and towers were shaped by architects. In Venice, God created only the water and the sky."
The Second World War had shattered the Italian economy and industry infrastructures. The implementation of a reconstruction programme, allied to a desire to progress beyond the fascist-inspired neo-classicism of the 1930s, provided designers and architects with the opportunity to reassess markets and to reinterpret manufacturing systems. Perhaps the most emblematic articulation of this new vision was in the development of the Vespa motor-scooter, which adapted redundant wartime aircraft technology to afford a modern, stylish and international new vision. The designers and architects who enjoyed prominence in the immediate post-war years and early 1950s had for the most part completed their education before 1939, when both fields of study had enjoyed identical training. The consequences were that the relationship between the applied and industrial arts was brought much closer than elsewhere in Europe.
An international consciousness of 'La Linea Italiano' had been fostered since the 1930s through the Triennale exhibitions, which by the 1950s had firmly established Milan as the centre of progressive design. Good product design was further enhanced by the annual presentation of prestigious 'Compasso d'Oro' awards from 1954 onwards. The consequences of such national dedication and reverence in the quality of its industrial design had established, by the mid-1960s, an Italian dominance in the luxury export furnishings market. By the late 1960s it was, however, precisely this assertiveness that prompted a new generation of designers to initiate a stylistic and theoretical rebellion against the perceived mediocrity of contemporary Italian design.
Inspired by the American 'Pop' movement, and reassured by the increasingly unstable political and cultural climate from 1968 onwards, radical 'anti-design' collectives began to proliferate in the traditional design centres of Milan and Florence. Foremost amongst these were Superstudio and Archizoom, whose young motivated members aspired to a total and thorough restructuring of what was considered to represent the modern experience. Their propositions were articulated not solely through the production of radical furniture, but also by means of discussions, magazines and staged events. The materials of choice - polyurethane foam, rubber, plastics and synthetic fabrics - were the new and modern substances that could be fashioned into forms unimagined in the earlier part of the decade. A perpetrator of truly innovative and highly individualistic design since 1969, Gaetano Pesce has made consistent use in his designs of unlikely, synthetic materials. The counter-culture of Italian design was formally recognised in 1972 with the seminal New York MoMA exhibition "Italy: The New Domestic Landscape", which presented the most influential and radical designs of the period and established their position within the narrative of established post-war Italian design. The immediate impact of the exhibition was the granting of an international audience to the revolutionary theories of the new designers.
The Oil Crisis of the early 1970s halted the suitability of plastics for furniture design, and consequently arrested the aspirations of the 'anti-designers'. The established furniture conglomerates produced for the most part retrospective or unimaginative designs, and for the first time, the Compasso d'Oro was not awarded between 1970 and 1979. Against such a bleak background, progressive design began to resurface in the mid-1970s through the sometimes cynical theorising and actions of skilled, experienced and radical visionaries such as Alessandro Mendini, Ettore Sottsass and Andrea Branzi. The prevailing cultural mood had softened by the early 1980s, crystallised by the foundation of the Memphis collective of national and international designers. The movement was highly influential, and was instrumental in propelling Italian Post-Modernism to the forefront of international design. It has been this proclivity for investigation, allied to a constant ability for self-evaluation, that has firmly established the consistently valuable contribution of Italy's designers, architects and theorists to post-war product design.