Bruno Munari’s Design as art (1966)

Design as Art: Detail: Spread

01/04/09 – Excerpts from Bruno Munari’s Design as art first published in 1966. Images on flickr//

Preface to the English Edition

They [artists] have realized that at the present time subjective values are losing their importance in favour of objective values that can be understood by a great number of people.And if the aim is to mass-produce objects for sale to a wide public at low price, then it becomes a problem of method and design. The artist has to regain the modesty he had when art was just a trade, and instead of despising the very public he is trying to interest he must discover its needs and make contact with it again. This is the reason why the traditional artist is being transformed into the designer, and as I myself have undergone this transformation in the course of my working career I can say that this book of mine is also a kind of diary in which I try to see the why and wherefore of this metamorphosis. (13)

Preface: The Useless Machines

I intended these objects to be thought of as machines because they were made of a number of movable parts fixed together. [...] They are useless because unlike other machines they do not produce goods for material consumption, they do not eliminate labour, nor do they increase capital. (23)

Design as Art

Culture today is becoming a mass affair, and the artist must step down from his pedestal and be prepared to make a sign for a butcher’s sho (if he knows how to do it). The artist must cast off the last rags of romanticism and become active as a man among men, well up in present-day techniques, materials and working methods. Without losing his innate aesthetic sense he must be able to respond with humility and competence to the demands his neighbours may make of him. (25)

If what we use everyday is made with art, and not thrown together by chance or caprice, then we shall have nothing to hide. (ibid.)When the objects we use every day and the surrounding we live in have become in themselves a work of art, then we shall be able to say that we have achieved a balanced life. (27)

Designers and Stylists

What is a Designer?

He is a planner with an artistic sense. (29)

He therefore tries to give it a form as appropriate as possible to its function, a form that one might say arises spontaneously from the function, from  the mechanical part (when there is one), from the appropriate material, from the most up-to-date production techniques, from a calculation of costs, and from other psychological and aesthetic factors. (30)

A designer tries to make an object as naturally as a tree puts forth a leaf. He does not smother his object with his own personal taste but tries to be objective. (31)

And why is it the designer  who is called upon? Why is the artist not torn from his easel? Because the designer knows about printing, and the techniques used, the he uses forms and colours according to their psychological functions. (32)

The designer is therefore the artist of today, not because he is a genius but because he works in such a way as to re-establish contact between art and the public, because he has the humility and ability to respond to whatever demand is made of him by the society in which he lives, because he knows his job, and the ways and means of solving each problem of design. And finally because he responds to the human needs of his time, and helps people to solve certain problems without stylistic preconceptions or false notions of artistic dignity derived form the schism of the arts. (ibid.)

The designer works in a vast sector of human activity: there is visual design, industrial design, graphic design and research design. (33)

Pure and Applied

What then is this thing called Design if it is neither style nor applied art? It is planning: the planning as objectively as possible of everything that goes to make up the surroundings and atmosphere in which men live today. [...] It is planning done without preconceived notions of style, attempting only to give each thing its logical structure and proper material, and in consequence its logical form. (35)

A Living LanguageAs the speed and volume of traffic increases, decoration is proportionally reduced, until it reaches the bare essentials of our present-day signals. Visual language changes according to the needs of the day. (39)

A Rose is a Rose is a

The growing use of symbols such as roadsigns and trakemaks on a worldwide scale demands absolute clarity of expression. (41)

It is true that a badly designed poster will have some effect if the walls are smothered with it, but a good poster would achieve the same results less wastefully by giving more pleasure. (43)

The Stylists

A designer with a personal style, arrived at a priori, is a contradiction in terms. There is no such thing as a personal style in a designer’s work. While a job is in hand, be it a lamp, a radio set, an electrical gadget or an experimental object, his sole  concern is to arrive at the solution suggested by the thing itself and its destined use. Therefore different things will have different forms, and these will be determined by their different uses and the different material and techniques employed. (47/8)

Mystery Art

Visual Design

Character Building

Design as Art: Detail: Spread

Design as Art: Detail: Spread

Design as Art: Detail: Spread

I mean living culture, knowledge of what is happening in the arts today, the efforts living artisits are making to find espressive forms. [...] Only a knowledge of their experiments can provide the distinctive quality posters need if they are to to be something more tha general information aimed at everyone and no one. Visual characterization makes for directness and immediacy.  [...] Communicaiton must be instant and it must be exact. (55)

The graphic designer works without set limits and without rejecting any possible technique. His experiments in the visual lead him to try out all possible combinations and methods in order to arrive at the precise image he needs fo the job in hand, and no other. (ibid.)

The graphic designer usually makes hundreds of small drawings and then picks one of them. (63)

The Shape of Words

Not only does each letter of a word have a shape of its own, but all its letters taken together give shape to the word. (65)

Knowledge of the shape of words and the possibilities these offer for communication can be very useful to the graphic designer when he comes to make warning signs that have to be taken in quickly, like the ones on motorways, that one cannot stop to decipher. (67)

Poems and Telegrams

[...] each text, however short, has its own ‘reading time’. (68)

The graphic designer can also operate in this field; where lettering and spacing must be calculated according to the effect required. Though it is commonly done, it is not right to use the same type faces  for poems as for the reports of Board meetings. For rapid reading the type must be simple and clear, the spaces between letters and words exactly calculated, the space around each word sufficient to isolate it completely from its surroundings; while the letters and background must not be done in complementary colours. (ibid.)

Two in One

[...] two or more images in one must be taken into account by the graphic designer when he is trying to achieve really concentrated visual communication. (72)

A Language of Signs and Symbols?

Many of our activities today are conditioned by signs and symbols, though so far these are only used for visual communication and information. (73)

But it has not yet been used to tell a story. Or rather, mine is the first attempt. (78)

12,000 Different Colours

Graphic Design

Poster with a Central Image

It usually happens that when someone cannot keep his end up in an argument he begins to shout. In this way he does not add anything new to his argument, but at least he makes himself heard. many posters want to make themselves heard at all costs, and so they shout with their colours, yell at you with strident shapes. (84/5)

A triangle offers three escape routes, a square offers four. A circle has no corners, and the eye is foreced to go round and round in it until it tears itself away with an effort. (86)

On the other hand it is a mistake to divide the surface of a poster into different blocks of colour or print. Such a poster fades too easily into its surroundings, and each part of ht ecomposition flows off into the poster next door, confusing the public and absolutely nullifying the effect of the message. (87)

Poster without End

The edges of a poster are therefore worthy of special consideration. They may serve as neutral areas to isolate one poster from others around it, or as calculated links in a series. (89)

Children’s Books

Knowing children is like knowing cats. Anyone who doesn’t like cats will not like children or understand them. (93)

To enter the world of a child (or cat) the least you must do is sit down on the ground without interrupting the child in whatever he is doing, and wait for him to notice you. (ibid.)

Industrial Design


The private house of the future (some are already lived in) will be as compact and comfortable as possible, easy to run and easy to keep clean without the trouble and expense of servants. A lot of single pieces of furniture will be replaced by built-in cupboards, and maybe we shall even achieve the simplicity, the truly human dimensions, of the traditional Japanese house, a tradition that is still alive. (102)

In the house of the future, reduced as it will be to minimum size but equipped with the most practical gadgets, we will be able to keep a thousand ‘pictures’ in a box as big as a dictionary and project them on our white wall with an ordinary projector just as often as we please. And I do not mean colour photographs, but original works of art.With these techniques visual art will survive even if the old techniques disappear. Art is not technique, as everyone knows, and an artist can create with anything that comes to hand. (103)

How One Lives in a Traditional Japanese House

What is Bamboo?

Ugly things are ugly in much the same way the world over. Only the best can teach us, and the best of anything is individual. (113)

A Spontaneous Form

Errors of construction do not arise from the aesthetic aspects of a thing, but from neglect of the natural and logical techniques of construction. (114)

The designer of course does not operate in nature, but within the orbit of industrial production, and therefore his projects will aim at a different kind of spontaneity, an industrial spontaneity based on simplicity and economy in construction. (114/15)

A Prismatic Lamp

From the moment he sets about a job a good designer must bear in mind that an object that takes up quite a lot of room when in working order must not be bulky for storage or delivery. By saving on storage and delivery costs he is cutting the eventual sales price of the product. (119)

In many cases this is possible. It is enough to count the force of gravity as one of the components of an object. (ibid.)

Subtract rather than add: this rule must be understood in the sense of reaching simplicity, getting at the essence of the object by eliminating anything superfluous until no further simplification is possible. (121)

By designing without any stylistic or formal preconceived notions, and tending towards hte natural formation of things, one gets the essence of a product. (ibid.)

Wear and TearOrange, Peas and Rose

Can one draw a parallel between the objects created by a designer and those produced by nature? Some natural objects do have elements in common with the products of the designer’s crat. What is the rid or shell of a fruit if not the ‘packing’ it comes in? Different fruits, from coconuts to bananas, are packed in different ways. Perhaps if we apply the jargon of design to a few natural objects we may make some interesting discoveries… (125)

A Piece of Travelling Sculpture

Luxuriously Appointed Gentlemen’s Apartments

When a lot of money comes along before culture arrives, we get the phenomenon of the gold telephone. And when I say culture I don’t mean academic knowledge, I mean information: information about what is happening in the world, abou the things that make life interesting. (137)

Knives, Forks and Spoons

An inquiry which I have carried out in the knife, fork and spoon industry reveals that today there is an implement for every specific purpose [...] (138)

And That’s Not All…

Design as Art: Detail: Spread

Design as Art: Detail: Spread

Design as Art: Detail: Spread

Design as Art: Detail: Spread

For years and years architects and designers all over the world have been designing thousands of chairs, upright chairs and armchairs, all different and all the fruit of infinite inventiveness. I have even designed two or three myself. But it seems that the problem has not yet been altogether solved, because architects and designers all over the world are still going on designing chairs, just as if all their efforts up till now had been wrong. (143)

Fancy Goods

In one shop I see a brass boot, size 25 (approx.). ‘I’ll have a pair of those,’ I say. ‘We have only one, sir.’ ‘What can I do with one boot?’ ‘It is not a boot to wear on the foot, sir. It is a boot to keep umbrellas in,’ the assistant explains, smiling patiently as one wold at a madman. I am greatly embarrassed by this gaffe, and leave the shop at once, nearly tripping over a marble cat decorated with floral reliefs and serving as a doorstop. I am beginning to learn. (152)

These are certainly not objects produced by designers, for designers do not have such raging imaginations. They confine themselves to making candlesticks that look like candlesticks. (153)

Research Design


‘Copying nature’ is one thing and understanding nature is another. Copying nature can be simply a form of manual dexterity that does not help us to understand, for it shows us things just as we are accustomed to seeing them. But studying the structures of nature, observing the evolution of forms, can give everyone a better understanding of the world we live in. (158)

Growth and Explosion

The secrets of any trade that is pursued with serious intentions are more than a series of rules and working methods based on logic and experience and applied so as to obtain the greatest possible effect with the least amount of effort. They also include a continuous process of observations, thoughts and ideas that are pushed ahead even if at the beginning they seem to have no logical basis. (160)Time is a component which it is hard to imagine any different from how it has always seemed to us. But in the last few years things have been happening even in this field of human experience. (162)

Concave-Convex FormsContinuous Structures

And just as in nature the forms of minerals or plants or anything that grows according to a particular internal structure are limited by surrounding conditions, so the limits of a continuous structure depend on what the owner wants and the surroundings he intends to put it in. (167)

Natural forms are continually modified during growth by their surroundings. (ibid.)

The structures do not have a ‘composition’, an interplay of masses and spaces fixed once and for all. The only fixed and invariable thing is the basic element, but even this becomes variable according to how many are used and how they are arranged in the object as a whole. (169)

The Tetracone

What really counts is the information which a work of art can convey, and to get down to this we have to abandon all our preconceived notions and make a new object that will get its message across by using the tools of our own time. (174)



Direct Projections

We can use it as a means of expression, just like any other artistic technique. Just as one can buy tubes of paint for painting pictures, so one can obtain sheets of coloured Cellophane and otehr substances that can be used for projecting. (184)

Projections with Polarized Light

In the Home of the Future people will be able to keep a small box containing hundreds of ‘pictures’ for projection. (190)

The Square

The Circle

An Arrow Can Lose Its Feathers but Not Its Point

Theoretical Reconstructions of Imaginary Objects

Let us carry this idea over into the field of art. Let us set our imaginations to the task of reconstructing something which we assume to be unknown and buld up a fantastic and unexpected thing according to the structural and material data provided by the few fragments we have to go on.Let us in fact make a theoretical reconstruction or an imaginary object, basing our work on fragments of unknown function and uncertain origin. (204)

Exercises in Topology, or Rubber-Sheet Geometry

Topology cuts things up, puts themn together agian in a differnt way and says that they are still the same, or that their qualities are equal, or that they are completely absurd like the famous Mobius Strip. (210)

Two Fountains, Nine Spheres

Appendix: The Machines of my Childhood (1924)

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Oliver Tomas

  • Design historian and archivist based in Vancouver, Canada.
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