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Design and Industry. Sapper Taught Us Beauty Can Be the Result of Utility

“[A] designer does not need a signature style to be immediately recognisable for his intelligence”, said Deyan Sudjic, director of London’s Design Museum, speaking in memory of Richard Sapper, the great German (and very Italian) designer who died on 31 December 2015 at the age of 83 (as also reported by Stefano Bucci in an article in Corriere della Sera on 5 January). It is also useful to recall the lessons of the grand masters of design such as Sapper, including Castiglioni, Magistretti, Mari, Albini, Aulenti, Zanuso, Sottsass, Branzi, Munari, Noorda, Mendini (the latter three having collaborated frequently with Pirelli on some of the most innovative ad campaigns of the 60s and 70s), and many more, all of whom played a crucial role in making design a key component of Italy’s industrial competitiveness—the cornerstone on which to create objects that are as beautiful as they are functional—a value that remains an important part of Italy’s culture and economy.

Born in Germany, Sapper came to Italy in 1958 after early work experience with Mercedes Benz in the company’s styling department. Once in Italy, he quickly settled in with the architect Gio Ponti before moving to the Rinascente design office, enjoying the economic boom of the post-war era in Italy, a nation open to exports and with an economy backed by the successes of a great many products, from cars and household appliances to Pirelli tyres and the Moplen plastics of Montecatini, as well as machine tools and interior design. As the great economic historian Carlo Maria Cipolla once said, “Italians have, since medieval times, had a habit of producing, in the shadow of bell towers, beautiful things that the world loves.”

Yes, Sapper was German by birth, but Italian by choice throughout his career, right to the end. He was the creator of objects that came to symbolise style and good taste for entire generations of consumers, both in Italy and abroad, works such as his ingenious, minimalist “Tizio” lamp for Artemide, or the 9090 coffee maker and 9091 kettle for Alessi, as well as his “Sapper Chair Collection” for Knoll, the “Dalle nove alle cinque” (From 9 to 5) office systems for Castelli, the “Grillo” telephones for Siemens, and, of course, the ThinkPad 700C for IBM. And let us not forget those that came out of the his extensive collaborations with Gae Aulenti and, above all, Marco Zanuso, such as the “Cubo” radio or the TVs for Brionvega, which lend beauty to high tech.

This all culminated with a Compasso d’oro career award in 2014, and the eleventh Compasso d’oro awarded to him, in recognition of his ability to unite German rigour with ingenuity in designing a great many extraordinary, highly successful products across such a wide range of fields over the course of such a long career on a constant quest for innovation. “Time is one of the few things that may ultimately establish the true quality of an object”, he would often say—a view shared by another great Italian designer, Dino Gavina, who said, “Modern is that which is worthy of becoming antique. Modern is the spirit of the times, but its true form cannot but be classical”.

Past and future. Identity and research. Strong values of which there is ample evidence in this blog on the best in Italy’s culture of enterprise and on which a large part of the competitiveness of the nation’s industry is still based. As Marco Belpoliti notes in La Stampa, Sapper was keen to create beautiful objects that solved problems, to give meaning to form—beauty as the result of utility.