Italian design and it’s cinematic influence

Alfa Romeo Duetto
Alfa Romeo Duetto

We can all conjure up the memory of the red Alfa Romeo Duetto, the “cuttlefish”, driven by a very young Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate”, speeding along the freeway and bridges across the rivers of American cities.

The cinematic image has made a special contribution to the affirmation of Italian design, especially since the war and not only on the other side of the Atlantic, both in Italian films and those bits of Italy that ended up in films by “others”.

On the one hand there have been the idiosyncrasies of Italian cinema itself, from new realism to Federico Fellini and to Roberto Benigni, while on the other hand there was that which others perceived of and loved about the Italian lifestyle, whether through its financial, artistic and cultural figures or through the legends of the silver screen.

Figuring also however has been the particular perception of Italian habits and behaviour, the choice of food and clothes. Style “made in Italy” probably found in cinema a particularly effective vehicle for spreading its fame throughout the world.

Very often Italian products, recognisable and replete with design, have often played a starring role in the fictional world portrayed on the screen. A role that has been sooner or later, or even at the time, recognised and re-affirmed by the such cultural initiatives as exhibitions and entry into museums.

An early indication of this tendency was New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s decision to exhibit the Cisitalia coupè designed by Giacosa, Dusio, Savonuzzi and Pininfarina in 1946.

The attention to Italian car design was to remain a constant, with the Fiat Multipla most recently taking its place on the stage. The most celebrated consecration of Italian design, however, must have been the 1972 exhibition “Italy: New Domestic Landscape”, also at MOMA.

The icons of our design became universally recognised, with the inclusion of such items as Olivetti’s office equipment, particularly the bright red Valentine typewriter of Ettore Sottsass and Mario Bellini’s yellow calculators, as well as Italian lamps and furnishings, from the historic pieces to the more experimental works of the late sixties.

It was not by chance that these lamps forced their way onto cinema sets. Who could fail to note the lamp known as Tizio from Artemide to Richard Sapper’s design, nonchalantly placed on the desks of tycoons, managers or common mortals throughout the film world, inside and outside of Hollywood.

The Bond films represent a case in point. The bad guy needed to be depicted in futuristic settings and the furnishings selected were Italian, considered synonymous with studied and avant-garde design.

These included such pieces as the armchair “Elda” by Joe Colombo, where the great white plastic shell was combined with elegant black leather cushions and the “Spider” lamp from O-luce by the same designer. The lamps in “Thunderball” are from Arco, designed by the brothers Achille and Piergiacono Castiglioni and made by Flos.

These find their location within the space inhabited by Bond’s evil antagonist, where every manner of wicked deed is enacted but to which our hero always finds an answer. The great lamp stands with the unmistakable metal curve supporting the shade seem little more than toys in such spaces, but they certainly do not pass unnoticed.

The Americans have shown themselves to have a real love affair for the Castiglioni brothers and just a couple of years ago MoMa dedicated an exhibition to them under the simple banner headline “Design!”. Pretty much as is the case, for better or worse, with all Italian design, the “label” is very important.

This is more than just the name but refers to a specific identity that is attributed to the designer, the brand and the company. It serves in some way to help conceive the product and design quite differently from how it is seen locally. Certainly much less industrial, standardised, freer and more creative and yet at the same time completely inside the market itself, with research margins quite alien to the American system.

It is something therefore of an exceptional presence, a star, like the protagonist in a film.  

Written by Simon
I am a published writer, journalist and photo-journalist. I have an MA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales and my journalism has been published in a number of UK national newspapers including 'the Observer'. I have life long interest in creative design, art and function and this website is an exploration of that in all its forms and guises.