In his 1957 book Mythologies, Roland Barthes, the famous French philosopher, had this to say about plastic: “More than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation. As its vulgar name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible; moreover, this is the reason why it is a miraculous substance”.
Plastic was therefore the material of choice for designers in the 1960s: a decade that saw Brionvega, together with other illustrious peers, change the face of Italian (and then global) design and leave an indelible mark, like a press on hot plastic, on the culture of that golden decade.
Riding the transformative wave of an Italy whose habits and customs were changing, design found its role in identifying the desires and values of a new generation of young adults who yearned to experience the freedom that the market offered them. Combined with the economic prosperity of those years, this historic period helped ensure the success of certain design pieces that ended up representing Made in Italy in the world and then Italy itself, the Piaggio Vespa being just one example.
Freedom, desire for change, revolution, dynamism. The new decade was a complete break from the order of the 1950s. The design industry did not just stand idly by and watch this revolution take place but, for some brands that would later assume legendary status, embarked on a colourful period of experimentation and creative ferment unlike anything else that had come before.
Previously known as BP Radio S.r.l., the company changed its name and in 1960 became Brionvega, a combination of the surname of the company’s owners, Mr. and Mrs. Brion, and Vega, the brand under which its products had been marketed until that time.
By changing its name, the company also changed direction and took its first decisive steps in the world of industrial design. It did this by marketing pieces that instantly acquired icon status, garnering awards and plaudits all round the world.
The Milanese company owed its first real success to the partnership of Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper who in 1962 designed Doney 14′ (the first portable transistor television set produced in Europe) and won the Compasso d’Oro award.
In the early 1960s Brionvega had begun an important collaboration with the couple that would last for many years.
Realising the potential of the two designers, Brionvega entrusted them with the restyling of its products in 1959 with the goal of competing with Japanese and German manufacturers. Sapper and Zanuso designed radios and televisions that soon became cornerstones of Italian design.
In these early years of success, they were instrumental in communicating the dynamism that would become a Brionvega hallmark.
Marco Zanuso can be regarded as one of the founding fathers of Italian industrial design. He, together with others, has the merit of initiating the post-war debate on the “modern movement” in architecture and design. Zanuso was also one of the very first to take an interest in the problems of product industrialisation and the application of new materials and technologies to everyday objects.
In the words of Ennio Brion, “We appreciated Marco’s penchant for experimentation, not only with materials and technologies but also with behavioural values: a radio that opens is an object with a playful and performative nature, and this also applies to the Fonovaligia which, with its bivalve shell, resolves, in competition, separately defined functions.”
The Zanuso/Sapper partnership began in the 1950s when the German designer began working with the Zanuso studio. From 1956 to 1971 the pair designed a series of successful and award-winning pieces for brands such as Gavina, Kartell, Siemens and Brionvega (of course), winning countless Compasso d’Oro awards and taking their rightful place in the pantheon of global design.
1964 was a very busy year that saw them involved in three Brionvega projects that would prove highly successful and influential. Interested in recent technical developments in the processing of new materials, 1964 was a year of great experimentation for the partners.
The introduction of new and unusual materials in the design sector, also the result of the progress made in the chemistry field in the same years, opened up possibilities of form and colour that had never been attempted before.
The objects appeared soft and sported bright colours that went perfectly with the changing cultural scene; the newly emerging youth culture, for its part, was ready to freshen things up and bring new colour to a society that was changing at the speed of light.
Zanuso and Sapper composed their own holy trinity of colour in 1964, designing three objects that have gone down in history: Algol, Radiocubo and Fonovaligia.
Algol 11″ was a television with an absolutely revolutionary concept, as underlined by two elements in particular: the tilted screen and the pull-out handle. These two details alone are already the premise for a nomadic design, for a design that regards human behaviour as changeable and variable. The tilted screen also allowed the TV to be placed on the floor while the handle enabled it to be moved wherever one wanted.
Algol 11” was an extraordinary success and has become a cult object over the years.
Radiocubo is perhaps the most famous object of these years. Designed in 1964, it is a true paean to the Italy of those years, its transformations and its freedom.
Exhibited today at Moma in New York and the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, among other places, it was much loved by creatives of the calibre of David Bowie, who owned one which was recently sold at auction, together with his Brionvega radiofonografo, for £30000.
Its iconic form consists of two cube-shaped volumes: one containing the speaker, the other the electronics.
When open the interaction between the two modules generates a stereophonic effect, when closed it becomes an elegant coloured shell.
Together with the Radiocubo, the Fonovaligia is another piece of design that was inspired by the youth culture of the time. It is a suitcase containing a speaker and a record player. The key concept was portability, the goal was to make listening to music, a fundamental part of the social fabric of that period, a collective ritual that could be enjoyed away from one’s parents’ home.
Pop Culture made in italy
After more than 50 years, our goal is to keep creating products that last. Objects that show that even plastic can be sustainable today if it is treated and processed in a conservative way. Objects that, like the Radiocubo, have a long future ahead of them.
Looking at Zanuso/Sapper’s 1964, it is difficult not to grasp the intrinsic nomadism of the three projects and the efforts of a design approach that aims to mirror the aspirations of the beat culture that had recently arrived in Italy through the English music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones but also the books of the American beat generation authors. Authors translated and introduced into Italian youth culture by Fernanda Pivano who was the wife, for a time, of designer Ettore Sottsass who also worked with Brionvega. In the 1980s Sottsass also came up with the Memphis style: another aesthetic trend that brought Italian design back onto the front pages of architecture and design magazines around the world… but that’s another story.