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At, ‘Italian Genius Now’ the ongoing exhibition in New Delhi, the Italians remind us that an orange squeezer or a typewriter need not be — must not be — just about whether it works or not. It must be beautiful, writes Indrajit Hazra.

business Updated: Sep 21, 2008 00:05 IST
Indrajit Hazra

In these Damien Hirst-Subodh Gupta times, we tend to forget that beautiful things can also be useful. At, ‘Italian Genius Now’ the ongoing exhibition at Travancore Palace in New Delhi, the Italians remind us that an orange squeezer or a typewriter need not be — must not be — just about whether it works or not. It must be beautiful.

So there I was, usually happy with Hush Puppies, staring at this startling piece of architecture: a Salvatore Ferragamo shoe, the ‘Sandalo Invisible’, patented in 1947 by the man himself. There it was, fit for the foot of a Grace Kelly, its heels and toes tucked in by gossamer-like strands that mirrored a miniature cantilever bridge.

Opposite the Ferragamos (there were two) were ‘original’ modern light displays. Now, we all have our Ikeas and Ikea rip-offs in our living rooms these days. But standing in front of the polyhedral lighting installation, ‘Fantasma’ — a jumble-shaped tent pouring out white light — designed by Tobio Scarpa in 1961, I felt near the source of stylised incandescence.

Even ‘primary’ devices like chairs and seats were brimming with a different kind of energy. Carlo Bartoli’s 2004 stack of chairs aren’t very different from the brightly coloured miniature ones you see in any nursery. But stacked together, they looked more Piet Mondrian paintings with their right angular yellows-reds-blacks than things you put your bum on. And they are comfortable.

One of the most exquisite objects in the exhibition has to be the 1969 portable Olivetti typewriter. Its robot-like shape, along with its screaming red has an Antonioni movie tucked somewhere in its boxy body. Designed by Ettore Sottsass when the Beatles were on the verge of breaking up, it still looks funky and futuristic.

Sitting next to it, in total monk-like calmness is the ‘23rd century’ Blue Tooth multi-purpose ‘Simple Way’ Olivetti. In its supreme whiteness, it couldn’t be more different from my red favourite Olivetti. But it also couldn’t be cooler.

The ‘Art of Cool’, of course, has been nurtured as an Italian experience by Italians. As Artistic Director, Centre of Contemporary Art and Design at Prato, Tuscany, puts it, “A ‘Made in Italy’ product that is not always embodied by the artist, but which enjoys an aura... has more resonance simply because it is a synthesis of form and beauty as well as usefulness, as is the case with many industrial products.” Heard that, Leonardo?

A classic case of this happens to be the scooter Vespa GS 150, designed by Corradino D’Ascanio in 1955 for the Piaggio line of two-wheelers. Displayed not too far away from a 2007 painting of the Fiat 2005 by Andrea Facco, the two vehicles — one standing ready to roll and the other framed on the wall — are amalgams of sensuous curves and angular slants that is a pure marriage of Sophia Loren and a machine. The chrome silver bouncing off the covered engine section of the vintage Vespa resembles the flanks of an Arabian horse — or a detail from a Renaissance-style odalisque, if you’re the arty type. And then again, it can take you pronto to the nearest market.

The functional-aesthetic tango gets nitty-gritty when I encounter what, from a distance, looks like styish plastic decorations. As I venture closer, I see that the pair of ‘two-legs-attached-to-an-oval-orange-body’ stuck sideways to an antenna-like strand by magnets is actually salt’n’pepper containers going by the name of ‘Lilliput’. They could have been cartoon aliens. But Stefano Giovannoni never wants kitchen appliances to look like, well, kitchen appliances. So along with the cups and stirrers and bottles that seem to pop out of a Pop Art factory, there’s the colourful ‘Mandarin’, an orange squeezer where the inside of the ‘Chinaman’s hat’ doubles as the squeezing unit.

But not everything, however, at ‘Italian Genius’ — ‘genius’ in the Italian sense of ‘talent’ or ‘natural disposition’ — can be used as a kitchen, transportational or living room device.

Take the suddenly extremely topical sculpture by Maurizio Savini. ‘Pray Broker’ (2005) shows a figure of a man wearing an over-long tie that seems to have the qualities of a lolling tongue joining his hands and praying. The figure has some kind of ‘hands-free’ device in his ear and pocket. The serene look in his eyes is more out of post-anguish rather than reflecting calmness. In fact, it could be a former Lehman Brothers exec if we hadn’t known that Savini created this three years before the meltdown.

And talking of meltdown, I’m a teeny bit concerned whether this pink piece of art won’t melt in the light and heat of the first floor gallery of Travancore Court. Why? Because the scultpure is made up of hundreds of piece of chewing gum — that I, actually, could smell and was dying to bite off from the figure’s tie.

Call it post-modernist positioning, but another star objet d’art I lusted after at the exhibition was a 66 Fiat model. It was parked under a tree outside the gallery. It turned out that the car — an original left hand drive imported from Italy — belonged to someone who’d come to see the exhibition. “I bought it from a Mr Raman in Bangalore who worked in Nasa and imported the car in 1966. He drove it till 1996 clocking some 40,000 miles. I just had to change the wheels and a few accessories. It’s a beauty,” he said casting glances at his pride and joy.

So what makes a useful object a work of great design? I reckon it has a great deal to do with where it’s placed. Earlier in the evening, on the white wall between a framed Sara Rossi giant photograph of Commedia dell’Arte-type clowns and a plexi-glass ‘palm tree’ lighting unit, I saw a white box-like device with bold movable striations.

It had a bold, classical design and I viewed it with extreme pleasure especially as it was spewing out cold air in a warm room. There it was. It wasn’t Italian.

It was an Indian airconditioner. Beautiful.

‘Italian Genius Now’ will be on view till September 28 between 11 am and 6.30 pm at the Travancore Palace, Kasturba Gandhi Marg, New Delhi.