ARIK AND PIPPO
Levy and Lionni have started together a very unusual and fruitful collaboration. A pure industrial designer the first, a pure graphic artist the latter, in their professional practice they come together as true partners, without forced compromises, but rather helping each other's ideas shine. What brings them together is not only friendship, but also a shared attitude toward design, based on experimentation, playfulness, modernist discipline, and occasional bouts of artistic elation. This short text is not an exegesis of their work, which is generously illustrated in this volume, but rather a homage to this odd couple of design and to the issues that inform their work and that they represent.
Art and Design
Art and design are sometimes very difficult to tell apart. Some individuals do not consider the distinction necessary at all, and move between the two spheres only by switching the end goal almost quantitatively : a few collectors rather than a wider public as the final destination. Most artist/designers and designer/artists tend therefore to bring the same inspiration to a different expressive challenge. Donald Judd's furniture, for instance, is as sharp-edged and minimalist as his art. Ettore Sottsass' photography is as human and soul-searching as his design.
Arik and Pippo are at home in both universes. They build installations in galleries and work for commercial clients in order to produce objects in big series. Their attitude is reminiscent of Bruno Munari, who pioneered this particular revolution, the wiping away of the distinction between design and art. "The artist uses imagination, while the designer uses creativity" the late Italian artist and designer used to say. Creativity, in his mind, took into account the industrial environment and its needs, the manufacturing and distribution techniques, as well as the final recipients of the object. Creativity also enabled him to finalize his own artistic experiments on forms and materials towards useful goals. The imagination part, on the other hand, was left up to the owner of the object. So as to not only let art be for everybody, but also to let everybody be an artist. An art object that is prone to be used, that humbly shows itself in need of some kind of human intervention, can be accepted as useful entertainment. Similarly, a useful object that promises and delivers emotion and surprise, the way an art object could, is more inviting and can provide new suggestions about how to be used. Surprise is the connection between art and design, and so is energy. Arik and Pippo incarnate this blurry distinction.
Here and There
Try asking Arik and Pippo where they are from. At different times, depending on the mood, they are French, Israeli, Italian, you name it. Although one wonders what is quintessentially Israeli, Italian, Spanish, or Russian, truth is they are powerfully modern characters in a country that has written an important chapter of the history of modernism and which continues to export that tradition, while also positioning itself at the forefront of the present.
Design is one of the most ancient and spontaneous human activities. Throughout the course of the centuries, and especially in the twentieth, design has actively participated in the progressive globalization and re-definition of visual and material culture. In the process, it has provided some of the most engaging and advanced examples of how local and global culture can interact and enhance each other. Arik and Pippo speak in a distinctive worldly tongue that comprises the characteristics of their eclectic generation, while they draw generously from their own tradition and the education that they received at school and at home. As true contemporary designers, they work for a coterie of international clients and still speak their own languages, without turning to Esperanto.
Substance and Style
Lionni and Levy matured as designers at a time of profound changes in design and in the world at large. Our perspective on the material world has evolved dramatically during the past decades. After the sensorial and material overdrive of the Eighties, the jaded inhabitants of the western hemisphere seemed ready for a new obsession, this time with simplicity and purity. The new code of action in the field of design was best symbolized by Droog Design (or "dry design"), the Dutch movement that celebrated a brand of ingenuity and economy that has been transformed into a coherent minimalist aesthetic. Droog Design made its first appearance in 1993 and ushered in the beginning of what some labeled the neo-minimalist era, a healthy and welcomed systemic revolution that would lower everyone's blood pressure.
Dutch design of the mid-nineties also revealed the emergence of a new balance between technology and artifacts. All over the world, contemporary design does not glorify advanced technology in the way it did during the 1980s, but rather it appreciates technology for its ability to simplify and/or enrich our visual and material landscape. In other words, for how it can simplify our lives by making objects lighter, smaller, and less formally obtrusive, as well as less onerous on the environment.
Arik and Pippo have learned to live in the moment and balance the means at their disposal against the goal at hand. Their training is somehow deeply rooted in a modern attitude of economy and sensibility, and the emancipation from the dictatorship of style has worked to their advantage. After the stylistic impositions of the past years, in fact, the world privileges originality of ideas. L Design does not promote a style, but rather communicates joy in the invention and in beauty, pleasure and humor in the alliance of creativity, and pride in the display of technical and constructive skills.
A mere successful synthesis of form and function ceased to be satisfactory a long time ago. Beauty is a relative and ambiguous definition. The 1970s intellectual stratagems "for instance the assumption that feelings and emotions are actually functions themselves" do not seem to work any longer, either. In our demanding present, we are looking for meaningful objects that can make a synthesis of all of the above. And meaning is the subject of play in Pippo's work with symbols especially, symbols which he twists ever so lightly in order to produce surprise.
Technology and Craftsmanship
Very high technology can today coexist in a peaceful synergy with very low technology, and good contemporary design is therefore an interesting composition of high and low. Some advanced tools, like the latest version of Photoshop, actually demand manual interference in order to be mastered, while some low-tech materials that respond (at least in appearance) to ecological needs, like the cardboard Levy uses for his lamps, initially demand a crafts intervention because of their essential nature. Experimentation, be it high- or low-tech, requires a hands-on approach, and the flexibility and novelty of the materials and manufacturing methods available today has stimulated the exploration of numerous possibilities.
Designers face today the multiple challenge of a need for old-fashioned economy of design of means and goals, in order to achieve sensible retail prices, satisfactory product lifecycles, and adequate socio-environmental precautions; and at the same time the need to interpret the complexity of a multifaceted and sophisticated public, who expects objects to be connectible between themselves and the rest of the world. Today, technology offers designers a new exhilarating freedom of inspiration. Levy and Lionni have learned to take advantage of this like in a jazz improvisation, with an elegant nonchalance that can be acquired only through years of strenuous technical exercise. Energy drives them in their exploration of materials and shapes, and often leads them to design statements that are haiku-brief, incisive, and at the same time open-ended ideas filled with eloquence and meaning.
Curator of Architecture and Design Department
Museum of Modern Art, New York