Design as Art, Reflections

Originally loaned by a good friend of mine as I was studying in Italy, Design as Art has become one of my favorite books. Starting out designing in Mussolini’s Italy, Bruno Munari was a rebellious thinker who used design and art as his medium to create physical poetry. A single-digit-number of pages at most, each chapter talks about a completely different topic from the previous one, and of the next. Design as Art truly reads as a journal of ideas from Munari. I believe that every young, upcoming designer could benefit from reading this book to understand an endearing way of design thinking. Many of the references are quite outdated, as he references a lot of technologies that are irrelevant, and perhaps unknown to younger generations, but that is unimportant; the logic behind these references is what should be comprehended. I write this not to sum up Design as Art, but to give my ideas to the thoughts of Bruno Munari that hit me the hardest.




The book starts off by stating art has evolved from an unattainable-to-the-masses object governed by bureaucracy to everyday occurrences. This isn’t to say that artists of the fine arts don’t exist. What he’s suggesting is that artists need to be humble, put their pride aside, and be open to working on the deli sign down the street. Artists cannot work on fine art masterpieces for Royal families anymore. They must serve the masses.

Great design is based on function, and all subjectivity is left out. That is what separates design from art. Designers are not artists. Designers are planners; conductors that take into consideration many different aspects of a project. Economics of manufacturing, aesthetics for the chosen audience, and the determined function of a product are objective, not subjective. He uses what body types that were considered beautiful throughout history as evidence that beauty is subjective, but beauty in design is different. Something is beautifully designed when it is “just right”. I can see what he is trying to say here, and I agree with it for products whose purpose is purely physical, such as a can opener or computer. However, I believe design for some time has grown to widely accept, and in many cases, look for captivation as function. Is creating thought and story, even if left for one’s own interpretation, a function in and of itself? I can think of many products that that serve less function than a mass-produced sculpture that tells an engaging, up-for-interpretation story, even if it captivates for just a few short seconds.


Munari goes on to tell us that a designer who evokes his own personal voice is doing an act of disservice to the product. Personal styles are made from subjectivity, which hurts the objective beauty of a designed object. I cannot disagree with this. Our experiences are unique to ourselves; adding our voice is selfish and clouds the function of the design. I see it the same as telling an inside joke. Sure, the few friends who are in on it understand; this exclusivity may even make the joke funnier than it actually is. But the vast majority of people are not in on the inside joke, so it is not funny to them. The joke’s function is lost, and all you have is an awkward moment of explaining to do.

On that note, there are many entertaining, hilarious quips on criticisms of both people and design. Always having valid points behind the criticisms makes these criticisms even funnier. At one point, there is a tirade about ashtrays designed to look like a woman’s hand, clocks designed to look like frying pans, and lamps like a bunch of flowers. These are not well-designed, and are shortsighted and shallow. He urges us to smoke a pipe that looks like a pipe, using tobacco that is actually tobacco while sipping on our coffee in a cuplike cup.


His fascination of Japan in the book is what got me originally interested in the country’s design philosophies, carrying Japanese ingenuities into my own works. Tools crafted from bamboo are evidence that even without actively knowing it, the Japanese were great designers. They use materials the way nature designs them to be used, playing to the material’s strengths and avoiding weaknesses.  Nature should be understood, not copied. And I would also be lying if I said I didn’t take Munari’s fascination with bamboo into the designing of Chime.


Indeed, another aspect of the culture that Munari admires is the traditional Japanese home. Among other things, he applauded it for the consideration of shipping and storage as an integral part to its design. Designed as a series of flat panels, the homes are easily transported to their destination and built with easy mathematics. Again, an aspect that was an integral part to a project of mine

Does he consider Japan the end-all, be-all of design? Absolutely not. He makes a point for us to discover the strengths of each country in the way they design, and apply them to our designs.


A final point that intrigued me in this book was a discussion of the designing of cars. Munari states that cars are not well designed. They follow fashion trends that go out of style as soon as you buy them. This is a thought that crosses my mind often as well. Fashion is a function in and of itself. When a lady buys a $400 pair of shoes, it’s function is to captivate people in the moment. That moment does not last forever, and the function is quickly lost. But that does not mean the shoes were not well-designed. Conversly, timelessness over fashion can also be a function. The Porsche 911 is my favorite car for this very reason. Very little has changed in terms of form for its fifty year existence, and that is a quality I strongly appreciate about it.




To me, a book is good when it creates reflection and provocation. While reading Design as Art, I felt like I was sitting outside a café, sipping on coffee while having a conversation with Bruno Munari. After some points, I would ask myself if what Bruno said was absolutely correct, or if times have changed the circumstances of what he thought. After others, I would wholeheartedly agree. Design as Art is definitely a great read for any designer, I just recommend all readers to have an open mind to the mad-genius that is Bruno Munari.