2022-07-07

The Communist Designer, the Fascist Furniture Dealer, and the Politics of Design

18 min read

Let’s begin with two bookcases.

Both are made of simple, sturdy pine, expediently joined together. One will likely be familiar: It’s the primary unit of the Ivar shelving system, which has been manufactured by the Swedish megabrand IKEA since the late 1960s. Its name rhymes with that of the company’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, who died in 2018. It retails for $69.

The other shelf, distinguished by its diagonal braces, is part of the Autoprogettazione furniture system developed by the Italian designer Enzo Mari. It’s a word difficult to translate (“self project,” while not particularly grammatical, comes close) but easy to explain. Mari wanted to put the means of production back where he thought they belonged: in the hands of the people. He therefore conceived a family of forms that could be made by anyone out of cheap lengths of pine and some nails, using the simplest of joints.

If the resemblance between these two bookshelves is striking, the ideological disparity between them is far more so. Kamprad had been a Nazi sympathizer as a young man, beginning his close association with Sweden’s fascists in 1942, when he was 16. After the war, he remained a political conservative, and of course, the company he founded is now seen as the friendly face of consumer capitalism. Mari, by contrast, was a committed Marxist. Upon his passing last October, he was widely hailed as the conscience of design, someone who had spent his life castigating his fellow product designers for their craven subservience to the profit motive in no uncertain terms. “What producers make today is shit,” he said in a 2015 interview, “because they eat shit…. I worked half my life to ensure that the world would not be what it is today.”

How is it possible that two bookshelves, all but identical in appearance and construction, can exemplify both left-wing critical design and the world’s most successful capitalist furniture-manufacturing strategy? That question becomes more provocative still when one considers both the Ivar and Autoprogettazione as manifestations of modernism, the movement that emerged in the 1920s with a program of egalitarian functionalism. Kamprad’s famed manifesto, “The Testament of a Furniture Dealer” (published in 1976, just two years after Mari’s DIY plans), is the quintessential expression of those themes: Create a better life for the many; do more with less; simplicity is a virtue. Mari, too, espoused those values. He created hundreds of designs, always simple in conception, practical in use, and affordable in price—children’s games, plastic vases, pencil holders—manufactured by big brands like Danese, Artemide, and Zanotta. Even Italians who don’t know his name know his work. It is the stuff of everyday life.

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