Talking Shop

Radical Collecting

Wava Carpenter

Curator Cindi Strauss brings disruptive design to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston

In February, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston opened Radical: Italian Design 1965–1985, The Dennis Freedman Collection, an exhibition that examines Italy's explosion of disruptive design following the postwar era. This is the first major museum exhibition in the U.S. to assess this now-iconic movement since the landmark exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape at MoMA in 1972. It presents nearly 70 works—furniture, lighting, architectural models, paintings, and objects—almost all of which are or were in the private collection of Dennis Freedman, the high-profile, highly influential creative director from the fashion world.

The boldly fantastical prototypes, one-of-a-kinds, and limited editions in this exhibition are half a century old, and still they manage to provoke discomfort and bewilderment in contemporary audiences. It seems that Italian anti-design is destined to remain in the category of love-it-or-hate-it. And paradoxically those who love it (and collect it) the most tend to be in the category of visionaries whose own work likewise aims to push culture forward. Beyond Freedman, think David Bowie, Karl Lagerfeld, and Max Palevsky.

Intrigued by this rare and unique collection, we reached out to the exhibition’s curator, Cindi Strauss, Sara and Bill Morgan Curator of Decorative Arts, Craft, and Design at MFAH, to learn how it all came together.

Paramount Table Lamp by Lapo Binazzi of UFO, designed 1969, made c. 1972–73. Photo © 1969 Lapo Binazzi (UFO); Kent Pell

Why did you want to do this show?

The Radical period is a particular passion of mine because of its ideology—in particular, the experimental nature of the designs, the innovations in materials, and the designers’ provocative stance towards practicality and consumerism. The fact that the movement had such an outsized influence on design history in spite of its limited commercial appeal has also been of interest.

Around 20 years ago, as I began to learn about the architects, designers, and critics associated with the Radical movement, I became aware that the majority of museums in America were not collecting in this area. It was then that I decided to build a collection at the MFAH, which, with the addition of the Dennis Freedman Collection to our previous holdings, has made the museum one of the leading collections of this period in the world.

The specific genesis of the exhibition was rather simple. In 2015, I had the pleasure of meeting Dennis Freedman in New York. Finding ourselves to be kindred spirits in terms of our appreciation and passion for Italian Radical design, we continued to converse over the next two years. Then in 2017, it became clear that the time was right for a major exhibition and catalogue on the period. 

The goal for the exhibition has remained the same since its inception: to educate the public about this important international design movement and its objects, practitioners, and legacy. Italian Radical design cannot be seen widely in American museums, so this show offers visitors an opportunity to experience rare and unfamiliar objects that will intrigue with their forms, materials, and ideas.

Cielo, Mare, Terra Buffet by Fabio De Sanctis & Ugo Sterpini of Officina, 1964. Photo © Kent Pell

Why is this collection important?

Over the past few decades, Dennis Freedman has collected rare pieces that provide an in-depth view into the period, its design, and its key figures; he is one of very few collectors to focus on Radical Italian design in the United States. His vision for his collection was to collect early examples in as original condition as possible as well as to acquire one-of-a-kind works or prototypes. So the collection is a snapshot of both production and more conceptual designs. Even if someone had unlimited resources, Dennis’s collection could not be duplicated due the scarcity of the works. For a museum, it’s a dream collection.

UP7 Chair by Gaetano Pesce for C & B Italia, designed 1969, made 1969–73. Photo © 1969 Gaetano Pesce; Kent Pell

What is the legacy of the work in this show?

The furniture, lighting, and objects designed during the Radical period demonstrate the unlimited possibilities of creativity under any social or economic conditions. It was largely a youth movement, populated by young architects and designers whose passion for their ideological beliefs was unbreakable. They persevered with a make-things-happen spirit that often included building objects by hand, collaborating with small ateliers to fabricate and sell pieces, experimenting with materials, and forging connections across artistic and academic disciplines to broaden the awareness of their ideas. I think that it is a blueprint for today, especially as many of the ideological concerns of the Radical designers still remain important issues for designers and the public now. 

Pensione Atlantic Model by Franco Raggi for Studio Alchimia, 1981. Photo © 1981 Franco Raggi; Kent Pell

Tell us about one standout piece and explain why it’s special:

Urano Palma’s (1936–2010) armchair from the Diapositive Series, c. 1970–74, made of wood, possibly silk, and foam. Palma created this chair—along with its related table-sculpture and settee—through an elaborate process bordering on performance art. Palma drilled small holes into the wooden forms, which he then filled with woodworms and their eggs. Finally, using a recording device, Palma documented the sounds produced as the worms feasted on the wood, creating the pattern seen here. The artist’s actions link Radical design and Arte Povera, the influential avant-garde movement that emerged in Italy during the 1960s. In addition, his overt references to and subversion of the form of grand historical bergères—and all the economics and social customs for which they stand—speak to the revolutionary spirit of the time. ◆


Radical: Italian Design 1965–1985, The Dennis Freedman Collection is on view at MFAH through September 7, 2020