MONTREAL -- Italy is the world capital of design, no? Browse the shops in Rome or Milan and you see commonplace objects whose lines elevate them to works of art: pens that are svelte and aerodynamic, sunglasses innovative and chic, candy tins, even shopping bags.
At the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, an exhibit examines the experimentation in art and the innovations in design that keep Italy in the forefront. ''Il Modo Italiano: Italian Design and Avant-garde in the 20th Century" looks at 380 examples of Italian decorative arts produced since 1890. Artistic design was an essential component of Italian industrial output, evolving through two world wars, multiple economic downturns, and intense foreign competition.
A pear-green 1955 Vespa motorscooter exemplifies that industrial energy, even as it epitomizes, at least for many foreigners, the Roman street scenes in Fellini films. And the 1948 Olivetti typewriter seems underwhelming today, though in its time, its smooth styling made American brands look crude.
Diane Charbonneau, the museum's curator of non-Canadian decorative arts (after 1960) and photography, notes that in the Art Nouveau period, Italy still hadn't found itself. Designers began breaking new ground in the 1930s, and almost every decade thereafter saw the emergence of some new philosophy that challenged the status quo, even in the Fascist years. In the process, Italian designers became humanists, she said, respected authorities who developed philosophies and wrote books. Consumer preferences were never allowed to dictate the direction of design.
Charbonneau's favorite pieces in the exhibit include a 1913 Alfa Romeo, whose shape was playfully jazzy even then, and a swinging armchair dating from the 1940s that hangs suspended from the ceiling. The work of Franco Albini, the chair was intended for the living room of a villa, and was presented that year at the sixth Milan Triennale. ''It looks contemporary by the way it's hanging," Charbonneau said.
Early on, Italy made it a custom to host triennales, biennales, and other exhibitions, knowing they would get local competitive juices flowing and focus international attention on Italian work. Promotion was crucial, as Italy's postwar economy lay in ruins. Under pressure to jumpstart exports, artists and designers emphasized quality. The result was inspired modernity.
After the 1960s, Italian design took off. Ettore Sottsass drew raves for his experimental creations, many of which were more visual than functional. Like most of his peers in the 1970s and '80s, Sottsass came from an architectural background rather than the design schools where later generations were trained. With designers now descending on Italy to have their work produced, Charbonneau said, the country has coalesced into ''a laboratory of ideas." The synergy has worked in different ways, but it has worked. Italian artists have managed to infuse thought and feeling into items of daily use.
''This is what they're good at," Charbonneau said, ''and if it's making their society progress, they'll just keep doing it."
Contact Diane Foulds, a freelance writer in Burlington, Vt., at email@example.com.