Creative Alechemy From Italian Designers

Alchimia mixes art with design, modernity with the archaic, the vulgar with the precious

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

`ALCHIMIA'' is Italian for ``alchemy'' and also, according to my dictionary, for ``deception.'' There might be some significance in that. Alchimia is the name, adopted in 1976, by an Italian design group, considered to be in the forefront of ``radical design.'' Like its probably better-known outgrowth, ``Memphis,'' its headquarters is in Milan. Its founders were Alessandro and Adriana Guerriero, and among its designers have been such names as Ettore Sottsass, Alessandro Mendini, Andrea Branzi and Michele De Lucchi.

Britain is now staging, here in the Scottish capital, ``Alchimia Fa Bene al Design,'' the country's first exhibition of objects produced by Alchimia. London won't see this array of strange, jokey, colorful, and rather friendly objects until 1991.

The initiative for the show comes from Judith Findlay of the Fruitmarket Gallery, where the display is mounted.

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One of the distinctive characteristics of Alchimia is that it has managed to invade the ``art'' world, as opposed to the ``design'' world. It has persistently staged exhibitions and now has its own gallery in Milan. But then Alchimia has also behaved as if it were part of the fashion-world, periodically presenting new ``collections,'' like clothing designers.

As Ms. Findlay took me around the show, I had difficulty remembering this was not an art exhibition. Bold, vaguely Cubist mosaics in an arch-shaped format are placed at regular intervals on the walls. Made in Ravenna - ancient home of mosaics - these striking decorations are just that: They have no ``function'' but to decorate walls.

Interspersed among them are some flat, colorful abstract designs that might have been made in the '60s by a computer. They are called ``paintings,'' though they look more like silk-screen prints. Again, they fall into a category somewhere between ``art'' and ``d'ecor.''

They remind me of Fran,cois Burkhardt's observation that Alchimia operates in a ``sort of intermediate position between kitsch and `good design,' tainting both of them.''

In the floor space, there is indeed furniture to be found - the ``Proust Chair,'' highly elaborate and theatrical, covered all over (both upholstery and woodwork) with sizable spots of Pointillist color.

And there is the widely known Breuer Chair of steel tube frame and leather, treated to one of Alchimia's more enchanting and amusing strategies: ``re-design.'' In this case it has a soft-colored Arp-like jigsaw of fluent shapes collaged to its black leather surfaces.

Alchimia is committed to change. It tries to act in the ``modernist'' avant-garde arena of ever-moving, basically progressive notions and, at the same time, it raids the larder of the past in a ``post-modernist'' sense.

In a seminar about Alchimia just after the show's opening, John Thackera, a writer and lecturer on design, pointed out that the group's special brand of eclecticism is not obvious, as some post-modern architecture has been, with a its tacky classical columns or silly pediments. Alchimia keeps jogging memories and making connections, and it certainly borrows unashamedly from such diverse art or craft ``styles'' of the past as '30s china, Kandinsky's paintings, Max Ernst's sculpture.

Alchimia even decorates the side and back of one quaint little cupboard from the ``Infinite Furniture'' series of 1981, with re-paintings of pictures by Edvard Munch. Yet, even with all this multifaceted reference-making, this exhibition lands on the side of originality rather than banality.

And in Alchimia terms, this may be a failure. One of its most verbally expressive designers and theorizers, Allessandro Mendini, has certainly aimed at banality as a feature of a ceaseless quest to undermine the foundations of conventional design.

The ``Infinite Furniture'' (mis-translated rather intriguingly as ``Unfinished Furniture'' in one of the two books sold here instead of a catalog) was an undermining notion of another sort - an escape from the traditional relationship of designer and client. A designed object was not to be the imposing ``creation'' of one individual. It might be designed by several people; then the owner of the object can also freely attach or detach or move around various magnetic shapes on its surfaces.

On a shelf inside one of the mirror-slick cabinets from the recent ``Ollo'' computer-designed series of objects, Findlay picked up a small sheet-metal stencil with disparate, playful shapes stamped out of its surface. It was a ``Mendinigrafo'' - something between a souvenir and a tool, with which anyone can make his own cheerful decorations.

But such an apparently democratic approach to design is instantly contradicted by the highly finished, machine-made appearance of other objects in the show.

The fact is that this Alchimia exhibition presents a series of dilemmas: Design is for all, but the objects designed by Alchimia are either priceless museum pieces or terribly expensive objects for the wealthy few.

Findlay feels strongly that Alchimia's ``multidisciplinary'' approach to design - mixing the functional with the unfunctional, art with design, machine-manufacture with hand-craft, modernity with the archaic, the commonplace and vulgar with the refined and precious - has much to offer the art world now.

Far from being at the end of a decade-and-a-half of innovation and questioning, she feels that Alchimia's tolerance of contradictions and opposites that turn out to be compatible in unexpected ways offers some sort of way out of the anti-modernist stance of the '70s and '80s. Alchimia's influence ``is just beginning now,'' she predicts.

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