Bruno Munari by art historian Giorgio Maffei is a survey of the great 20th-century designer's work.

This Boundary-Pushing Italian Designer Reminds Us That Books Should Be Tactile, Sensory Experiences

This Boundary-Pushing Italian Designer Reminds Us That Books Should Be Tactile, Sensory Experiences

The Eye
Slate’s design blog.
July 1 2015 9:04 AM

The Witty, Boundary-Pushing Creations of Book Designer Bruno Munari

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La Favola Delle Favole (The Fairy Tale of Fairy Tales) from 1994 is a book of interchangeable paper sheets between transparent plastic that encourages children to create their own stories by adding photographs and other materials. “Every child can have their own book,” Munari writes in the introduction, “a book of enormous value, which they can read over and over again until they are great-grandparents.”

Courtesy of Maurizio Corraini Editore, Mantua, 1994

Pablo Picasso called the great 20th-century Italian graphic designer Bruno Munari “the Leonardo of our time.” A creative polymath of the first order, Munari painted, sculpted, photographed, taught, and designed his way through life until his death in 1998 at the age of 90.*

Published last month, Munari’s Books by art historian Giorgio Maffei is a tantalizing primer of this spirited bookmaking genius who never stopped reinventing his preferred medium. The first English-language monograph to focus on Munari’s book designs over seven decades, the collection features 60 of the innovative, light-hearted, expressive, and compelling books he designed and sometimes wrote, some of which are still in circulation.

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The cover of Bruno Munari’s ABC.

Courtesy of World Publishing Company, Cleveland, 1960

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A page spread from Bruno Munari's ABC.

Courtesy of Graziano Peruffo, Mantua, 1960

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Abecedario de Munari, an alphabet book for children, was designed to be square, the designer's preferred shape for a book.

Courtesy of Emanuele Prandi, Rome, 1942

These include the simple, beautifully illustrated alphabet books for children and a photo book decoding Italian hand gestures that he called a “supplement to the Italian dictionary” meant for non-Italians and Italians alike.

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Supplemento al Dizionario Italiano

Courtesy of Muggiani editore, Milan, 1963

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Part of Munari’s 1956 children's book Nella Notte Buia is printed on black paper with midnight-blue lettering to symbolize the night.

Courtesy of Muggiani editore, Milan, 1956

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An inside spread from Nella Notte Buiafeatured a “cave punched into the paper and images printed in black ink,” Munari wrote in 1981, adding that it took several tries to find a publisher willing to produce the book.

Courtesy of Angelo Candiano, Turin, 1956

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In 1963, Munari wrote a book called Good Design with an orange on the cover. His text critiquing nature’s design read:

Orange—The subject is a series of modulated, segmented containers, arranged in a circle around a vertical axis with their straight side leaning against the axis and the round side pointing outward to appear spherical. All these segments are packages with a well-characterized material and color: fairly hard on the outside and soft on the inside, to protect the outside and the containers. ... Every container is made of plastic sheeting, which can contain the juice and still be easily moved. A very weak glue keeps all these containers together, so it can be taken apart at any time. The packaging—as is common nowadays—need not be returned to the manufacturer, but can be thrown away. ... So this orange is an almost perfect object with absolute consistency between shape, functionality, and consumption. Even the color is right: blue would be a mistake.
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Yet this witty man who took his time dissecting the design merits of an orange also was known for a series of boundary-pushing Libri Illeggibili (meaning illegible or unreadable books) first produced in 1950 that “completely abandoned the idea of communicating through writing in favor of pure aesthetics,” Maffei writes. He used transparent paper, splotches of color, and unusual folds; cut pages into different shapes and sizes; and pierced the paper with holes. The books were tactile, sensory experiences that required the participation and creativity of the reader, with meaning derived through the act of turning pages, from paying attention to rhythm and color and sound. “The purpose of this experimentation was to use the very material of books as a visual language,” Maffei writes of the books, “after exploring all its literary, philosophical, social ... communication possibilities to the full.”

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An unreadable quadrat-print (Libro Illeggibile Bianco e Rosso) is one of Munari’s series of unreadable books that focused on experimental, interactive design. “You can turn the pages as though you were reading, and you will find many geometric designs,” Munari wrote. “If you come across one you like more than others you can frame it until you change your mind.”

Courtesy of Angelo Candiano, Turin, 1953

*Correction, July 1, 2015: This post originally misstated Bruno Munari’s age when he died. He was 90, not 91.

Kristin Hohenadel's writing on design has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Fast Company, Vogue, Elle Decor, Lonny, and Apartment Therapy.