ANATOMY OF DESIGN
The Italian futurist Renato Bertelli sculpted Profilo Continuo del Duce (1933), a
swirling portrait of Italy’s Fascist leader, because the enforced cult of personality
surrounding Benito Mussolini—il Duce (“the Duke”)—demanded his image
ubiquitously appear throughout the nation, on every wall and town square, and
on all posters and newspapers. Mussolini started this fashion for branding
dictators—like products to be consumed. Futurist artists, who understood the
power of advertising and publicity, took heroic liberties with il Duce’s round head
and protruding chin, which in its various graphic compositions was a veritable
logo for a regime that purported to be on the progressive edge of culture and
politics. Bertelli’s work was at once a futurist celebration of speed—the symbolic
representation of progress—and of the power of Mussolini, who by extension
was all-seeing and all-knowing.
Profilo is a tip of the hat to Janus, the two-faced
Roman god of beginnings and endings (thus the reason for the head staring in
opposite directions). Janus was worshipped at the beginning of life’s key
transitions, like the seasons, and also represented such opposites as war and
peace. Futurists enjoyed toying with opposites, upsetting the equilibrium, and
investing static painting, sculpture, and photography, like
Boccioni, by Giannetto Bisi, with its sense of motion. Formally speaking, spinning
the head at such high velocity—like the possessed child in The Exorcist—was a
way to defy conventional artistic expectations.
That very act of defiance may be why Karim Rashid was so inspired by
this image that he remade it (with modifications) into an illuminated object
called the “Ego Vase” and used it on the cover of his monograph,
Evolution. Yet whatever the reason, using such an overt appropriation of a
Fascist-era icon is a little disquieting. Borrowing from antiquity (as Bertelli
appropriated Janus, and as Janus came from earlier primitive masks) is
expected in art and design—as pastiche or parody—but referencing politically or
socially dubious images can easily backfire and potentially offend. After all,
despite his adherents, history has not shown Mussolini much mercy, and his
was a repressive dictatorship that influenced Adolf Hitler. Yet removed from its
historical context, Rashid’s plastic, molded vase is startling for its pictorial
resonance and its marriage of realism and abstraction.
Anyone can see why Stephen Schmidt’s cover design is successful. The
vase is like a target that draws the eye. The cross—or
X—is the bull’s-eye, a
time-tested device for attracting attention and sending a simple message.
Although the crucifix is an ancient symbol, even in early Christian and especially
Coptic paintings, the cross was modernized and made perfectly symmetrical. The
classic logo of the Red Cross, devised in 1863, is the epitome of the modern
symbol, but crosses and
Xs have been used in many ways for countless
purposes. Schmidt’s cross might be considered a postmodern version, for
instead of the rectilinear standard, its ends are lozenge-shaped in what
amounts to a stylistic deviation from modern orthodoxy, which prohibits
anything but right angles. Yet such rules, even the orthodox ones, are easily
broken. The type used in the cross, Bauhaus Demi, is a contemporary iteration
of Bauhaus master Herbert Bayer’s 1925 Universal Alphabet, comprising
curvilinear lowercase letters. This was one of many alphabets, like Paul
Renner’s 1927 Futura, that used pure geometry to represent the Machine Age,
an important evolutionary step in the history of type design.
Evolution itself refers to the composite look of the cover.
Despite the vase’s political connotations, its shape hints at evolutionary
movement—even though the face is the same in all directions. The contents of
the book may reveal Rashid’s personal evolution, as the cover design generally
revolves around evolutionary traits in design.
Karim Rashid: Evolution
Designer: Stephen Schmidt/Duuplex
2004 Karim Rashid: Evolution, book
ad: Stephen Schmidt/Duuplex c: Universe Publishing
The title Evolution itself refers to the composite look of the cover. The vase’s shape hints
at evolutionary movement—even though the face is the same in all directions.
Head in rotation