Design Bites

In the culminating scene of the sublime movie “Big Night,” brothers restaurateurs Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub gently extract their edible masterpiece, the timpano, from its mold, as if they were delivering a baby. They observe it, they smell it, they gently slap it to test its perfection, and they carry it on a throne to the dinner table, where they are saluted by an explosion of applause. The monumental timpano, an architecture made, among others, of eggs, meat, tomatoes, cheese, and, most important, ziti, can show designers the way to the new world. Basic foods, the fundamental units of composition in regional cuisines, are a delicious example of great design. As the design profession is looking for a new, well-defined identity in the age of bundling and multimedia, it is worth going back to the most basic forms of design for inspiration. Some everyday objects, especially the ones that are most taken for granted, like paper clips or even spaghetti, can in fact speak about the timeless role of industrial design, the timely appropriateness of innovative craftsmanship, and the continuous guidance that material culture can provide.

Some of the basic elements of gastronomical architecture are simple design objects. Some of them, moreover, have been updated from a hand-crafted tradition and are now produced industrially, with advanced automated manufacturing techniques, in numbers that surpass any other design product. A typological division of basic foods can help the parallel with architecture and design. Breads, for instance, can be easily subdivided according to design considerations, and can range from flat support breads—such as focaccia and pizza, pancakes, waffles, matzoh, blinis, pitas, pão de quejo, and nan, for example—, to constructed envelopes—such as samosas, calzoni, patties, wraps, burritos, and crêpes—all the way to iconic, autonomous shapes—such as croissants, pretzels, and bagels. Some other foods, one degree higher in complexity, can be appreciated according to their mechanized manufacturing process—like hamburgers, hot dogs, donuts, fortune cookies, potato chips. Many snacks and cereals, moreover, were born in the high-tech era and provide examples of exquisitelt sophisticated manufacturing processes.

Pasta, for instance, has existed for many centuries and is an example of great industrial design in which each single form solves a different function. Pasta, in all its different shapes, passes all the tests of a good design object. The simple mixture of durum wheat flour and water, shaped or extruded by hand or machine, is a perfect reference for the design discourse and can be easily approached from all critical angles. Some examples: first of all, pasta is historically an outstanding case of direct balance of means —the scarce available resources in poor countries—and goals—the human need, nonetheless, for a somewhat diversified diet. It is such a simple and strong design idea that it has been able to generate an endless variety of derivative designs—the various types of pasta and the dishes made of them. Moreover, it is a timeless design, in that its production tools have been updated across the centuries, but its basic form has remained the same. It is also a global design, easy to appropriate and adapt to local culture. As a matter of fact, almost each country has its own autonomous pasta dishes, and pasta has become the unit of the composition for more complex foods. It is a universal success of critic and public, thus passing also the marketing-driven design test. It exemplifies the zero degree of the design discourse, because it is an example of form coinciding with function. Its is nonetheless somewhat resistant to merely formal manipulation, as demonstrated by the several unfortunate attempts made by renowned designers all over the world. It is a design born out of necessity.

Like some other examples of great design, pasta does not have one author’s name attached, albeit many, the names of all the innovators that improved its tradition. As a matter of fact, Chinese and Italians are still arguing on noodles’ copyright. Though some claim that Marco Polo brought the noodles back with him to Italy from China in the late 13th century, pasta already existed in both places long before. Archeologists have found signs of Etruscan pasta dating from the fourth century B.C., and the Chinese were making a noodle-like food as early as 3000 B.C. The manufacturing process is rather simple and consistent. Italian pasta, in particular, is made of semolina, produced by grinding kernels of durum wheat and sometimes mixing it with other hard wheats or with egg. The semolina is mixed with water until it forms a dough, and the dough is then kneaded to the correct consistency. It is then pushed, or extruded, through a metallic die whose holes determine the final shape. When the extruded pasta reaches the right length, it is cut with sharp blades that rotate beneath the die. In another process, the dough is thinned by mechanical cylinders to a large sheet, and the shapes, like tagliatelle or lasagne, are cut from it. Some pasta is then further manipulated, for instance curled, like in extruded fusilli, or pinched in the middle, like in the die-cut farfalle (bow ties). The pasta is then sent through large dryers or consumed fresh.

The hundreds of different types of pasta that can be obtained through these processes have different characteristics, some objectively described, others so subtle only palates can detect. The first, simpler classification is in relationship to their lenght: pasta can be long, short, or extrashort, for soups. Soup pastas are often die-cut from sheets of egg-based dough. A second classification relates to the sauce that will be used. Popular tradition destines thinner pasta, such as thin spaghetti and capelli d’angelo (angel hair) to lighter, more liquid sauces, while thicker pasta, like fusilli and pappardelle, is more suitable for thicker sauces. Pasta with holes, like maccheroni and penne, seems to respond well to chunky sauces, as well as casseroles. When it is ribbed, like in rigatoni, it absorbs the sauce, rather than simply being enveloped by it. Rules, nonetheless, often exist to be questioned, and it so happens that spaghetti can be the best choice for the chunkiest sauces, for instance in a seafood dish. Ultimately, each shape of pasta is its own character and some recipe books become design instruction manuals.

Throughout history, pasta manufacturers have introduced new shapes, some of them very successful, but most of them quickly dismissed by the public. The famous Barilla company, a few years ago, added to its hundred-plus catalogue two new pastas, bifore—so-called because of their resemblance with the medieval architectural windows and shaped and ribbed like a brick—and trifogli—spaghetti with a three-leaf clover section. These were two tasty variations based on the honest desire to innovate the design by means of the new available technologies, but the new shapes did not encounter the public’s universal favor. Most of all, pasta seems to resists any kind of signature design. Many have tried, from the French design company Nemo to visionary Luigi Colani, with no success. The marille, the short—and short-lived—pasta designed in 1983 by Giorgetto Giugiaro for the Voiello company, which is today the skunkwork division of Barilla, is one of the most infamous examples. Giugiaro, having desiged the Wolkswagen Rabbit and the Fiat Panda among others, was at that time a hot signature and he was just moving his first steps outside of the automobile industry. Here is the story, in the designer’s words, excerpted from an interview conducted by the author in 1991 at the Giugiaro’s headquarters in Moncalieri. “The Voiello company had very clear ideas in mind: either the pasta would be designed by a “technological” designer such as Giugiaro, and thus be produced by means of a new type of extrusion molding, or it would be poorly and simply shaped, and in that case they would chose Bruno Munari. We presented twelve designs, they chose five and passed them on to product engineers. We were invited to Naples in a fancy restaurant: the pasta had been tested with all kinds of sauces. As far as the requirements, the pasta should not absorb too much sauce; it should increase its volume in water, in the sense that a dish of marille should weigh half a dish of spaghetti; at the dawn of the nouvelle cuisine, it should be decorative, “architectural”; it should, like all pastas, retain the sauce and let the water go; it should then be : ”palatable”, a technical term which indicates a positive reaction of the mouth to its taste. They organized a big vernissage in Milano at the Centrodomus, Mendini did the design. It was a good image campaign, for the company and for its president, but the production did not go on long enough. The pasta was only distributed in a few places and people were not able to find it. Moreover, it it took a few more minutes to cook and this was a discrimination point. But I owe my popular fame to that pasta, I got even published on Newsweek, isn’t it funny?”

Giugiaro’s adventure is emblematic. It seems like innovation, especially when applied to objects born out of necessity, the ones where form and function easily coincide, like pasta or communication design, also has to follow some rules. It has to be a meaningful innovation, and not merely a formal exercise for the sake of novelty. It has to fit within the boundaries of human comfort. It has to be a systemic revolution, which guides people gently towards the new, and not a disruptive one. The simple example of pasta can prove useful when tackling the newest forms of design, such as the design of communication and information, which deal with the oldest of concepts. As technology sparks the innovation, it is up to design to be the mediator between new technology and the human world.

Food is an ode to human creativity applied to design and architecture. Not unlike a Chinese spring roll or a New Orleans gumbo, the timpano from Big Night is the example of a recipe that is naturally translated from generation to generation. Much like the architectural scheme of a vernacular local dwelling, it is based on the composition of some immutable elements dictated by the region’s material culture, and it can then be mutated by contemporary popular culture and innovation. About fifteen years ago, gastronomy also went through its Modernist age.  A few selected chefs around the world embraced the less-is-more religion of nouvelle cuisine. These chefs would honor their guests with oversized, preciously decorated porcelain plates featuring for instance a two-shrimp arch cemented with wasabi, resplendent over a bed made of five sumptuous chicken kidneys, and crowned by two mint leaves, and with other dishes as noble and as elegantly cool as the Barcelona Pavilion. Lately, as is happening in product design worldwide, regional tradition is often contaminated with foreign suggestions. In fusion cuisine, a Japanese tuna sashimi can sit on top of a fragrant medallion of risotto alla milanese —tasted at Nobu in New York—in mutant concoctions that can at times recall some West Coast garage-made odd vehicles—half cars, half surfboards. It so happens that chefs can be compared not only to artists, but also to powerful designers. Lately, however, a resurgence of regional and national cuisine has brought the public to appreciate local authenticity and to seek it as a way to acquire knowledge and experience the world.

Similarly in architecture and design, now that modernism has ceased to be a dogma to fight against, local currents and trends have become important ways to look at the world as a whole. Some local phenomena seem to have commanded the scene at different times. Just like American and Scandinavian design were the best representation of the economical and organic 1950s, and Italy became the symbol of the power of fantasy and of the creative technological boom of the 1960s, the late 1990s also have their representatives, although the picture, just like the whole planet, is now more multifaceted and blurred by the media. Just like in fashion, where all revivals of different eras have been fully exploited, what matters today is not strictly provenance, but rather the authenticity and success of the composition. The postmodern activity of companies like Alessi and mail shopping catalogues like La Redoute exemplifies a new way to design, also more attuned to the fashion industry—based on the concept of “collection” and focused on the designers’ signatures, supported by the company’s well-studied image.While Europe is struggling and pushing the envelope in order to discover a continental culture, its designers and architects are translating that tension in outstanding objects and buildings that naturally come together in national groupings. And its chefs are taking inspiration from their national culture to produce gastronomic value which can be easily exported all over the world. Dialect seems the path to a truly universal language.

The commodification of national identities in a homogenized world is boosted and supported by the national governments themselves. Each country seems to have its own manual of style, a listing of positive stereotypes built to reinforce and expand the country’s international market. “Made in Italy” and “Made in France,” even in cuisine, are two examples of labels that contain a whole set of cultural references for the use and consume of buyers all over the world. When nationalism coincides with material culture and with spontaneous production to address real local needs, brand new products and foods are invented which can become international standards. Fax machines, for example, were developed by the Japanese to overcome the difficulty of printing and transmitting messages in kanji characters from and to parts of the world other than Japan. Likewise, fast-food hamburgers have been added by many rich countries to the fan of available choices. In some other cases, local culture is identified with handmade crafts production, a simplistic view that does not have much bearing on the global technological market.

The fourth chapter of Megatrends 2000 (1), the 1990 futurology bestseller by John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene, was devoted to “Global Lifestyles and Cultural Nationalism.” Although the book, featuring a vast array of predictions about the future of society, is today considered by some obsolete, it presented some innovative observations that still carry a strong echo. The delicate balance between national pride and the appeal of a global lifestyle was examined in the book with the help of such diversified case studies as IKEA, McDonald’s and fusion cuisine, Benetton advertising campaigns, ETA and IRA, Québecois dialect and Catalan language. Global telecommunications have been indeed responsible for an apparent homogenization of the world, as well as for many ugly mutant neologisms, such as Starbucks’ moccaccino (cappuccino with chocolate) and frappuccino (cold shaken coffee with milk), but at the same time they have sparked a lively renaissance of local popular and material culture.

Although this evolution can be noticed in almost all aspects of human interaction, it has been particularly lively in the world of architecture, design, and gastronomy. Architecture and design, just like the preparation of gastronomy, are some of the most ancient and spontaneous human activities. For this reason, they are efficient examples for many anthropological and socio-economical studies. Throughout the course of the century, the three disciplines have actively participated in the progressive globalization and re-definition of visual and material culture. In the process, they have provided some of the most engaging and advanced examples of how local and global culture can interact and enhance each other.

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