When searching for a book to give his five-year-old son in 1945, Italian artist Bruno Munari was frustrated by the standard fairytale narratives and structured plots available. He thought books should encourage children to think creatively and develop their own stories, and connect to their daily lives. “When you talk to somebody — either a child or an adult — you have to start with the world they know,” he explained to Notiziario Arte Contemporanea in 1971. “Then you can take them somewhere else using their imagination.”
Seven books he subsequently made with his graphic arts experience for his son were later published; in them, an elephant dreams of being different animals like a light, singing bird, paper components fold out to reveal the interiors of household furniture, and a man in a top hat walks a flamingo on a leash. The children’s books were just part of his seven-decade art career, where in addition to being part of the Futurism movement he worked in sculpture, painting, industrial design, and photography. Munari’s Books by art historian Giorgio Maffei, out this month from Princeton Architectural Press, is a bibliography of over 60 publications from 1929 to 1999, printed posthumously after his death in 1997.
“His main concern, the ethical imperative throughout his work, was to explain himself properly, clarify his thoughts, and make his work intelligible, usable, adaptable, and even suitable for copying,” Maffei writes in Munari’s Books. The book is basically an index of his work, but with the detailed photographs showing the interiors and moveable parts, alongside quotes from Munari, who was always intent on relaying the ideas behind his work, it’s a valuable insight into this aspect of his art.
A quote from Munari’s 1980 Commento ai Prelibri introduces Munari’s Books:
A: What is the purpose of a book?
B: To pass on knowledge or pleasure or in any case to increase our knowledge of the world.
A: So, if I understand rightly, to help us live better.
B: Yes, that is often the case.
His Libri illeggibili (illegible books) were ongoing experiments with materials and design, read with shapes and interaction rather than words. A 1953 book folded out in a complicated origami, while another in 1966 had transparent pages and lines that intersected in different signs as the pages flipped, and in 1993 he created a book of cushions that “can be detached and used however you want.” Other works played with this idea of the unexpected, such as his 1942 La Macchine di Munari of useless machines he drew while a student to amuse his friends, like devices to wag a lazy dog’s tail or turn hiccups to music, or his 1958 Supplemento al Dizionario Italiano (Supplement to the Italian Dictionary) that compiled photographs and meanings of Italian hand gestures.
Munari’s Books emphasizes how he was incredibly involved in the industry of publishing, even suggesting ways to advertise his books in shop windows. “Munari had an all-encompassing idea of book production; he was not just the author but he also continued to give advice and keep tabs on every stage in its manufacture and distribution,” Maffei writes. Throughout is the potential for reading to be a creative rather than a passive act, whether following a thread sewn through the pages of his 1967 Libro Illeggibile for the Museum of Modern Art, or a kid learning the alphabet with curiosity-provoking visuals like “a sack of stars and snow for Santa Claus.”
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