Yesterday we went to the shopping centre in Broadway and our attention was drawn to an extraordinarily beautiful vintage Vespa which was a prop for a lovely stand selling bright Cocopani beach umbrellas. Chatting to the salesperson we discovered that the owner of Cocopani is Italian! It had to be so because the Cocopani beach umbrellas are not your standard beach umbrellas: each umbrella in fact has a sack (matching the umbrella design of course) which, filled with sand, stops the umbrella from being blown away. Very very clever! So much so, we bought one ourselves!!! So here is our humble promotion for Cocopani and also an excellent excuse to talk about la mitica Vespa!
The combination of inventiveness and aesthetic appeal is at the heart of all good design, and in particular it was, and still is, at the very heart of Italian design. La Vespa is probably the most striking example of this marriage between style and function. Here is an excerpt from a lovely book, Masterpieces of Italian Design, which describes the historical background which lead to the "golden age" of Italian design:
Reconstruction and the economic miracle
In Italy, as in other European countries, the Second World War wholly impeded the development of any non-military design while all resources and efforts were focused on wartime production. At the same time. numerous Italian factories were destroyed by Allied bombing campaigns. with the industrial heartlands of Milan and Turin being the target of repeated bombardment in 1943. April 1945 saw the end of Mussolini"s vision of recreating a Roman Empire - he was captured by Italian partisans and unceremoniously executed as the Allied forces closed in on Milan, which was the first of the Axis capitals to fall. After five long years of war, from 1940 t0 to 1945, Italy was a battered shadow of its former self, having lost almost half-a-million civilians and soldiers and having had much of its vital infrastructure ruined, For example, the 1943 bombing of Milan left 230,000 people homeless, all of who needed urgent rehousing at the war's end.
It was not just the war years that had taken their toll, but the preceding years of dire economic malaise brought about by Fascist misrule during the 1920s and 1930s. The leadership had disregarded the economic necessity of international trade and had instead followed a policy of self-sufficiency, which "led to the development of costly and unprofitable enterprises and to the suppression of undertakings which did not fit into a preconceived framework of power and priviledge", according to the eminent scholar of political theory Mario Einaudi.
Against this background of political, economic and administrative turmoil, in 1941 five leading Italian economists published a prophetic proposal for post-war economic reform. which centred on the need for an export-led recovery. In 1945, Italy emerged from the Second World War both physically and morally tattered. The situation on the ground was very bleak indeed. with over 3 million houses and their contents destroyed and essential commodities and raw materials in very short supply or simply non-existent. Poverty-stricken and war-torn, Italy was still a predominantly rural society that was very regional in its outlook, however, a number of enlightened manufacturers such a, Fiat, Olivetti and Pirelli, according to the historian Paul Ginsborg. "knew that their survival in a competitive market depended on an extensive programme of reconstruction and rationalization"" - similar to that already outlined in the economists' earlier recommendations.
Over the next five years Italy emerged miraculously like a phoenix from the flames of war and soared into a new-found prosperity, thanks to a number of key policy initiatives taken by the anti-Fascist coalition government formed in 1946 and headed by Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi. The most significant of these initiatives was opposition to state control over the affairs of private businesses, and a laissez-faire approach when it came to these companies trading overseas, yet at the same time the the post-war policy makers sought, through protectionist measures, to financially safeguard the home market's interests. The state also bolstered these initiatives with more direct help. via the provision of cheap credit as well as inexpensive energy and steel, In addition to this the government became more directly involved in the economic growth of the country through its state-run holding company, the Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale (also known as the IRI). an entity that had been set up earlier in 1933, and was responsible for the regulation of Italy's publicly-owned industries, from airlines and telephone networks to car-manufacturers and machine tool companies, It was, however. the government's implementation of a low wages policy that was perhaps the most decisive factor in enabling Italian industry to manufacture competitively priced goods that could be exported for much-needed foreign income.
American aid in the form of the Marshall Plan, officially known as the European Recovery Program. was also critical to the success of Italy's reconstruction. with around US$I,2 billion being injected into the Italian economy between 1948 and 1951 in the form of grants and loans. During this period Italy also received another $2.2 billion in the form of food and fuel from America. The legendary Italian industrialist and chairman of Fiat Gianni Agnelli noted of the Marshall Plan: "In the immediate post-war years, the whole of Europe was in a recession. So first of all, it helped us step out of a recession: it gave a certain amount of speed to the economy, But that was the first step". This financial shot in the arm, courtesy of the Marshall Plan together with a growing Italian middle-class eager to buy consumer products after the deprivations of the war years proved to be the perect tonic for economic recovery. And it just so happened that Italy had a surfeit of highly trained architects, engineers, and designers who were perfectly adept at turning their hands to the creation of progressively-designed goods for the newly affluent home-owners of Italy and also crucially for the booming homemaking generation in America. Set against a background of often quite haphazard civic rebuilding programmes being frantically embarked upon in the late 1940s. industrial design was the one area in which Italian architects could home their creative powers.
During the immediate post-war period there was often an emphasis on styling rather than technological innovation, with designers imaginatively utilizing available materials and low-tech production methods to create stylish products that would ultimately revitalize Italian industry. Through this reliance on styling was born the Italian Line, which was inspired in part by American streamlining that had similarly been used during the 1930s depression to enhance products' consumer appeal. The Italian Line was used to help cloak function in an alluring skin, thereby often compensating for any technical deficiencies a product might have with visual charm. This then gave the design a competitive advantage over other similar products in the marketplace. Italian designers' predominant focus on "product aesthetics" enabled Italian manufacturers to create goods that the rest of the world really wanted to buy. It was a key driver of il miracolo economico (the economic miracle), the country's dramatic export-led recovery that transformed Italy from a struggling rural economy into a major industrialized power.
The golden age of Italian design
Luckily for Italian designers during this early post-war period, they could rely on the skilled expertise of family-run craft workshops, for example the Turin joinery shop of Apelli & Varesio, which executed many of Carlo Mollino's fIamboyant "Turinesque Baroque'" furniture pieces. During these years of reconstruction small-scale production offered by these small specialist fabricators helped to minimize risk to manufacturers and enabled them to produce more unusual and aesthetically progressive designs. The inherent flexibility of small-scale production was one of Italy's greatest assets, for it allowed manufacturers of ceramics, glassware. cutlery. lighting. furniture and the like, to quickly adapt product lines in response to the latest trends.
Throughout this, era. there was a continuing stylistic struggle between the Neo-Rationalist and the Anti-Rationalist camps, with Franco Albini championing the utilitarian cause of the former through his editorship of Casabella, and Gio Ponti as editor of Domus promoting the more bourgeois approach of the latter which sought to imbue design with a greater sense of artistry, influenced by tendencies within contemporary fine art. This continuing battle of the styles also had a political dimension, with Rationalism still being associated in many minds with the Fascist period, while also somewhat ironically now being advocated by the left-wing Popular Front. The theme of the VIII Milan Triennale in 1947 was the home, and the event specifically highlighted the need for pot-war housing solutions, such as multifunctional furnishings that enabled small apartments to be used as studios or offices during working hours as well as living spaces. Many of the exhibits on show displayed a distinctly Neo-Rationalist bias, stressing the need for low-cost solutions that were suitable for mass-production - essentially democratic designs for the masses. Later in 1947 the left-wing Popular Front was removed from the coalition government and the more centrist Christian Democrats gained sole political control.
This political shift heralded a new mood, which was reflected in Italian design and accorded with Ponti's call for quality rather than quantity. One designer who agreed with Ponti"s stance was his good friend Carlo Mollino who is famously remembered for his quip "Everything is permissible as Iong as it is fantastic." However, as the renowned Mollino historians Fulvio and Napoleone Ferrari have noted, a more exacting and extended translation of this well-known quote (which originally appeared in an interview with Mollino in the April 1950 issue of Domus) is: "Everything is allowed as long as the fantasy is preserved, that is a frail beauty. beyond any intellectualized programme." This is perhaps even more revealing; as the Ferraris explain, what Mollino meant was, "that to create an authentic artwork you don't need to follow any prescriptive credo or set aesthetic, but instead can use any means or media as long as your work is spurred on by imagination".
Many other designers began to follow the more pragmatic and less doctrinal approach offered Gio Ponti's "gentle manifesto". This less utilitarian approach to design also made sound commercial sense, as middle-class consumers - both at home and abroad - preferred its more sculptural contemporary look. The new focus on the "artistic" qualities of design thus enabled Italian design to become widely associated with a very particular visual identity which was both stylish and sophisticated. During the early 1950s a host of Italian products exemplified this contemporary fashionable look: Marcello Nizzoli's Lettera 22 typewriter (1950), Marco Zanuso's Lady chair for Arflex (1951), Corradino d'Ascanio's Vespa 150 motor scooter (1955), Ezio Pirali's VE505 table fan (1953), Osvaldo Borsani's P40 lounge chair (1954), and Angelo Lelli's suspended ceiling light (1954) - all of which heralded a distinctive new aesthetic direction in Italian design. As design historian Penny Sparke has noted of such product designs, "Their sensuous curves expressed a voluptuousness and opulence which did not discredit their essential utility. The body-shell aesthetic they advocated was not merely an attempt to make industrial artefacts sculptural: it reflected another important factor which had wider significance within the culture and economy of the period - Italy's dependence on the USA."
This reliance on American funding had prompted the removal of left-Ieaning parties from the coalition government. Increasingly Italian firms were benefitting from both American money and crucial US manufacturing expertise, such as the implementation of efficient assembly-line mass-production methods based on Fordist principals. The American film industry during the Fifties also did much to publicize post-war Italian design, which was to become synonymous with sophistication and style in the minds of the American moviegoer. Hollywood's obsession with Italy during the 1950s saw the release of Roman Holiday (1953), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), and a host of other movies all filmed in Rome"s famous Cinecittà film studio. Italy's famous dolce vita lifestyle soon rippled far beyond the country's shores, with espresso coffee bars springing up in fashionable parts of London and New York as well as elsewhere in Europe and America, introducing a younger generation to their first taste of Italian cultura - the hissing espresso machine transforming coffee making into a captivating sensorial performance.
The launch of the Compasso d'Oro awards by the La Rinascente department store in 1954, at the instigation of Gio Ponti, was also another huge impetus to the development of Italian design. On the one hand it officially and publicly rewarded manufacturers and designers for their innovative designs and on the other it effectively promoted every year the very best Italian products through a related exhibition, which received widespread publicity in all the major design journals of the day. By the mid-1950s, just ten years after the cessation of war, Italy was a society transformed. Instead of looking back to a painful past, its government, manufacturers and designers - like those in the two other Axis powers, Germany and Japan - had chosen to look forward optimistically and embrace a future based on a free-market capitalist doctrine. Having: looked into the abyss, Italy had been galvanized into action and with Marshall Plan dollars, together with the skill of its workforce, had managed to build a confident society and a booming economy, with manufacturing leading the way. [pp. 15-16]
Masterpieces of Italian Design - Charlotte & Peter Fiell [Goodman Fiell; 2013]
Here is the entry in Masterpieces of Italian Design dedicated to the Vespa GS150:
Vespa GS150 motor scooter, 1955
Corradino D'Ascanio (1891 - 1981)
No design is more evocative of post-war spirit in Italy than the spritely and indomitable Vespa scooter, which became inextricably linked in the cinema-going public's mind with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn's amorous liaison in the comedy drama Roman Holiday (1953) - an all-time classic film that featured a memorable scooter-ride sequence. Indeed, the Vespa played such a starring role in the romantic cinematic adventure that it was even included in the film's publicity posters. The model that was featured in the film, which was introduced in 1951 and is now generally considered the "classic" Vespa, was the model 125.
Prior to this, Enrico Piaggio - whose family's aircraft-manufacturing company had perfected the art of mass-production during the war years with its assembly of aircraft and aircraft engines as well as trucks, trams, buses, funicular railways and aluminium locking systems - had sought to diversify his factory's peacetime product line with the manufacture of an easy-to-run and inexpensive scooter, inspired by similar models used by the US military during the Second World War. This was a smart business move as there was a real need for affordable modes of private transportation in Italy during the immediate post-war years. To this end, the factory built its first prototype in 1943, designed by the engineer Renzo Spolti and known as the MP5 Paperino. But this rather inelegant and cumbersome model was not to Enrico Piaggio's liking and he subsequently tasked the gifted Italian aeronautical engineer General Corradino D'Ascanio with creating a totally new vehicle that was simple to operate and maintain as well as being cheap to run. Unlike the layout of traditional motorcycles with a front-mounted engine, D'Ascanio instead placed the engine of his new creation - the MP6 prototype of 1945 - on the rear wheel, which was a highly innovative concept. This prototype was subsequently christened the Vespa thanks to Enrico Piaggio's remark that "it looks like a wasp" when it was first presented to him. This model was further refined into the Vespa 98, Piaggio's first production scooter, which was launched in 1946 and cost 55,000 lire. The design of this early model included the characteristec uni-frame step-through steel bodythat rises at the front to provide the rider with some protection from the elements but was also intended by its designer to offer a modicum of modesty for women wearing dresses. In addition to these features, the Vespa 98 also had a zippy two-stroke engine that produced a maximum top speed of 60 kph (37 mph).
Launched five years later, the Vespa 125 had an enhanced suspension system that boasted coil-springing on both wheels (unlike the Vespa 98, which only had this on its front wheel) and hydraulic shock absorbers. Its engine capacity was also uprated to 124cc, which enabled an extra 10km per hour top speed. A variation of the classic model known as the Vespa 125 U (with the U standing for "utility") was introduced in 1953 and two years later the more powerful Vespa GS150 was introduced - another legendary Vespa design that is widely acknowledged to be the most beautiful scooter ever produced. The Vespa 125 (and its later incarnation as the Vespa GS150, shown here, with its high-mounted headlight) not only embodied the carefree, optimistic and youthful spirit of the period but was also the first two-wheeled vehicle to possess a fashionable cachet that appealed to both men and women, making it a true Italian design legend that skillfully combined fun and practicality with cutting-edge style. (pp. 92 - 93)
Masterpieces of Italian Design - Charlotte & Peter Fiell [Goodman Fiell; 2013]
This is how la Vespa is described in the, as you would expect, magnificently and beautifully illustrated book published by Dorling Kindersley, Great Designs: The World's Best Design Explored & Explained (2013):
1946 • Vehicle design • High-tensile steel frame • Italy • Corradino D'Ascanio
After World War II, the Italian economy was in disarray. Piaggio's factory, like those of many other manufacturers that had produced aircraft during the war, had been destroyed by bombing. Looking for ways to rebuild his business, Enrico Piaggio realized that there was a market for personal transport. The poor state of Italian roads and the restricted budget of most consumers, however, made car-manufacturing an unattractive option, so Piaggio decided to develop a motor scooter to provide Italians with a cheap means of transport. Unimpressed with his company's first efforts, he hired an aeronautical engineer, Corradino D'Ascanio, who was already working on a scooter design. D'Ascanio, who disliked motorcycles, because of their oily engines and frame that the rider had to straddle, came up with a new design based on the American Cushman scooters that had been used by troops during the war.
Although the small wheels, step-through frame, and rear engine were influenced by the Cushman, the elegant, streamlined shape of D'Ascanio's design reflected the rounded, aerodynamic contours of aeroplanes. The elimination of the oily drive chain found on motorcycles, and the wraparound bodywork that covered the engine and kept out the wind, proved very appealing to smart young Italians. Women, in particular, appreciated the step-through design, as it made the vehicle easy to ride when wearing a skirt. The scooter's narrow-waisted appearance and the high-pitched buzz of its engine reminded Piaggio of a wasp (vespa in Italian), so by the time it was launched at the 1946 Milan fair, the name had stuck. By bringing cheap, stylish transport to millions of people across Europe and beyond, the Vespa became a design classic. (pp. 98 - 99)
Great Designs: The World's Best Design Explored & Explained [DK; 2013]
At Italia 500 we've been offering Italian courses, in Sydney, since 1995 and one of the most beautiful aspects of learning Italian is that it opens the door to a culture of unrivalled richness and diversity. In this blog we'll be sharing some of our favourite books, movies, places in Italy to visit, music, links to podcasts, information about local and international Italian themed events, and the odd "personal" view, in the hope that it will encourage you to delve further into a culture which continues to inspire us and millions of people all over the world.