Bruno Munari's Books: Hybridization Against Linear Thinking
“Keeping the spirit of childhood alive in your life means maintaining a curiosity for knowledge, the joy of understanding, one’s will to communicate.” B. M.
Pablo Picasso called him “the Leonardo of our time”, Goffredo Silvestri “the father of all designers”, Pierre Restany “the Leonardo and the Peter Pan of Italian design”… Umberto Eco said of him that he “worked on the page as if tuning up a fiddle”. He’s been described as an “artista-designer”, an “eterno bambino”, an “explorer”… Bruno Munari was, in essence, a negationist of the impossible, an activist for the preservation of the mental elasticity of childhood, a champion of ludic experimentation in research, a visionary and a real one-man band of visual communication: designer, artist, educator, poet, design theorist…, and inventor of such unlikely gadgets as the “talking forks”, the “useless machines” and the “unreadable books”.
THE “LOGICAL AESTHETICS” OF COMMUNICATION
Munari understood design as an act of visual communication. As such, he argued, it should be ruled by principles of simplicity and functionality. He thought design should withdraw from the realm of artistic subjectivity and find its definition in a “logical aesthetics” instead. Graphic design tools — such as form, color, spatial tension or visual rhythm — were for Munari a kind of “sensory communication” which he thought was objective and universal and thus comprehensible to every human being regardless of age or social context. “We [designers]”, he stated, “perform visual operations, that is, visual communication […] design has nothing to do with art except for its aesthetic aspects, which are not ‘applied art’ but a ‘logical aesthetics’ born in the solutions to the various problems to be found within a given project”.
Munari was also a pioneer theorist in the field of visual communication, analyzing graphic devices’ narrative function and expressive potentiality. In his book “Design as Art” (1970) he briefly recounts how contemporary visual arts progressively abandoned their interest in storytelling and also focuses on the unexplored narrative possibilities of pictographic symbols. Pictorial arts, from Seurat’s pure visuality to Kandinsky’s and Mondrian’s abstraction to Klein monochromes, relinquished their narrative qualities and left storytelling to the literary arts.
But this process, Munari argues, also allowed us to fully understand how a purely visual language could open new fields for communication which were inaccessible to words. A few pages ahead in the same book, Munari’s vindication of this exclusive language of visual devices arises. In his brief essay “A Language of Signs and Symbols?”, he claims for a language made of symbols which shall function as an international lingua franca: “We shall try to use symbols as the words are used in a poem: they will have more than one meaning, and their meaning will change depending on their placing. […] Will something like this be the international language of the near future? In limited ways perhaps it might. In meteorology and electronics it is already so. But it has not yet been used to tell a story”.
Unsurprisingly, all this led him to an exploration of the visual frame traditionally enveloping written narrations: the book object. Munari carried out a life-long research about the communicative power of books’ paratextual and material elements, and considered his experiments not as an alternative to written communication but as a means to enhance it.
DYNAMISM, EXPERIMENTS & LITO-LATTA
Born in Milan in 1907, at 18 Munari entered the orbit of the Milan Futurist artists. Futurism — with its sense of dynamism and experimentation, as Munari would later say — would influence his work from then onwards. In 1934 he created, along with Futurist artist Tullio d’Albisola, a litographed metal book called “L’Anguria Lirica. Lungo poema passionale” (image 2), which Munari illustrated in accordance to the principles of the Aeroplastica Futurista. D’Albisola had already used this technique he called “Lito-Latta” in a previous book by Marinetti, “Parole in libertà futuriste tattili termiche olfattive”.
Munari was also one of the founders of the Movimento Arte Concreta (MAC) in 1948. The MAC program claimed for “an art of objects which shall be: plastic, colorful, fragrant, etc. They will differ in weight and matter, they shall be unstable and in movement. Thus, total objects will be for seeing, touching, smelling, listening to…”
As shown in the MAC bulletins published in the 50s, the preceding words could constitute an accurate description of Munari’s editorial work. The bulletins share a typical square form Munari frequently chose for his publications. The cover of the MAC Bulletin #5 (“Arte Concreta 5”, image 3), published in 1952, does not open all at once but in phases (“the book cover is like a door”, said Munari once) so that while opening the bulletin the reader assembles and disassembles different geometrical shapes. In “Arte Concreta 10” (image 4) the cover shows one of Munari’s recurrent strategies, using a translucent sheet to achieve a profundity effect by overlapping various forms (typographical forms, in this case).
UNREADABLE BOOKS, SILENT WALKS
Around that time Munari had also started to create his series of “unreadable books”, books which completely renounce written communication in favor of tactile and visual expression (images 5, 6 & 9). Munari deprived them of all elements which traditionally identify the book artifact as such (title and author name on the cover, title page, copyright page, table of contents…, text, of course), leaving them bare in their pure object nature. He tried to discover the inherent language of this object: form, color, proportion, rhythm… Inside an “unreadable book” disparate colored pages, paper stocks, textures, sizes and shapes follow one another, pierced by threads and stained with color spots or lines, creating a kinetic illusion in their transparencies and overlappings. These books are not designed to be looked at, but to be playfully and imaginatively interacted with.
“A book which is created this way, without type”, Munari stated, “is a book which communicates with forms and colors, sequences and materials […]. It is a book about plurisensory — more than visual — communication. Thus the ‘unreadable books’ were born, and they were called so because there’s nothing to read in them but a lot to get to know using our senses. It is like taking a walk in a silent space in which enticements for our various sensory receptors abound.”
One of Munari’s most popular “unreadable books” is his “Libro Illeggibile Bianco e Rosso” also known as “An Unreadable Quadrat-Print” (images 5 & 6). Published in 1953 by Dutch editor Pieter Brattinga and printer Steendrukkerij De Jong & Co., it is a square book (250 x 250 mm) of geometrically cut up white and red pages. On the cover, a diamond-shaped die cut lets us have a peak at the interior. The volume is enveloped in a triangle-folded sheet printed green with longhand type. The text, included by the editor and printed in 8 languages, explains the nature of the “unreadable books”.
The “unreadable books” were published well into the 90’s. Some of them were unique copies or limited editions published by museums or art galleries, but there were also low-cost trade editions by commercial publishers (MN1 [image 9] is available at Corraini Edizioni for €3.5), which is also indicative of the unclassifiable nature of Munari’s project.
CHILDREN’S BOOKS AS ‘BOÎTES SURRÈALISTES’
Munari took his experiments to the children’s book field as well and completely renewed it. Traditional children’s books, he realized, were built upon reductionist principles which ended up mutilating creativity and training children in linear thinking and learning-by-repetition. Wanting to counteract this trend, Munari created a series of books which were designed to question the very concept of children’s books, mixing textual and sensory communication, game and learning, experiment and discovery. “Munari’s [children’s] book”, stated Giorgio Maffei in his book “Munari. I Libri”, “gathers its heritage from the Boîte surréaliste’, surpassing its traditional role as storyteller and becoming an object-game”.
“The Circus in The Mist” / “Nella Nebbia di Milano” (image 7), published in 1968, and “Nella Notte Buia” (image 8), published in 1956, are two of Munari’s most spectacular and celebrated children’s books. In both of them Munari takes the reader for a stroll through changing places and situations recognizable not only thanks to the illustrations and (few) written indications but thanks to the changes in the material behavior of the book.
Moving forward within Milano’s mist requires us to go through a number of translucent pages in which objects come close to us and then move away as if left behind in our walk. When eventually we get to the circus the book explodes in colors and movement expressed with thick color stock and diverse die-cuts. In “Nella Notte Buia” we take a walk in a dark night of black paper printed blue. Then a translucent paper sunrise comes and we get to a cave (of rough brown paper) into which we enter through its central die-cut. The reader is completely immersed in these books and engages actively in its recounting not expecting to find in them the same old story each time he or she opens them.
PREBOOKS: VISUAL, TACTILE, MATERIAL & THERMIC INFORMATION
Munari’s interest in getting non-textual communication close to “all that people that has never read a book, pre-school kids for instance”, took him to creating the “Prelibri” (Prebooks) in the 80s. The Prelibri (image 10) are also sensory books devoid of all text except for the word “Book” printed on their covers. They are also quite small “because they have to fit easily in the hands of a 3 year old, they shall be built with various materials, use different bounding techniques, show different colors, obviously, and on each little book just a single title shall be printed, the same in all of them: Book”.
It wasn’t Munari’s aim to teach children how to “read” a book but to help them understand how the book-object works and the ways in which its combination of pages and its tactile, visual and formal elements allow us to express things which elude words.
“These messages should not be those of the closed literary story, such as fables, because they influence the child in a repetitive, non-creative, way. Hence the possibility of elastic thinking, ready to be modified according to experience and knowledge, is destroyed in the child. While still on time, the individual must get used to thinking, imagining, fantasizing… being creative. This is why these little books include only visual, tactile, audible, thermic and material stimuli. They need to transmit the feeling that books are built objects and that they hold within them an awful lot of very different surprises. Culture is made of surprises — that is, all that which you first ignore — and we must be ready to receive them, not to reject them for fear that the castle we built crumbles down.”
 Bruno Munari, Verbale Scrito, Corraini Edizioni, Mantova, 1982.
 Bruno Munari interviewed by Alfredo Barberis in 1978.
 Bruno Munari, “Design as Art”, Penguin Books, 1966.
 Bruno Munari interviewed by Arturo Carlo Quintavalle. Published in “Bruno Munari”, exhibition catalogue, Università di Parma, Centro Studi e Archivio della Comunicazione, Parma, 1979.
 “Bolletino Arte Concreta 10”, Milan, December 15, 1952. Quoted by Giorgio Maffei in “Munari. I Libri”, Corraini Edizioni, Mantua, 2008.
 Bruno Munari, ‘Libri senza parole’, presentation to the book “Per fare un libro”, by Roberto Pittarello, Edizioni Sonda, Turin – Milan, 1993.
 Giorgio Maffei, “Munari. I Libri”, Corraini Edizioni, Mantua, 2008.
 Bruno Munari, “Da cosa nasce cosa”, Laterza, Bari, 1981. Quoted in Giorgio Maffei, op. cit., p. 30-31.