Franco Grignani: Art as Design 1950-1990

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A retrospective of Italian designer Franco Grignani at Islington's Estorick Collection

Islington's Estorick Collection, located in a Georgian Grade II-listed building on Canonbury Square, is a beautiful gallery containing “one of the finest collections of early 20th century Italian art anywhere in the world” according to the former Director of Tate Modern Sir Nicholas Serota. Their latest exhibition is a retrospective of artist and graphic designer Franco Grignani's work from 1950-1990.

Franco Grignani was an artist and highly successful graphic designer best known for his iconic 1963 Woolmark logo. Grignani initially sat on the judging panel for an international competition, set up by the International Wool Secretariat, to find a new logo. Disappointed by the standard of other Italian entries, Grignani submitted under a pseudonym. His entry ended up winning, and is now recognised as one of the most elegant and effective trademarks of all time. The black and white image represents a spool of wool, and the deceptively simple design belies a thorough knowledge of geometry - Grignani studied both mathematics and architecture at University - as well as the feelings of fluidity and multi-dimensionality that typify his broader body of work.

Franco Grignani Tensioni in Simbiosi Symbiotic Tensions 1964 Courtesy of Emilio and Veronica Campanile

Art as Design is split into two galleries of equal size. The first covers work from the 1950s through to the late 1960s and includes a cabinet displaying studies for the Woolmark logo alongside other advertising work. The second gallery follows the same pattern, with greater emphasis given to his work with luxury brands. Grignani was no stranger to high-end fashion and powerful lifestyle brands, and Pirelli, Alfred & Lacroix, Fiat and Italian fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna all enjoyed Grignani’s endlessly enjoyable and stylish visual patterns.

It’s a mesmerising exhibition. Each work rewards a lingering gaze, as apparently simple patterns belie hidden depths and multiple ways of viewing the designs. Field with Horizontal Notched Variations appears at first to be a set of simple, repeated motifs, but closer inspection reveals a number of subtle, crucial variations. In a similar way to that of contemporaries working within the burgeoning Minimalism movement, the power in Grignani’s work emanates from these subtle shifts. Tiny details are magnified and make a big impact.

La Frattura del Rumore (1279) The Fracturing of Noise (1279) 1990 Archivio Manuela Grignani Sirtoli

Having experimented with using black and white patterns to create a precise sense of movement - demonstrated in the gradually degrading squares of Progressive Alternation (29/B) - Grignani went on to introduce new elements to great effect. Both Structural Progression to the Horizontal Centre and Modular Combinational add a layer of industrial glass to the outside of the frame to create an even more visceral sense of movement; an injection of colour lends Wide Angular (22/B) its buzz of phantom lines and refraction. Experimental Interdependent Multiple Undulations (7/F-B) abandons the straight lines and angles of previous work to create a Rorschach-like swirl. The same sense of depth is there, though this time a rippling, oil on water effect is responsible for the feeling of perpetual motion that characterises Grignani’s work.

Grignani uses steps, or stairs, as a pictorial trope. They are visible in Desire for Small Steps (1272), a design for Alfred & Lacroix in Room 2 and Psychovolumetric Scansion among other works. As a motif, the image of an endless, Escher-like flight of steps is apt. It matches the feeling in Grignani’s work of infinite possibilities hidden within seemingly rigid structures.

Dissociazione dal Bordo (285) Detachment from the Edge (285) 1969 Archivio Manuela Grignani Sirtoli

Considered by many as influencing the Op Art movement of the 1960s - which saw optical illusions combined with abstraction to create mind-bending visuals - Grignani’s blend of Futurism and Modernism was much more than illusory. There is an underlying current of anarchism: the ‘Detachment’ series in particular subverts its own set of rules and embodies the clash between Utopian ideals and creative individuality that came to define much of the sci-fi literature of the period. It’s no surprise to see how well Grignani’s designs work on a Penguin series of 1960s sci-fi book covers.

Art as Design is a fitting testimony to an overlooked design great, and the exhibition comes highly recommended as a way to break out of the hectic rhythms of daily life and get lost in Grignani’s gently subversive minimalism.

Franco Grignani: Art as Design 1950-1990 runs at the Estorick Collection till September 10. Tickets are £6.50 and include access to the permanent collection.