January 20, 2014

Tomes: “Domestic Animals: The Neoprimitive Style”

Published by MIT press in 1987, this short and sweet volume houses the collected creative output of Memphis/Alchimia alumnus Andrea Branzi and his wife/co-conspirator Nicoletta from 1984-86, under the loose banner “Domestic Animals”. A multi-faceted collection of interiors, furniture designs, speculative architecture, and one-off experiments, the mantra of the collection is “The Neo-Primative Style”, full of nods to both the natural world and the atavistic design impulse of early man.

In stark contrast to the overwrought luxury obsession that most of the design world was pumping out at the time, the Branzis managed to carry on the experimental, recombinant lineage of their forebears (think Archizoom, Superstudio, etc). They follow the “studio model” of the great 60s / 70s collectives by presenting finished prototypes alongside scale model interiors, plans for hypothetical living spaces, and even uniforms for neo-primitive living.

The centerpiece of the book and the collection is a series of chairs and benches, manufactured as one-offs by Italian studio Zabro. Logs and skins adorn and intersect with geometric plinths to form pseudo-functional pieces that operate more at the level of assemblage than furniture.

The interplay of the hard-edge, medium-grey bases of the chairs and benches with the unaltered branches and logs gives the pieces a kind of wabi-sabi charm, at times evoking Shinto gates or occult effigies. Though I’d seen individual pieces of this collection in print before, seeing all the variations on the theme together just reinforces what a stroke of genius the whole concept is, mostly because it couldn’t be any simpler. Whereas so many of their contemporaries had by 1985 fallen into either neoclassical ornamentation (See Michael Graves) or dramatic minimalism (Studio 80 et al), Andrea and Nicolletta maintain the weird “bricolage” energy that made them famous.

Elsewhere in the collection, curious families of chairs, tables and stands are constructed from synthetic future-bamboo, cast metal in stark white with joints spray-painted bright green or purple. With brightly lacquered surfaces and precarious stances, they’re like little mutant offspring of Hollywood Regency cliches, ratcheting up the blasé-luxe energy with new-wave abandon.

In addition to the more sculptural offerings, the book also reproduces several plans for poetically primitive living spaces. These colorful, enigmatic plans are compelling as compositions in and of themselves, whose function and color schemes seem more occult than domestic.

I’ve scanned and reproduced close to half of the entire book here because frankly the whole thing is worth seeing. A weird and compelling vision.