There’s a photograph in “1968: Radical Italian Furniture” — the new book (out May 31) by the artist and provocateur Maurizio Cattelan and his frequent collaborator, the photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari — of a woman dressed in pink trousers, standing on top of a desk. Crouched down expertly in heels, she stares blankly into the camera and urinates — quite deliberately, it seems — onto the piece of furniture beneath her.
The rebellious pose channels what a group of radical young Italian designers were feeling in the late 1960s — boredom, mingled with disgust, brought on by two decades of uninspiring design trends. Cattelan — known himself for making artworks and projectsthat play pranks on the establishment — calls it “adolescent anger against the father figure.”
The father figures in question were proponents of “good design,” a movement that prioritized functionality, efficiency, and the sale of objects over their uniqueness. The era’s radicals — led by groups like Archizoom and Superstudio — wanted no part in design that was just another inducement to consume. Their anger was productive, and what followed was a truly weird era of furniture design. In this strange new world, a coat rack became a cactus. Towering blades of grass that bend to your shape when you sink in passed for an armchair. Often, the pieces weren’t all that functional. But the goal was for consumers to think about what they were buying, not to make them feel comfortable.
Named for the revolutionary spirit of 1968, the book celebrates these objects by placing them in surreal scenarios. “It’s a book about lightness and freedom — our idea of ’68 is about declining responsibility, about being independent of those who preceded us,” says Cattelan, who retired from the art world in 2011 with a flashy retrospective at the Guggenheim. These days, he runs a biannual, photo-driven magazine with Ferrari, Toilet Paper, which shares a similar aesthetic and spirit with “1968.”
The book is a joint production of Toilet Paper and Deste, a foundation for the arts created by the Greek patron Dakis Joannou, whose expansive collection of radical Italian furniture fills its pages. Joannou first floated the idea to Cattelan of reimagining Playboy images from the 1960s and 1970s, when it was common for the magazine to pair women with architecture. The cultural touchstones multiplied from there. In brainstorming sessions, a wall plastered with inspirational images included one from behind the scenes of the David Lynch series “Twin Peaks,” and another of a young Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel and Candice Bergen pressing their tongues together. But Cattelan says it’s impossible to read too much into any one influence. “Consider it a séance,” he offers, “where you can never say whom you’ll end up with in conversation. In the end it’s all about your subconscious.”
Like the many oversize pieces in this furniture collection, the book itself — chunky, with images printed onto thick cardboard pages — has a self-announcing physicality to it. “This is not a book, it’s an object,” Cattelan says, suggesting that any book about design should aspire to be a piece of design itself. “You can actually kill a man with it!”