FuturPiaggio: Six Italian Lessons on Mobility and Modern Life (Rizzoli) by Jeffrey Schnapp, founder/faculty director of metaLAB at Harvard and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, celebrates design in both its subject and execution. Modeled after Italian Futurist Fortunato Depero’s iconic 1927 “Bolted Book,” this limited, numbered edition is also bound by two metal bolts (in a handsome flip-case). Like Depero’s Futurist tome, this new book pays homage to the Machine Age seen through the lens of Piaggio, the producer of the even more iconic Vespa—a symbol of an era of speed, technology and transportation. Composed of various papers, colors, typefaces and type compositions, the book will appeal to design enthusiasts and fans of scooter culture.
A rich retrospective, Schnapp addresses key moments throughout Piaggio’s history and the various models that have been introduced over the years, including the seductive Vespa. From working design sketches to exploded views of a scooter’s inner mechanical workings to vintage advertisements and photographs, this book captures the essence of a brand that continues to have impact in the 21st century. Piaggio scooters have redefined transportation, and this book pays proper tribute through its engaging design. I asked Schnapp to talk about the object itself and how it communicates in today’s post–machine-age world.
What inspired you to make this book about “mobility and modern life” into a design homage to Fortunato Depero?Depero’s bolted book, Depero Futurista, was less an artist’s book than a high-end industrial object that mirrored the common (Italian) practice of binding together technical manuals with metal devices. Much like Bruno Munari, Depero’s entire career saw him moving back and forth between avant-garde experimentation and commercial work. This was the same spirit that infused FuturPiaggio right from the start: the urge to wed two Italian moments of design excellence—Depero Futurista and the Olivetti Quaderni Rossi—in a volume dedicated not only to the Piaggio Group’s extraordinary past record of innovation and disruption, but also its future. FuturPiaggio commemorates 134 years of history, but in a future-oriented key, much like Depero anthologized his own history of experimentation in Depero Futurista. I should also note that my design ideas for the book came to me during an extended visit to the Piaggio archives in Pontedera, Tuscany—I fell in love with the factory assembly and technical manuals from the 1940s and 1950s, with their metal bindings.
The book is about vehicles and engines. Obviously, this has something directly to do with Futurism. What was your impetus as a Futurist scholar in doing this book?I’m both a scholar of Futurism and someone who grew up with and in motorsports. In 1963, at the age of 9 years old, my father lowered me into the late great Jim Clark’s Formula 1 Lotus-Climax at the Mexican Grand Prix (which Clark went on to win). Life was never the same in the sense that, in addition to dabbling in various forms of racing over many years, my mind gravitated towards topics (like Futurism and the cultural history of transportation) that explored interconnections between innovation, experimentation, new modes of cognition and somatic movement. Sometime in the early 1990s I was writing a biography of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, but biographies, with rare exceptions, bore me. I started thinking instead about a book, the slowest book that I’ve ever written because it is still in progress 20 years later, on the anthropology of speed.
A number of chapters were written but I thought I needed an autobiographical preface and, well, I hadn’t quite yet “fully lived or written that chapter.” So I stopped doing track days on my Aprilia 250 superbike and started up an amateur racing career: “for fun,” of course (or, at least, initially). The fun was supposed to last only a year. It lasted over a decade. FuturPiaggio is a book that commemorates the history of the Piaggio brands—Vespa, Moto Guzzi, Aprilia, Gilera—but it’s also an idiosyncratic personal essay that rewrites Italo Calvino’s great “Six Memos for the New Millennium” in the form of a rumination on movement and selfhood. “Six Memos” was written in Italy to be delivered at Harvard as the Norton Lectures; FuturPiaggio reverses the directionality: it was written at Harvard for and about Italy and its genius in the field of industrial design.
This is also a remarkable “object”—how does the object-ness of the book and box address the issue of speed in today’s world?Speed today is less somatic speed than mental. Average speeds of land and air travel have remained stagnant since the 1980s; Marinetti’s gospel of perpetual acceleration has proved naive. But not so in the domain of digital communications and the accelerated domains of virtual experience that they open up. Speed today implies the speed at which information travels, is produced and consumed. Paradoxically, this has prompted a doubling down on the physicality of books (or at least the books that attract my passions and attention). We are living through a renaissance of experimental, expressive, playful book design and making. And FuturPiaggio, thanks to my brilliant collaborator, the Milanese designer Daniele Ledda, aims to combine a layered, dense, graphic/typographic experience with the sense of entering not into a book but into a work of architecture—a space of history.