Bruno Munari: The Child Within, at CIMA

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday October 5, 2022

Bruno Munari (1907-1998), the Italian artist, inventor, graphic designer, and product designer, has had a long and storied presence in New York City since his inclusion in a 1949 poster exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. A new exhibition, Bruno Munari: The Child Within, opens Friday at the Center for Italian Modernist Art [CIMA]. Featuring approximately 130 books, objects and artworks from archives, museums, galleries and private collections, the show is curated by Steven Guarnaccia, professor Emeritus at Parsons School of Design and an author and illustrator of books for adults and children focusing on design and culture. Above: Ricostruzione teorica di un oggetto immaginario (Theoretical Reconstruction of an Imaginery Object), 1969; collage on paper. Courtesy of Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; Kaufmann Repetto, New York / Milan, and Repetto Gallery, London 

Munari was arguably one of the most pervasively influential designers of the post-war era. He first made his mark as a member of the Italian Futurists, an avant-garde art movement fascinated by modernity, mass production, and pushing at technological limits, before pursuing his own vision of design as the primary art form of his time. His highly experimental and playful approach to the use of uncommon materials to express complex ideas informed the books, products, and writings of his prolific career.

For Libro Illeggible N.Y.I (Unreadable Book N.Y.1) (below), a unique book he created for a 1955 MoMA exhibitionthe pages are constructed of materials such as card stock, handmade paper, wax paper, tissue paper, string and found objects. Munari punched holes in its pages so the visual discourse, rather than a text comprised of words, literallyn carries the thread of the story from spread to spread. This device became a signature in his many books for children that he wrote, designed, and illustrated. Right: Fossile del 2000 (Fossil from 2000), 1959-79 Thermostatic valves, methacrylate, metal. Courtesy of Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; Kaufmann Repetto, New York / Milan, and Repetto Gallery, London Below: Libro illeggibile N.Y.1 (Unreadable Book N.Y.1), Museum of Modern Art: New York, 1953. Courtesy of Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; kaufmann repetto, New York / Milan, and Repetto Gallery, London 

Above: Libro illeggibile N.Y.1 (Unreadable Book N.Y.1), Museum of Modern Art: New York, 1953. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

The show will focus on Munari’s children’s books, demonstrating how his experimental and commercially produced publications expressed his wide-ranging ideas about the possibilities art offered to communicate visually in highly accessible form. His idea of the “illegible book” naturally led Munari to devise many “useless objects”, such as Macchina inutile (Useless Machine), 1956-70. But his irreverent process also informed the useful objects he designed, such as lighting, furniture, and various print technologies, including photography, xerography and commercial book production.

Curator Steven Guarnaccia put it this way: “Utility is not the ultimate virtue to which Bruno Munari’s objects aspire. His machines are useless. His books are illegible. Idleness would seem to be his watchword. But looking at the range of works in the show, and realizing that they represent just a small part of his output and creative activity, which encompassed the conceiving, writing, illustrating and designing of books, the design of household objects, furniture and lighting, the writing of theoretical texts and the creation of sculptures, prints, drawings collages and work in numerous other mediums.

Below left: Fossile del 2000 (Fossil from 2000), 1959-79 Thermostatic valves, methacrylate, metal. Courtesy of Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; kaufmann repetto, New York / Milan, and Repetto Gallery, London

"Not to mention his pedagogical activity- his workshops and teaching indicate that he was anything but idle. Perhaps playful is a better word to describe him. Of course, play in Western culture, notwithstanding the often-observed chestnut that play is the work of children, seems to often be understood as the opposite of industry.” Below: La rana Romilda (Romilda the frog), Mantua: Maurizio Corraini Editore, 1997. Collezione Corraini


Guarnaccia continues, "Munari understood that a book is also an object, and not only a vehicle for telling a story - its object-ness is something he emphasized as much in his children’s books as in his “libri illegibile”. The line between Munari’s artist’s books and his children’s books is virtually non-existent. His fine art and conceptual work are utterly consistent with his children’s books….Munari rescued numerous objects from the ocean that formed the contents of his book, Il Mare Come Artigiano (the sea as craftsman)- all objects eroded or encrusted and transformed by the sea- stones and shards of pottery, buoys and ropes etc. He considered the sea a producer of objects of use." Below: Sasso con gatto (Stone with cat), 1981. Drawing on stone coming from Riva Trigroso's seashore (Sestri Levante, Italy). Private collection. Courtesy Repetto Gallery

Bruno Munari: The Child Within opens Friday, October 7, with a lecture by curator Steven Guarnaccia at 6 pm: Tickets January 14, 2023 at CIMA, 421 Broome Street, 4th floor, New York, New York, and is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays by appointment. Public programs: Tickets

Bruno Munari: The Child Within is organized in collaboration with Corraini Edizioni, in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute, New York. 


Steven Guarnaccia is an author and illustrator and Professor Emeritus of Parsons School of Design. He was formerly Op-Ed art director of the New York Times. His work has appeared in major magazines and newspapers including the New York Times and Rolling Stone and he has been a regular visual commentator for design publications including Abitare, Domus and Metropolitan Home. He has created murals for Disney and exhibition drawings for Achille Castiglioni: Design! at the Museum of Modern Art.

He is the author of books on popular culture and design for Chronicle Books, including Black and White and A Stiff Drink and a Close Shave. He has designed watches for Swatch and greeting cards for the Museum of Modern Art, won awards from the AIGA, the Art Directors Club, and the Bologna Book Fair and has had one-man shows internationally. His children’s books include his fairy tales about design, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: A Tale ModerneThe Three Little Pigs: An Architectural Tale and Cinderella: A Fashionable Tale, all published by Corraini and Abrams. His latest book is Butterflies, Snails and Little Worms, about pasta names, published by RaumItalic. His exhibition, Fatherland, was shown at the Hamelin Gallery and has traveled to the East London Comic Arts Festival, the Barcelona FLIC festival, the Ministerium fuer Illustration/ Berlin, the Tabook Festival in the Czech Republic and to Yui Gallery, NY.