With some books, reading on a screen is virtually the same as on paper. Swipe or turn a page and you’ll see words organized into sentences organized into paragraphs organized into chapters. Not so with the work of Bruno Munari (1907–1998), an artist, graphic designer, inventor, futurist, and all around maestro of visual language.
“Munari did not just work on books; he was interested in and tried out the full range of artistic possibilities (painting, sculpture, design, graphics, teaching, poetry, writing, photography, film, entertainment), but throughout his career, books were his personal diary in which he noted down his experiences, an authentic register of events,” art historian Giorgio Maffei writes in the introduction to Munari’s Books: The Definitive Collection of Book Designs by Bruno Munari (Princeton Architectural Press, 2015)
Munari’s books were not only objects to behold, but to experience through different materials, types of binding, experimental typography, illustrations, and colors, to name a few of the techniques and tricks he employed. Maffei’s monograph shares the vibrant, unconventional books Munari designed starting in 1929 until a posthumous publication from 1999.
His Libro Illeggibile series, for example, was an exercise in trying out “all visual communication options and printing techniques that didn’t involve words,” Munari described. Some of the books were bound with staples or thread and featured pages solely of prismatic paper or of tracing paper festooned with geometric lines.
In addition to exploring books as art objects, Munari used them to communicate cultural ideas. In Supplemento al Dizionario Italiano (1958), he gathers photographs of common Italian hand gestures and unpacks what they mean.
Munari’s children’s books remain among the most popular and are still in print today. In Bruno Munari’s ABC (1960), one of his alphabet books, he offers a mix of objects, leaving it open for kids to build stories around them. Munari said in 1981: “These messages are not supposed to be finished literary stories like tales because that would have a repetitive and uncreative influence on the child…Before it’s too late, individuals must be taught to think, imagine, dream and be creative.”
“Studying Munari’s work opens the mind and addresses the history of design without any dogmatic prejudice,” Maffei said in an email interview. “Munari still teaches us that there is no distinction between art and craft, and that there is no hierarchy of importance in his work.”
Maffei’s survey of Munari’s books and storytelling genius is easy to get lost in. Seeing the wealth of creativity present in printed matter might also make you ditch your e-reader and beeline straight to the bookstore.