The Last Radical: Lapo Binazzi

Maurizio di Iorio

They were young, mad, and on a revolutionary mission. For one of them, the battle for the soul of design is far from finished.

From outside, you wouldn’t give Lapo Binazzi’s ground-floor studio on Florence’s Via dei Macci, not far from the great Franciscan church of Santa Croce, a second glance. On this side street of modest, shuttered townhouses, it looks like just another small artisan’s workshop. But for many years it has been the workspace, and think-space, of a man described by Evan Snyderman—a cofounder of New York gallery R & Company, which is currently exhibiting his major works—as “the truest Radical of all the Radicals.”

That’s Radical as in Radical Design, an Italian movement of the late 1960s that was particularly active in Florence, where three of its main groups—Superstudio, Gruppo 9999, and UFO—were based. The Radicals sought to question established codes of Rationalist architecture and design while taking counterculture potshots at consumerism, imperialism, and other such fashionable targets. The objects they produced were often intended as sardonic, temporary provocations, like UFO’s Urboeffimeri polyethylene inflatables, one of them a giant missile in the shape of a toothpaste tube that the group carried on an anti–Vietnam War demonstration in 1968. Down one side of the floppy rocket ran a slogan (in Italian): “Colgate with Vietcong.”

Binazzi was born in 1943 and came from an artistic family. His mother was a painter, his father a classically trained clarinetist and alto saxophonist whose repertoire ranged from jazz to Chopin and beyond; on free days he would often take Binazzi to one or another of Florence’s many museums. Initially drawn to creative writing but also gifted in math, Binazzi was particularly influenced by his thesis adviser at the architecture school of the University of Florence, Umberto Eco, who taught semiotics there from 1965 to 1971 (and would go on to become a renowned novelist). Binazzi founded UFO in 1967 with five fellow students. Roused by Eco’s teachings, they aimed, he says, to create objects that “mixed up the signifier and the signified” and caused “a kind of semantic fission, a chain reaction of meaning.”

Courtesy R & Company

They were also reacting against the era’s prevailing modernist dogmas, as the spry 73-year-old points out: “We wanted to operate outside the logic of industrial design, and outside of its moral perspective, which was all about the greatest good for the greatest number—a social democratic vision which would lead to minimalism and globalization.” In reaction to the long tradition of pared-back functionalism inaugurated by the Bauhaus, and inspired by the American Pop Art movement, the Radicals aimed, Binazzi says, to “bring back figurative elements,” decoration, and irony. If the Bauhaus led eventually to Ikea, the work of UFO, Superstudio, and the other Radicals has had a less heralded legacy of its own. Their collaborations with better-known designers like Ettore Sottsass bore fruit in the colorful postmodern 1980s furniture of the Memphis group, for example. Snyderman sees echoes of the Radicals in the work of contemporary designers like the Los Angeles–based Haas brothers.

The past few years have seen a revived interest in the Radicals, with notable exhibitions in London and Rome. Maria Cristina Didero is an independent curator who specializes in the period. She’s helping to organize a major Radical Design retrospective that R & Company has scheduled for next fall (coinciding with a documentary film and a book from Monacelli Press). “Given the world’s current value vacuum, maybe when you look back at a movement that expressed itself in such an explosive, revolutionary way, there’s a certain fascination,” she says.

Collectors have also begun to take an interest, attracted in part by the scarcity value of the Radicals’ small body of permanent domestic design work. In Binazzi’s case, these collectibles include a famous series of lamps based on the insignias of Paramount (a volcano topped by a parasol), MGM, and 20th Century Fox.

Courtesy R & Company

There are several original pieces or prototypes in Binazzi’s cluttered studio: a severed-arm lamp that looks like a piece of Addams Family home decor; a wooden coat stand in the shape of a tree emitting lightning bolts (a recurring symbol). Artisanship has always been central to his practice. “It’s no coincidence that I opened a design studio in a street full of carpenters, metalworkers, and other craft workshops,” he says. In some cases, as in the playful 1969 interiors for a Florence restaurant called Sherwood, UFO acted as builders, painters, and installation artists.

“People weren’t ready for the Radical revolution at the time,” Binazzi says with a wry smile. “We were on a railway siding watching the trains go by.” The New York survey of his work isn’t the only sign of finally being recognized. In 2015, an inflatable, life-size replica of Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome that Binazzi conceived in 1968 was finally produced (in a scaled-down version) and displayed by a Florentine art foundation.

How does he feel about his radical designs becoming an investment for wealthy collectors? “I’m happy that my tenacity is being recognized,” he says. But he also notes that collection and preservation are not so far apart. When one of his original creations is returned to him before an auction or gallery show, he says, “it gives me the chance to repair and restore pieces that I would have defended with my life—if I’d been able to keep them.”

Binazzi’s work is on view from September 27 through November 3 at R & Company, 82 Franklin St., New York. Prices: $8,500 to $120,000; 212-343-7979;