Letter from Rome: Dictators and design /

by Anne Traver

I am sitting on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean on a small island off Sicily. Actually a respite from a respite – having sold my share of Methodologie to partners Janet DeDonato and Dale Hart, I am taking the sabbatical I always intended but never managed to fit into a busy work life. The cool breezes of Salina are a welcome relief from the heat of Rome, where I have rented an apartment for 6 months.

Now in my second month in Italy, I am surrounded by such visual splendor that Fascist graphic design may seem a curious subject to focus on.* I have always been fascinated (and moved) by the painfully awkward intersections between art movements and political movements, and especially by the well-intended but almost always doomed alliances of the last century, when those seeking artistic revolution joined forces with those seeking political revolution (the poignant trajectories of high-minded and groundbreaking Russian avant-garde artists-turned-designers-turned-hack-propagandists, for example).

But the graphic legacy of Italian fascism is another matter. While the Fascist aesthetic was often pompous and brutal, a fine typographic sensibility is evident in both signage and print. Architectural graphics are the most visible – post offices, train stations, and bureaucratic office buildings sport elegant modernist letterforms, marshaled into submission in orderly justified blocks. And coming out of more than a decade of annual report design, I was thrilled to discover the 1926-36 ten-year report of the Fascist regime at the Porta Portese flea market in Trastevere. Exquisitely printed and hand bound, the book features over 50 lovingly-crafted charts diagramming trends in industrial output from chocolate production to zinc. Notable in addition to the rigorously disciplined typography and page composition is a very human touch – one feels the presence of a designer freely and rather joyfully indulging in the craft of design, as in the boisterously inventive image showing increasing distances of public transportation routes from 1913 to 1931.

Ironic, isn’t it, that the anti-tradition socialist revolutions of the 20th century, after the briefest flirtation, unceremoniously rejected experimental art and design while the conservative, reactionary, and repressive fascist government seems to have embraced modernism in design and architecture.Is there perhaps a relationship between militant fascism and minimalist fastidiousness?

Unlike the dynamic tension of the asymmetrical compositions by type modernists from El Lissitzky to the Bauhaus, and especially the chaotic and exuberant rejection of syntax espoused by the early Italian futurists, Fascist typography is relentlessly symmetrical, harmonious, and well-behaved.

Who were these designers? Were they political true believers or simply creative souls enjoying a safe harbor and a paycheck to practice their passion? Clearly more to be learned on this subject…

The joy (and the privilege) of a sabbatical like this is the space to contemplate a subject – and entertain the kind of thoughts that normally flit into and out of our busy minds. With the wonders of connectivity I have been able to keep working on a few consulting projects, and I am now just beginning to turn my mind to considering what to do when I return home to Seattle in December.

*I was surprised to discover that I’m not the only one puzzling over the curiosity of right-wing design: Steven Heller posted from Rome on Design Observer in June on a related topic…

AIGA Seattle encourages thoughtful, responsible dialogue. Please read our policies on commenting.

Aaron Shurts


It sounds like you are having an amazing journey in Italy. I too was amazed at the typography in all of the small towns we crossed while riding the trains all over the country.

I can give you a few ideas on what to do upon your return to Seattle...

1. Re-join the board here at AIGA Seattle :)
2. Teach design at Ai Seattle (I teach there)
3. Write a book about your experience at Methodologie

I can keep going if needed.

Enjoy the rest of your sabbatical,


Aaron Shurts
V.P. AIGA Seattle


Cheers pal. I do aprepcitae the writing.


You got to push it-this essetnial info that is!


Do you have more great aitrcels like this one?


Wow, that's a really clever way of thniknig about it!

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