DESIGN STUDY: TOMÁS MALDONADO'S ANALOGICAL COMPUTER DESIGN & PRE-DIGITAL ART

 

Desde un Sector, 1953

 

In my recent studies I stumbled upon Tomás Maldonado, an artist whose work I was not familiar with before. But it's like I found a design ancestor, because I totally use similar shapes as him and I have even applied his theories unknowingly.

Maldonado was born in Buenos Aires in 1922, but he studied and produced much of his influential work in Europe during the 1950s and 60s. Before moving to Europe, he attended the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires, where he studied design.

After his education, he began working with other Argentine artists such as Jorge Brito, Alfredo Hlito, and Claudio Girola in the 1940s. With this group, a manifesto was published, rejecting the status quo of the then-institutional views of El Salón Nacional in Argentina, quoting Italian artist Carlo Carrà's statement, "the suppression of imbeciles in art is essential" in their treatise. (Oh how I love a good artist manifesto). In doing so, the group effectively founded a movement known as Arte Concreto-Invención (Concrete-Invention Art), which was dedicated to 'pure geometric abstraction.'

Trayectoria de una Anécdota (Path of a Story), 1949

And like most art movements of the era, their work was fed by politics, only where the United States and European movements were a reaction to society and government (with the exception of Russia and Eastern parts of Europe), Arte Concreto-Invención, was at once a reaction to social values in regards to art, but also confined by the ideals of Argentina's Marxist leader, Edelmiro Julián Farrell, a predecessor to Juan Perón. As a result, Arte Concreto-Invención was less experimental than other similar movements of the era, but like artists in Russia, working within the confines of their country's political climate, Arte Concreto-Invención was still able to push the boundaries of art. Such feats are far and few between, as most artists and writers who play by the political rules aren't usually able to contribute anything beyond romance and fantasy.

Desarollo del Triángulo (Destruction of the Triangle), 1951

In 1954, Maldonado moved to Germany to teach at the newly founded school, Hochschule für Gestaltung of Ulm (Ulm School of Design), which was started in part by former Bauhaus student and instructor, Max Bill (one of my favs). Ulm School of Design for sure deserves its own post one day, but for now just know that the school was extra cool. (I mean, the internet says it's only second to Bauhaus, which is like really saying it's first because Bauhaus is just so amazing that it's like in outer space, so). 

Ulm School of Design was founded in 1953 and operated until 1968, during a time where the West was transitioning from an industrial to a post-industrial society. And though the school operated very briefly during the Post War period, the Ulm school restructured social sciences to be based on a strong belief in reason, rather than opinion. Living in an era of Nazi resistance, founder Max Bill promoted the idea that in a democratic society, “good design” should be accessible to all. 

At the Ulm School of Design, Maldonado taught industrial design and visual communication (also known as semiotics, the study of signs and symbols and how they are used). Teaching with an emphasis on philosophy of science and technology for ten years, Maldonado was eventually appointed as the director of the school in 1957. Once director, Maldonado cultivated a pre-digital approach to design that translated well to the technology era of design that followed.  

 
 

It is argued that during his tenure at the Ulm School of Design, Maldonado pioneered design theory, and in particular, was among the first to apply computation to architecture and design. Though during the time of his work at the Ulm School, Maldonado did not work with computers, he is credited for theorizing "analogical computer design," which you can actually see very clearly in the first and third images in this article. (They kind of remind me of Wire's 154 album art that was released in 1979, only the analog version).

Like the Bauhaus school, Ulm's curriculum took a multidisciplinary approach, though Ulm was far more focused on science than craft. Bauhaus’s perspectives seemed to have become obsolete in the post-industrial age because they were viewed as simply artistic, rather than scientific. Though Max Bill attempted to recreate the Bauhuas curriculum, Maldonado kept pushing for more concrete theories and approaches to design. Wishing to create a closer relationship between science and technology, Ulm slowly oriented themselves towards the theoretical aspects of the Bauhaus school but expanded their approach, applying technological approaches to design. In this second phase, different subjects such as economics, sociology, mathematics, operational research, statistics, set theory, linear programming techniques, cybernetics and other subjects that deal with the history of science and the theory of machines were added to Ulm's curriculum. With the addition of these subjects, and the help of guest teachers, Maldonado made it possible for the students of Ulm to engage and participate in the scientific and theoretical philosophy of the time. 

 
 

Like the designers of Bauhaus, Maldonado proved to be very prolific, and towards the end of the Ulm school's existence, he really began applying his interests in semiotics to create a symbol system that is largely still used, and built upon for other methods of symoblic communication today. Above is a code system Maldonado built for the programmers of the Olivetti typewriter company, which was a project carried out in collaboration with the German designer Gui Bonsieppe. This symbolic language helped build the early stages of computer science. (So cool)!

Perhaps because the Ulm School was very ambitious and very ahead of its time, the school closed permanently in 1968. A year before its closure, Maldonado resigned and relocated to Milan, where he continues to live currently. After the disollution of the Ulm school, Maldonado continued working in design, where he followed Max Bill's lead, creating logos for companies. The first of such projects was with german again in collaboration with designer Gui Bonsiepe, where the two designed the corporate identity for the Italian department store La Rinascente. A corporate identity that is still in use today. 

 
 

From here, Maldonado continued to design, from furniture to medical equipment, as well as continue to paint. (The two images below are his contemporary work made between 2000 - 2010).

 
 

What's even cooler though, is that Maldonado is still alive and teaching theories in Italy as Professor at the Faculty of philosophy and arts of Bologna. Having worked with and studied under the Bauhaus school, while creating very modern theories in regards to computer science and technology, I feel like students who get to work with Maldonado are very lucky, because there are very few thinkers from this era left today. I'm so into the idea of having access to my predecessors, maybe I should email him in Spanish and see if he'd let me meet him!

Maldonado in his office in 2008

 

 



Courtney Cady, © Bagtazo 2016