architect: Bob Noorda
Bob Noorda. The Measure of Signage
Many of the images that characterized Italy's passage from wartime and gave a recognizable face to its reconstruction and economic boom were the work of foreign graphic designers.
“Great” Italian graphic design, that spread worldwide in the 50s and 60s, was the result of a mix of professionals, all notable figures, but each with very different origins and histories. It is safe to say that what came to be known as the ‘Milanese style’ was really the product of ‘home grown’ talent among Italian graphic designers crossed with the inventiveness nurtured by Swiss, Czechoslovak, German and Dutch graphic designers. Bob Noorda (1927 – 2010), who recently passed away, was one of these extraordinary interpreters.
We can still see his distinctive signature everywhere: from major publishing houses (Feltrinelli, Mondadori, Vallecchi), to corporations (Eni, Pirelli, Barilla) and large-scale public works (Milan, New York and Sao Paulo subways), to major distribution (Coop). Noorda brought sophisticated models of visual thought to Italy. Incisive thinking, stripped of fuss or decorative pretention, free from the figurative artistic hangover of traditional poster designers. Like many graphic designers who arrived in Italy, Noorda had studied at IvKNO (Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs), the design institute in Amsterdam that preserved and passed on Bauhaus teachings and De Stijl's avant-garde arts. At the time Noorda was a student there, the institute's director was Mart Stamm, an architect and town planner trained at Bauhaus Dessau and creator of the first tubular metal chairs. The IvKNO fostered a spirit of functionality, spare design and uncluttered typography, light years away from the kind of cumbersome figurative and decorative academic design then taught in Italian applied art and printing schools. The difference is substantial.
And it was what was needed in professional practice and industrial style. A project became somewhere for logical thinking, “a school of thought that moves towards removing anything superfluous, a stripped-down form of thinking and responding to what comes. (…) When I arrived in Italy” Noorda recounts in a delightful book of interviews edited by Francesco Dondina, “industry still relied on illustrators and painters for its advertising material. We brought modern graphic design here, introduced cohesive corporate images – mixing internal corporate architecture, design and advertising.”
Arrigo Castellani, Pirelli‘s Head of PR, almost immediately latched onto this prospect and Noorda became his art director. This gave Noorda the chance to put his incisive, clear and modern model of visual information into practice. The corporate images, advertising campaigns, brands, logos and commercial copy that Noorda designed in those years epitomize his distinctive style. His approach to graphic design always worked towards a reduced number of elements, arranged dynamically on the page, yet consistently retaining a harmonic balance.
The 1959 Rolle tire poster captures this unique balance. The idea of movement is created through a play of the superimposed image of the Pirelli logo, using complementary but not pure or over-printed colors inside a full-bodied, hand-painted black circle, with an irregular sketchy perimeter that rendered in masterly fashion the impression of the tire and its ability to grip the road. Two stroke action. The project works by pushing the idea to the very edge of schematic definition. Both the content that is communicated and the graphic composition are minimal, but together they project a strong, almost playful, expressive ability.
This professional trait follows and mirrors Noorda’s personality. He was a very different to the other players on the Milanese scene. Quiet and reserved, he kept out of the limelight and seemed reluctant to talk. He didn’t have Provinciali's bombastic character or Steiner's committed vigor; he didn't become a guru like AG Fronzoni, even though he taught at the Umanitaria (Humanitarian Society) in Milan, at ISIA (Higher Institute for the Artistic Industries) in Urbino, at IED (European Institute of Design) and at the Milan Politecnico (International Polytechnic). He was a man who had a deep inner capacity for listening to and respecting whoever was speaking. And this is the important trait that makes him stand out as a designer and can be discerned in his signature style. For Noorda, the job of the designer is to listen to others as well as to himself. A project must first come from within. This process is a fundamental if the project is then to manifest externally, if it is to work as an aesthetic act of ‘service’, respecting both what it needs to communicate and its function and use. All of this is essentially a silent project, measured and reflexive, a project aimed at expressing harmony. This is the reasoning behind the quality of Noorda’s corporate identities - a particularly difficult sector. If we look at brands, one of the areas that Noorda worked in most, we recognize them precisely because they are able to exist slightly outside of time. Being beyond time is something that is created by carefully sampling existence, listening to oneself, decanting, attributing nothing more to the marks one makes than what they are. A brand image like Mondadori shows the perfection of this synthesis. The exemplary fusion of the two initials simultaneously conveys the memory of the publisher's typographic seal (where the publisher represents a man of culture) and the practical effectiveness of a modern publishing brand's product logo. It is a timeless image where everything works. Like a key finding its keyhole, there is no imperfection, friction or disturbance.
The same is true in the other major area of Noorda's work: public design. In collaboration with Albini, Helg and Piva, Noorda worked on designing the signage and logo for the Metropolitana Milanese, Milan's first subway line. This formed a blueprint that was later picked up and used in other cities. The approach was based on simplicity and clarity and it was in perfect tune with the architectural design. The project was well gauged and took account of the people who were going to use the subway. Noorda also designed the subway logo, “The one with the two Ms, one on top and one underneath. Everyone liked it apart from the Chief Executive, who took it to the board of directors and put it to the vote after saying that he didn’t like it. Unsurprisingly, the entire board of directors voted against it.” Noorda’s phlegmatic account gives us a glimpse of his regret. The original logo effectively projected and encapsulated the whole project. The Milan above and the upside-down Milan make a clear statement. The lettering was drawn in such a way that it transmuted Albini's red handrail into neat and balanced typography – a historic milestone of Made in Italy. After this, Noorda’s distinctive graphic style could be identified and recognized: his ability to organize and translate into visual systems, the ease with which he manages a complete image, the effectiveness of his expressive synthesis.
We appreciated all this later in his commissions for corporate identities, product design and graphic systems. Here Noorda and Unimark International (the history of Unimark, where Noorda worked with Vignelli and other partners, was recently told in Jan Corradi’s book, published by Lars Müller) blazed a trail in work for multinationals such as Ford, Knoll International, Olivetti, Pirelli, Rank Xerox, Unilever, Gillette, Jaguar, Ferrero and IBM. But despite years of major success for his design business, Noorda’s character did not change. Even much more recent work, like that for Milan’s Triennale Design Museum, confirmed Noorda’s trademark professional style. Studies of images for the 18th and 19th exhibitions demonstrate an advanced phase of their author’s stylistic journey. They could just be the expression of an exercise in style, always impeccable, simple confirmations of a true knowledge of craft. But Noorda’s graphics have the clarity of northern light, allowing us to focus sharply, to see and recognize each detail in depth. His graphics are abstract, the laws of geometry rule, but so do those of change. They capture a reflection of an artistic tradition that proceeds solidly and is based on proven principles, but that also accepts and is intent on searching for another way, a vibration, something that goes further. After the meaning and the proper translation of the messages, the poetry unveils itself.
The artifacts, the posters, the book covers first have to “work” and then be “beautiful”. The poster and image for the 19th Triennale clearly illustrate the theme “Identity and Difference”. Stripped of ambiguity, they articulate content through the visual code of writing. At the same time, they are transfigured into image. At the start, the two words seem glued together, stuck to one another, but they then diverge, distancing themselves in space and vibrating like glass transparencies in a modulated, lyrical chromaticity. Here you have Noorda’s graphics with their foreshadowing of a synthetic vision, a great unity, a centre, which is never monumental but sensitive and spiritual like abstraction itself. A visual force for anyone prepared to read and see.
Bob Noorda (1927-2010) was a Dutch-born graphic designer who lived and worked primarily in Milan from 1954 to his death in 2010. Noorda was born in Amsterdam and attended the Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs (now the Gerrit Rietveld Academie) and graduated in 1950. He moved to Milan in 1954. In Italy, Noorda gained fame for his design in the late 1950s and early 1960s for posters and advertisements for Pirelli where he also served as art director. In 1965, Noorda and fellow Milan-based designer Massimo Vignelli were among the seven founders of Unimark International, an American design firm with offices around the world.