More than one thousand people showed up after work at 225 W. Wacker on June 12 to see what the Italians are up to in vacuum cleaners and pharmacists’ trays these days, which says something about the dearth of entertainment options in the Loop after five. The event was a private reception held to celebrate the opening of the Italian design exhibit, Compasso d’Oro.

The Compasso d’Oro, or Golden Compass, is Italy’s oldest and most prestigious industrial-design award. It was first given in 1954 by a Milan department store, and since 1957 has been bestowed by the Italian Association for Industrial Design. This year’s exhibit, on display here through most of July, includes 120 objects deemed “worthy of being selected with honor” by a panel of judges. It’s sponsored by the Italian Institute of Foreign Trade and hosted by the Chicago Athenaeum. In the 35 years the competition has been held, the exhibit has been shown in the United States only three times, and 1990 marks its first appearance in Chicago.

The scheduled ribbon cutting was delayed while organizers waited for a tardy Mayor Daley. The room was warm and the wine was gratis, however, and soon the crowd was buzzing amiably.

Many Chicagoans’ appreciation for Italian design doesn’t extend beyond the well-made pizza, but even the meanest homes in the city boast exampies of the Italians’ genius. Since the Milanese set the standard for industrial design in the 1950s, the Italians’ influence has become pervasive. There’s hardly an innovation in home or office lighting that didn’t find its way into the mass market via Italian manufacturers like Gammalux or Artemide. Any number of fine Italian hands are evident in the goods offered by even a middle-market retailer like Carson Pirie Scott, whose recent home sale catalog featured goods that were Italian by inspiration if not by manufacture: a sleek Phonemate answering machine, a coffee table with a marble base and clear glass top, an assertively angular pedestal fan. Various in style, each such product reflects underlying principles common to all of the best Italian design, such as the use of honest materials (no wood-grained plastic) and disdain for the extraneous.

Good design exploits materials for their qualities and not just their cost. A few years ago I bought a remarkable tomato press by Montepolimeri. Not only does it do an excellent job of separating tomato pulp from skin and seeds, it does it by exploiting plastic (specifically polypropylene). Plastic has come to mean “shoddy” in this country, mainly because manufacturers so often use it as a cheap substitute for metal or wood. My Italian tomato press was made of the stuff because it is thus acid- and stain-resistant and lightweight. It’s also strong enough to stand on. I know because I did it, the sort of stunt cooks will try when they drink wine while cooking.

My own experience as as consumer tempts me to a generalization: the imperative of U.S. design is to make things cheaply, while in Italy the aim of design is to make even cheap things well. One is a method, the other is an ethic, and guests at the Compasso d’Oro opening received a lesson in the difference. Each person upon entering was handed a white paper shopping bag bearing the name and logo of the exhibit. Manufactured in Milan, it was fashioned from stout paper with a cardboard-reinforced bottom and a handle of thick fiber instead of the more familiar twisted paper.

The ribbon was cut at last, and we got our shot at the real things. Seen up close, Mario Bellini’s typewriter (done for Olivetti) is unmistakably a typewriter; the photo of it in the catalog distorts both perspective and scale and makes it look like the Italian pavilion that didn’t get built for the 1933 Century of Progress exposition. The comparison of the actual object with the photo was a reminder of how much product photography owes to the Playboy centerfold–or vice versa.

Most of the products displayed (somewhat indifferently, I’m afraid) were more substantial than shopping bags. The show is filled with regular stuff–car batteries and wastebaskets, office desks and baby seats and space heaters. When not being shown off in the lobbies of skyscrapers, these machines and objects would be found in factories, hotel kitchens, and pharmacy labs, as well as the home and office.

I confirmed that it is still possible to rave about the special quality of the lights in Italy, however much pollution there may have dimmed the natural light. Claudio Nordio’s table lamp and Rizzatto and Meda’s “Lola” lamp (“no concessions to show,” said the awards committee in praise of the latter) were especially clean and fine. The Assisa chair designed by Paolo Favaretto is being touted by its manufacturer for its “industrial elegance”; and it really can be described in such a phrase without causing educated people to sneer.

The Italians spawn schools of design the way we spawn sitcoms, as Angelo Cortesi explains in the exhibit catalog in an essay, “Reflections on the Current State of Design.” Cortesi describes nine schools–the Rationalists, the Historicists, the Historical Avant-Gardes, the Pop group, the Communicationalists, the Minimalists, the High-Tech group, the Experimentalists, and the Neo-Rationalists. Design is politics (Cortesi prefers the term “pressure groups” to “schools”), and each faction has its heroes, its renegades, and its reformers.

And its poets. Critic Barbara Radice says of the Communicationalists’ aesthetic, “Every protuberance is a laceration.” It might have sounded less goofy in Italian, but probably not. Cortesi notes helpfully that the Communicationalists are “not above borrowing the principles of neobarbarism from the Nouveau Philosophe,” which may or may not be a compliment. Reading this stuff, it occurred to me that Mr. Cortesi would make a great City Hall reporter.

There is not much of a constituency for good design in the United States, only for goods. As a result our designers are either slaves to industry or irrelevant to it. Unable in either case to turn products into art, they turn their art into products. Some of the results were displayed last year at the first International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. From the accounts I’ve read, it was a carnival of the silly and self-important, art furniture made of materials such as wooden balls by designers who argued that King Lear isn’t comfortable either–as if people come home from a long day and sit on Shakespeare. That kind of arrogance has a long pedigree in this country; Frank Lloyd Wright was perhaps the first of our great designers to complain that his clients didn’t fit his furniture. I’ve read that few U.S. design schools require courses in human anatomy and physiology, and that many don’t even offer them.

Integrity without utility would strike the best Italian designers as an impossibility. The work of one of the young Italian designers was seen at the contemporary furniture fair. Massimo Ghini is one of Cortesi’s Historical Avant-Garde, and a founding member of the “Bolidists,” named after the Italian word for fast-moving object. (“Designer labels” means something very different in Italy from what it does in the U.S.) A critic at that time extolled Ghini’s “whimsical design vocabulary,” whose forms “intentionally defy the rectilinear angles and straight lines of Classic Modernism.” But Ghini is not just another twerp with a studio. The Americans and Brits at the moment may make statements, but Ghini still makes furniture. His chrome-legged stool may be a defiant gesture in the face of modernism, but it remains an excellent object for sitting or standing upon as well as looking at.

You don’t have to venture to international design shows to get a sense of how the Italians do things. I arrived at the Compasso d’Oro opening already impressed by Italian design, the result of watching the first week of the 1990 World Cup. The design flair of the host nation was evident everywhere, from the competition’s clever logo to the stadium’s architecture. The extraordinary fashion show that was the centerpiece of the opening ceremonies was emphatically not something we would ever see at a Super Bowl halftime. The U.S. sports daily the National–which knows at least as much about fashion as it does about international sport–explained to its readers that the Italian national soccer team, called the Azzuri for the color of its uniforms, is “widely known for its fashion.” This is nonsense, but even the nonfans who can’t appreciate the Italians’ playing can, like the National’s reporters, appreciate how good they look.

It’s easy to forget how important it is for a successful society to do the everyday things with intelligence and economy. As I wandered about, I saw the sense shown by the competition’s judges, who concluded that the show’s “overall panorama renders the plurality of the products and of their characteristics certainly more significant than isolated specialisations.”

Which is translated Italian for “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Weighty speculations become a journalist, I think, and as I walked around I was beginning to get the hang of being profound in explanation of track lighting and floppy-disk racks. I muttered to myself, “Design is the metaphysics of desire made manifest,” and liked the sound of it.

I was wondering how that aphorism might sound in Italian when my speculations were rerouted. No room could be as packed with wine and soft leather and success as that lobby was on opening night and not arouse those present to more than intellectual curiosity. The eyes of the gentleman in front of me, for example, may have been caressing the spoons as he stood in front of Ettore Sottsass’s cutlery set, but his hand was exploring first the buttock and then the dress buttons of his companion, a woman who was plausibly Italian and certainly well designed. Only the Italians, I thought, could make tableware erotic. (Or think to try.) A reviewer in Chicago magazine, for example, practically leered a few weeks ago calling Bice a “bitchin’ sexy ristorante”; the reviewer listed its “solid Italian cutlery” as an aspect of the sensuality of the dining experience there.

The Italians, like many Europeans, recognize sensuality as a separate realm from sex, and while sensuality fairly drips from many of the Compasso d’Oro entries, sex was less evident, or perhaps seemed so because it was in a northern Italian form–cool, careful, a little bored.

Alas for me, eroticism quickly gave way to enervation. Halfway through the 120 objects on display at the Compasso d’Oro show, I began to feel as if I were cruising the aisles in Field’s new basement rather than touring an exhibit. (The difference is, I concede, slight.)

Back in March, Karrie Jacobs had anticipated my dilemma in her column in Metropolis, the New York design monthly, “Looking for God in the Details Makes Me Dizzy.” She complained that design (unlike art) volunteers too much information about itself. Its self-consciousness demands a tiresome attention. “We are all looking as hard as critics at the things around us,” Jacobs wrote. Looking closely at the ways a thing is rendered unthinglike while remaining true to its thingness can leave a person cross-eyed. “Things are reduced to parts without purpose,” Jacobs went on, and design is reduced to little more than “a vocabulary of stylistic gestures.” To really see the design of things, she concluded, you have to stop seeing things as Design.