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He was one of the major architects in the renewal of Italian graphics and his work is in our eyes every day: on shop windows, on book covers, in petrol stations, on the skyscrapers that host large corporations. It is in front of us even when we open a bottle of beer. In short, Bob Noorda is part of our daily environment.
I often think about it as I get out of the San Babila subway station in Milan. Line 1 opened in that station on 1 November 1964. Noorda was entrusted with designing the signage: the result was a masterpiece of elegance and clarity. It was not by chance that he was awarded the Compasso d’Oro, which he would go on to win three more times during his career. The project for Milan’s underground was designed by Franco Albini (and we talked about him here), and Noorda sensed that the blacks and browns chosen by the architect “needed to be sublimated”, as the architect Italo Lupi recalled.
It was Noorda’s idea to place signs every 5 meters, from the surface entrance to the platform (and vice versa); you can still see them while the train is leaving or arriving. Today it seems normal to us, we are used to it. Yet no one had ever thought of a similar solution: passengers no longer had to look for directions, because he made sure that directions always followed passengers.
The idea was so successful that it was also exported to New York and Sao Paulo, two other cities where Noorda designed the signs for the subway.
From the Pirelli brand to the Regione Lombardia to the Pirelli skyscraper.
Half a mile from San Babila lies La Rinascente, the department store founded in which can be found in most major Italian cities. Noorda worked here as an artistic consultant for packaging in ‘63 and ‘64.
I make my way to the Central station and reach the Pirelli skyscraper, the “Pirellone” to the Milanese. What did Noorda have to do with Gio Ponti’s famous building? He had worked as an art director for Pirelli, also creating advertisements, one of which was as the famous “Cinturato” tire.
The skyscraper is the building in Milan where the Regional Council of Lombardy has its headquarters: the famous “Rosa camuna” is now the flag of Lombardy, a white flower on a green field, designed by Bob Noorda.
That symbol – far from any political wind – was born in 1975. There had been a public competition organized by the Region, but the majority of the projects – recalled the architect Italo Lupi – “looked like a series of middle school efforts”. They decided to cancel everything and entrust the task to professional designers. Bruno Munari, Noorda and the designers Sambonet and Tovaglia would have been the group leaders. “I don’t know whose idea it was to take inspiration for that brand from the rock engravings of the Camuni,” said Lupi, “but of course the resulting cloverleaf was quite clearly Noordian in many respects”.
Bob Noorda was elegant, mysterious and intense. When you see his picture, he might look like an arthouse movie actor. He was often seen in the city, Noorda. You could see him emerging from his bottle green Fiat Cinquecento. You met him at book fairs and exhibitions. I was always struck by his sober elegance, which was reflected in the logos, brands, advertisements and book covers he designed.
Born Dutch, adopted by Milan, Noorda studied with professors from the Bauhaus, the famous German school of architecture and design. From his teachers he learned “to remove what is superfluous, to think simply and to act accordingly“.
No decorativism, only harmonious and simple forms, designed to create a beautiful image in itself, and at the same time a visual account of the company.
When he arrived in Milan in 1954, he was shocked to learn that the industrialists still entrusted trademarks design and advertising to painters and illustrators, as had been the case in the nineteenth century. Noorda’s approach was instead anti-pictorial: he aimed to remove anything superfluous from the image.
Even though there was no official name for it at the time, Noorda came up with the idea of “corporate identity” expressed in a graphic form.
Italy is full of Noorda’s work. It was he who invented or perfected brands such as Coop, publishing houses such as Mondadori, Feltrinelli or Vallecchi, beers such as Dreher and Stella Artois; he designed the Enel and Aem brands; he supervised the “coordinated” logos of companies such as Banca Popolare di Milano, Richard-Ginori, Mitsubishi, Ermenegildo Zegna and Agip.
He had redesigned Agip’s famous six-legged dog, tweaking another designer’s previous project. Noorda made it less ferocious and more domestic, and that chemical animal was so deeply rooted in everyone’s mind that it became not only the logo of Agip but of the entire Eni group.
«The more a brand remains fresh and modern over the years, the more I feel I’ve done a good job.»
Apparently, the tireless Noorda did a really good job. Next January marks his death’s tenth anniversary. Surely, for the occasion, a few exhibitions will retrace the stages of his work. But apart from celebrations, Milan remembers him every day, everywhere, thanks to the elegance of his design: the many graphic inventions still scattered around the city.