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130 Years of Piaggio: A History of Speed and Style

Interview with Jeffrey Schnapp, author of "Futur Piaggio: Six Italian Lessons on Mobility and Modern Life"

Harvardianaby Matthew Griffith and Amelia Linsky

The Piaggio group’s signature brand, Vespa, emerged from a moment of profound change as Italy transformed from a wartime to post-war economy. Given that the company is now a global entity, how can the lessons learned from its rich history help it to meet the challenges and opportunities of the current century of networked communications? As well as being a Harvard Professor of Italian Studies and an avid motorcyclist himself, Jeffrey Schnapp is also in the perfect position to answer this question since he is professionally involved with Piaggio as the CEO of Boston’s Piaggio Fast Forward.

FuturPiaggio, a retrospective and manifesto commissioned in honor of the Italian monument’s 130th anniversary, will undoubtedly tempt gearheads to pick up one of the only 3000 numbered copies. But even the most casual reader will note its arresting design: hefty, harking back to Futurist art with an artisanal binding of two functional metal bolts, with folded pages that create layers and transparencies throughout, it balances on its spine and demands a participatory, hands-on reading experience. Inside this winged object, Jeffrey Schnapp has provided a huge breadth of material, both of the text and image variety, that anyone—from moto racer to pedestrian, Italian culture fanatic to design geek—can appreciate.

Inspired by the structure of Italo Calvino’s Lezioni Americane, Schnapp devotes the body of the text to an essayistic historical narrative that dips into philosophy and includes a sparkling memoiristic recollection of how it feels to be a moto racer. Although it might seem blasphemous to apply Calvino’s ideas on literary narrative to a company and its products, and especially to claim to “fill the void” left by the author’s interrupted sixth chapter with some musings on the future of Piaggio Group, Schnapp’s superimposition of a humanist viewpoint on a traditionally separate and resistant topic—that is, products and designers operating for-profit—succeeds well enough to encourage a closer examination of how the academic discourse of the humanities can and should interact with brands and products.

One shouldn’t expect the scholarly rigor Schnapp brings to his more formal academic work, but his essays themed around the Calvinian ideals (lightness, speed, precision, visibility, and multiplicity) are so striking that even the rare images racing alongside come second place. Smoothly reporting the design history of the Vespa and of its sister products within the Italian historical and cultural milieu, Schnapp combines expert technical assessments with classical references and vehicle-related puns. It’s a stimulating blend, though the coffee-table format necessitates that interesting ideas (how can a traditionally single-rider vehicle become social? How do cultural norms of mobility interact with vehicle design and advertising? Can a product have a “life” or “metamorphosis”?) go unexamined. The point is not to develop a philosophy of Piaggio Group, rather to show that it can be done; to demonstrate how the company’s design innovations changed the world as well as its own market, and how as much as one can argue against big brands, there was true brilliance in Piaggio’s technical development that will continue to shine in a bright and technologically advanced future.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about this book is that the images, from art director Daniele Ledda, are not mere eye candy, but an expertly-designed synthesis of painstaking archival research: they are truly informative and demand more than a casual flip-through. The last part, comprised of ample collages of the evolution of individual design features—from silhouettes to saddles to spare tire placement—as well as an advertising strategies timeline and a vehicle paint color chart, is a standout work of illustration. Alongside a generous quantity of design sketches and a couple of “exploded view” technical diagrams, these images fully complete the luxuriant format. I was reminded of how, as a child, I would spend hours absorbing every detail of picture books—from the architectural diagrams of David Macaulay to the busy landscapes of Where’s Waldo. FuturPiaggio brings back that same childhood delight in details and patterns, along with a strong dose of adult nostalgia, in this comprehensive ode to the Vespa. family.

At the top of this page you can watch an interview where Jeffrey Schnapp sits down with Matthew Griffith, Ph.D student at Harvard, to talk about his new book Futur Piaggio: Six Italian Lessons on Mobility and Modern Life. He explains the choices behind its unique and playful design (courtesy of long-time collaborator Daniele Ledda of graphic design firm XY comm) as well as discussing the balance between research of the past and excitement for the future.

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