The Shape of Things:
Bruno Munari’s Square Circle Triangle
Written by Hannah Safter
Photographed by Hanna Tveite
Nothing could be more integral to the understanding of both ancient and modern art than the three most simple and frequently used shapes: the square, the circle, and the triangle. Comprehending these fundamental forms makes for a more learned and informed viewer, and so Italian graphic artist and designer Bruno Munari (1907–1998) delved into their historical and cultural significance in Square Circle Triangle, a trio of writings collected for the first time in a new book from Princeton Architectural Press.
The Milan native was equal parts artist and scientist, working off of the findings of his intellectual predecessors, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man and Plato’s Golden Ratio. In this new collection, Munari traces each of the shapes from their ancient origins to their place in modernity—in particular their importance to the second Italian Futurist movement of the 1920s and throughout the twentieth century.
As broad and as high as a man standing with outstretched arms, since the times of the earliest writings and in the earliest stone engravings the square has stood for the idea of the enclosure, the house, the village.Bruno Munari
He begins with the square, moving fluidly from the ancient Egyptians’ fixed rules of a canon, a measurement that is based on the square to the proportions of the gothic style, Châlons Cathedral, which also remains centered on the square. The examples Munari contemplates often deviate from the visual arts, as he references both the square handkerchief used in Verdi’s Othello and the Neapolitan proverb, “Those born square will not die round.”
- At left is X Hour, a series of kinetic art objects created by Munari in 1945. Fifty numbered plates were made by Danese of Milan. The half-discs in the center of each object are transparent and turn by clockwork, creating geometrical figures that continuously change.
- In creating a tabletop mirror for Menu, Milan-based Studiopepe looked to Italian design of the late 1950s, especially the work of Gio Ponti, Luigi Caccia Dominioni, and Carlo de Carli. The disc of mirrored glass is framed in brass and set in a stand of white marble.
Munari proceeds with the circle, noting that an immediate distinction must be made between the square and the circle, as the square stands in relation to man, and the circle, to the divine. “An ancient text says that God is a circle whose center is everywhere but whose circumference is nowhere,” Munari explains. Among his numerous examples are the halo depicted around Catholic saints and the Muslim Talisman to depict the circles’ distinct relation to the divine, which apparently even crosses religious lines.
If the square is bound up with man and his works, with architecture, harmonious structures, writing, and so on, the circle is related to the divine.Bruno Munari
- Designed in the 1950s by Carl Auböck II (1900–1957), a modern magazine rack suspends an expanse of leather from a brass frame, bringing together curves and lines with a triangular top. “He asked ‘What do we really need? When do things lead to a superfluous character?’” says Carl Auböck IV of his grandfather. “Every line creating space or form was thought thrice.”
Munari poignantly ends with the triangle—the equilateral triangle, to be exact. Perhaps the most unexpected result of the equilateral triangle, Munari suggests, is that it can be found in both of the previously mentioned basic forms, a circle and a cube. Neither rooted in man, like the square, nor the divine, like the circle, Munari explores this unique basic form, noting that the triangle can produce the most unexpected results, compared to the square and the circle.
As Munari’s examples of the three basic shapes through history begin to enumerate throughout the book, these three shapes transcend time and culture to become a universal language.