Straddling fashion, architecture, interior and furniture design, performance, sculpture, and print, Italian designer Cinzia Ruggeri imbued her surrealist works with a playful, experimental, provocative energy infused with elegance and glamour. Whether presenting a mirror with arms that reach out in an embrace or a dress shaped like a flight of stairs, Ruggeri reframed everyday objects and the architectural and social dimensions of the body, drawing out the potential for narrative and performance in everything she touched.
Born in Milan in 1942 and inspired by Arte Povera and the feminist groups of the 1960s, Ruggeri intently avoided easy definition, sidestepping the spotlight whenever she felt the mainstream closing in on her. Overwhelmed by the press attention surrounding her first solo exhibition of abstract paintings, held in 1960 at Milan’s Galleria del Prisma when she was just seventeen, Ruggeri stepped away from her art practice to study at Milan’s Scuola Superiore di Arti Applicate. After moving to Paris to apprentice at fashion house Carven, she returned to Milan as design director of her father’s company producing women’s suits and coats, where she researched the material potential of textiles as well as new manufacturing techniques. And after founding her own clothing line, Bloom SpA, in 1977, to which she added an eponymous label and a menswear collection, she abruptly closed it in the mid-’80s, at the peak of its renown and commercial success, pivoting back to contemporary art and teaching fashion design at Milan’s Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti. Although affiliated with the 1970s architecture and design movement Radical Design, which propelled designers including Superstudio and Alessandro Mendini, and Ettore Sottsass’s Memphis Group in the 1980s, Ruggeri never formally joined these collectives, maintaining an elasticity that allowed her to stretch and spring away as she desired.
Fashion, industrial design, and print media were produced and consumed almost on top of each other in 1980s Milan, creating fertile ground for collaboration, multidisciplinary cross-pollination, and experimental design that challenged convention. Pushing against the clarity and efficiency of Italian postwar design, Ruggeri sought to complicate the field with ambiguous objects laced with both irony and tenderness. She made glassware with pendant drops that jangled when you drank; an armchair upholstered with stuffed cat toys; a showerhead shaped like hands so the bather is caressed by water. A jagged, asymmetrical ziggurat dress, paraded down a runway staged in the Church of San Carpoforo, was accompanied by a sound piece made in collaboration with Brian Eno. The confusion, or promise, of whether a piece should be sold in a store or shown in a museum was part of the point.
But for all of Ruggeri’s efforts to not comply to any form of predictability, she did admit to a few recurring motifs: “Eggs, dogs, dogs’ noses, pigs, pearls, glass, chickens, chameleons, octopuses and rays, nautiluses, flamingos, and other free (spontaneous) subjects, and then velvet and silk georgette and linen.”
Ruggeri’s fascination with the potential of textiles wove a continuous thread through her career, and her avant-garde clothing designs are sculptural objects—both on and off the body. Sheer gauze is pulled into a stepped skirt. A giant stuffed hand addresses the room. A tie pulls sideways, defying gravity. A bunch of fabric orchids drape across the body to form a dress. A pair of green leather knee-high boots take the shape of the Italian peninsula, accompanied by Sicily and Sardinia clutch bags. Each piece is surreal, embodying both the lightness of fabric and Ruggeri’s tenacious desire to push the limits of form and function and her seemingly limitless faith in material. As curator Kari Rittenbach noted in Mousse, “To Ruggeri, the dress is both an architecture, or shelter for the body, and more significantly, a screen; that is, a means of revealing or, conversely, obscuring the emotions through shape and form.”
Renowned by fashion historians and respected by her peers, Ruggeri exhibited regularly until her death in 2019. But she wasn’t granted a museum survey until after her passing, nor was she written into the broader canon of design history. Perhaps her determination to avoid constraints made the work hard to contain; perhaps her being a woman meant her maverick approach was dismissed as unserious. Ruggeri strove to redefine the form and function of everyday objects, from clothing to accessories, furniture to lighting. “There are already enough useful objects designed to perfectly fulfill their function; what I am looking for is to communicate and interact with [them].”
Billie Muraben is a London-based arts and culture writer and editor who teaches graphic communication design at Central Saint Martins.