Mulino Bianco, or the Italian Invention of Post-Modernity


Publication History:

“Mulino Bianco, or the Italian Invention of Postmodernity.” Log 34 (2015): 133-138

The text posted here is an earlier draft and it is different from the published version. Please only cite from copy in print


Some people like machines, some don’t. In the nineteenth century, while the Industrial Revolution was changing the world, many architects rejected the new technologies of mass-production, sometimes using the new industrial materials to imitate the styles of the past.  Then came twentieth-century Modernism, and designers belatedly but enthusiastically embraced, expressed, exploited, and extolled the new technical logic of the machine age: standardization, Taylorism, and economies of scale.  This is the story that all designers of my generation studied at school.  It is the foundational myth of modern architecture.  Later on, however, in the second half of the twentieth century, architectural Modernism and modern urbanism went mainstream, and became—as they were meant to—plain, unromantic, repetitive industrial practice.  Architects then started to have second thoughts, and their growing aversion to the machine-made environment resulted in several anti-modern, anti-mechanical, anti-technological ideologies, which culminated in what is now generally known as Post-Modernism.

In Italy, where the author of these notes grew up, Modernism came so late, and Post-Modernism so early, that the whole technological history of the twentieth century was, in a sense, telescoped into a very short span of time.  Italians of my generation (born at the end of the 1950s or in the early 1960s) had the privilege of seeing the transition from a rural, preindustrial, atavic environment to a modern industrial one, and then the economic collapse, technological implosion and cultural rejection of the same, all together in an accelerated sequence that lasted less than fifteen years from start to finish.  Furthermore, for my generation, these were the formative years—the years when we were growing up and coming of age.  In the early 1960s, as a child, I could still witness a perfectly functioning and relatively prosperous pre-industrial society at work.  Most manufacturing was still in the hands (literally) of skilled artisans, who knew their job, did it well, and made a comfortable living out of it.  Soon however industrial production took over, and by the early 70s artisanal skills, and the artisans themselves, had been replaced by mechanical mass-production.  And then, in the course of the 1970s, for a number of reasons, external (two oil crises) and internal (terrorism, social unrest), the industrial fabric of the country collapsed and disappeared—apparently, forever.  At the same time, not coincidentally, Italians simply fell out of love with the machine-made environment.  Mechanical modernity, which Italians saw as the promise of their imminent future in the mid 60s, had become the curse of their recent past by the mid 70s.  Seldom has an entire people so completely and drastically changed its view of its destiny as Italians did back then: when I was a child, in the mid 60s, everyone around me was eagerly anticipating a rosy industrial time ahead; when I was an adolescent, in the mid 70s, everyone around me was sadly nostalgic of a lost pre-industrial time gone by.  Nothing shows these shifting views of past and future better than the history of cookies (known in Europe as biscuits).

As a child, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents.  They lived in the old part of town, like Mr. Hulot in Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle, in a picturesque old building where everything was permanently patched up and nothing ever worked; and they bought their bread, pasta, and cookies from a baker who had his shop in an equally old and rickety house on the opposite side of an ancient square lined with chestnut trees.  Dried pasta was already made off-site, in factories, but many stores still sold it in bulk, from the wooden drawers of majestic pieces of furniture that looked like filing cabinets.  Bread and cookies, however, were made and baked, daily, on the premises.  Cookies in particular were endowed with all the treats of true artisan making: we could pick them from the counter one by one, and they were sold by number or weight in floppy paper bags, which invariably tore apart and broke within minutes; the cookies themselves, when we managed to bring some home, had a different taste, shape, and consistency every time, either by chance or by design, so each purchase was always a discovery and each cookie a surprise, sometimes a good one, sometimes not.  My grandparents even had theories to account for the changing qualities of the cookies, which they related to the weather (humidity, temperature), to the time of the day and day of the week (fluctuations in demand and supply), but mostly to the notoriously irascible temperament of said baker’s wife.

At that time, my parents lived in the new part of town, where all buildings were less than five years old, all residents were as young as my parents, and all children were, oddly, exactly my age.  My mother shopped at a brand new supermarket, the first self-service grocery in the region (and the first fully air-conditioned store in town).  Cookies from that store came in rigid cardboard boxes in the shape of ingots.  The packages were printed with glossy color pictures, prominently displaying the name and logo of some well known manufacturer of branded confectionery products.  For these were industrial cookies, made in factories, mass-produced and standardized in size, taste, and price (sold by unit of packaging, each box at a fixed price.)  Inside the geometrical boxes, each cookie was a thin, flat slice crisply cut in an equally geometrical shape (a circle or a rectangle, often in the proportions of a golden section).  Abstract geometrical patterns were also printed on both sides of the cookies, to stiffen the edges and prevent cracking, chipping, and crumbling.  That was easily achieved, as each slice of twice-baked dough was as dry and hard as stone.  Siegfried Giedion famously traced the beginning of the assembly line and of Taylorism to the mass-production of cookies for the British Army during the Napoleonic wars.[1]  Sublimated food—not by distillation, like spirits, but by repeated baking—industrial cookies transcend and transfigure the lowly ingredients out of which they are made.  They are designed to withstand all accidents of time and space, and to taste the same forever.

Standardized, industrial food and drink were already cheaper than artisanal ones, and they were seen and marketed as hygienically safer (as the risks of chemical additives were unknown or neglected at the time).  Branded food—then a novelty—matched the demands and expectations of a new breed of modern, or modernist, consumers, who cherished the predictability of a standard product, delivering a predictable, standard experience, at a standard price.  I was probably not much aware of the fact back then, but that was the new world for which I was being groomed when, on my parents’ breakfast table, I found brightly colored boxes of Mattutini Talmone (made in Turin) or Pavesini (made in Novara).  Unlike the flaky, floppy, wacky pastries from my grandparents’ larder, these branded cookies would always, miraculously, taste the same—day in day out, come rain or shine, even when forgotten for months in a kitchen drawer.  My grandparents’ cookies would go stale in a day (and sometimes, to be honest, they were already stale on purchase).  In short, the superiority of modern industry over traditional craft was proven, and needed no further evidence.  Then came 1968, and the 1973 oil crisis.  By the mid 1970s, most factories in Italy were shrinking or closing down; most factory owners were selling their business and hastily buying real estate in Switzerland (when they could).  Then came the Mulino Bianco Barilla.  

Originally a bakery, the Barilla Company had abandoned the production of bread to focus on pasta in the early 1950s, as pasta could be industrialized and bread could not.  But in the early 1970s mass-produced, dried pasta had fallen on hard times.[2]  For many Italian consumers of the time, industrial pasta was standardizing the memory of the nation’s ancestral poverty: dried pasta was seen as cheap and boring—two drags in one.  The new American owners of the Barilla Company decided to diversify, and after two years of research and design, the new Mulino Bianco (White Mill) cookies hit the retail stores in the fall of 1975.[3]  The eponym water mill, set in a timeless rural landscape, featured on all packages, inscribed in wreaths of flowers and sheaves of wheat in the commercial logo, and in a simplified relief on most cookies.  The graphic design of the whole project was generically and indistinctly backward-looking, but the great innovation was the design of the packaging itself: a floppy bag that deliberately imitated the oily and treacherous paper envelopes used by the artisan bakers of old.  Of course, one reason why bakers had stopped using floppy bags was that cookies inside those bags would break, when the bag itself wouldn’t, and turn into a mash of crumbles.  This is exactly what the Mulino Bianco cookies were designed to do: the cookies were tender and frail, often spongy, their surfaces rough, uneven, uncertain and wavy.  They were meant to break, and to come out of the bag in all kinds of different shapes and forms, thus obliterating the memory of the mechanical stamps and of the industrial production lines where they had been molded.  Their haecceitas was meant to suggest the artisan labor of making, almost as if each and all had been bearing the trace of the hand of a baker who would have molded them one by one—forever different, each one unique.  On the package, the list of ingredients (required by law) was printed next to a detailed recipe, explaining how each customer could remake exactly the same cookies at home.

I do not know anyone who did, or even ever tried to.  What does it matter?  The message was evident: these are not industrial cookies—or, in fact, they are if you look at the small print, but they are meant to be seen first and foremost as the opposite and nemesis of the industrial world, as the emblem of all that modernity has replaced and made obsolete: these cookies stand and speak for the technical logic of craft and hand-making; they represent a universe of accidental, random, or bespoke variations.  This is not far from the conceptual framework of what we would now call post-modernity, but nobody knew it at that time: Charles Jencks’s The Language of Post-Modern Architecture was published in 1977; Jean-François Lyotard’s La Condition Post-Moderne in 1979.  Around 1975, the message would have been simpler and starker: mechanical mass-production—and with it, the social and political projects of industrial modernity—have all failed.  Forget about them.  Let’s revive instead our ancestral, rural past: we were happier when we were poorer.

It is not clear to what extent the Mulino Bianco project might have been inspired by the Italian sociologist and corporate communication consultant Francesco Alberoni, whose books on love would soon become landmarks of what Italians then called il riflusso, and should now be seen as the Italian way to Post-Modernism.[4]  Alberoni lists the Mulino Bianco among his brainchildren on his own commercial website, but in his recent biography of Pietro Barilla he attributes it for the most part to the Barilla management of the time.[5]  Be it as it may, for me—then a college student—and, I presume, for many Italians of my generation, the first harbingers of Post-Modernism, as a global philosophical and cultural trend, did not come from Deleuze and Guattari’s obscure proclamations, nor from Portoghesi’s Presence of the Past Biennale, which at the time we, students, did not really know what to make of.  They came from many thoughtful meditations on many a dishful of Mulino Bianco cookies served with our morning coffee.  Those cookies may have unmade Modernism more than two energy crises did, and contributed to the end of Socialism in Europe more than the fall of the Berlin wall.  The Mulino Bianco cookies were so successful that Barilla kept building bigger and bigger factories to satisfy the market’s insatiable demand for industrial cookies that appear to be made by hand, and many of the ideas that drove the post-modern turn in the 1970s are still with us today.  Those ideas have inspired, among many other things, the digital turn of the 1990s, and indeed they are so ubiquitous and pervasive in the digital world in which we live that we often forget whence they came, and by which way.  They came by way of cookies.   


[1] Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command (1948), New York: Norton, 1969, 77-78.  See Mario Carpo, “Leibniz. Elegie für den Keks im Zeitalter der mechanischen Reproduzierbarkeit.” Candide 5 (2012): 125-26.

[2] Francesco Alberoni, Pietro Barilla. Biografia di un Grande Imprenditore (Milan: Rizzoli, 2013), loc. 732,  1648-58

[3] See the Barilla corporate website :, retrieved 21 February 2015

[4] Alberoni’s best selling Falling in Love was first published in Italy in 1979.  See Paolo Morando, Dancing Days. 1978-1979: I due anni che hanno cambiato l’Italia (Rome and Bari: Laterza, 2009), 174-180.   I am grateful to Léa-Catherine Szacka for bringing this books to my attention.

[5], retrieved 21 February 2015; Alberoni, Pietro Barilla (Milan: Rizzoli, 2013), loc. 1663.


Log 34


“Mulino Bianco, or the Italian Invention of Postmodernity.” Log 34 (2015): 133-138