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Creative Alechemy From Italian Designers

Alchimia mixes art with design, modernity with the archaic, the vulgar with the precious

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`ALCHIMIA'' is Italian for ``alchemy'' and also, according to my dictionary, for ``deception.'' There might be some significance in that. Alchimia is the name, adopted in 1976, by an Italian design group, considered to be in the forefront of ``radical design.'' Like its probably better-known outgrowth, ``Memphis,'' its headquarters is in Milan. Its founders were Alessandro and Adriana Guerriero, and among its designers have been such names as Ettore Sottsass, Alessandro Mendini, Andrea Branzi and Michele De Lucchi.

Britain is now staging, here in the Scottish capital, ``Alchimia Fa Bene al Design,'' the country's first exhibition of objects produced by Alchimia. London won't see this array of strange, jokey, colorful, and rather friendly objects until 1991.

The initiative for the show comes from Judith Findlay of the Fruitmarket Gallery, where the display is mounted.

One of the distinctive characteristics of Alchimia is that it has managed to invade the ``art'' world, as opposed to the ``design'' world. It has persistently staged exhibitions and now has its own gallery in Milan. But then Alchimia has also behaved as if it were part of the fashion-world, periodically presenting new ``collections,'' like clothing designers.

As Ms. Findlay took me around the show, I had difficulty remembering this was not an art exhibition. Bold, vaguely Cubist mosaics in an arch-shaped format are placed at regular intervals on the walls. Made in Ravenna - ancient home of mosaics - these striking decorations are just that: They have no ``function'' but to decorate walls.

Interspersed among them are some flat, colorful abstract designs that might have been made in the '60s by a computer. They are called ``paintings,'' though they look more like silk-screen prints. Again, they fall into a category somewhere between ``art'' and ``d'ecor.''

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