19 Oct 2020 • In Memory
Maker. Theorist. Rebel. With Enzo Mari design loses one of its last grand masters
At the age of 88 Italian designer Enzo Mari passed away today in a hospital in Milan. He was one of the last great figures in Italian design, who helped shape the country's industry and culture.
Mari died only days after an exhibition of his work at the Triennale Milano opened. It indicates how relevant his work still is. The show examines 60 years of practicing as an artist, designer and thinker. It also features contributions from a broad group of artists and designers who reflect and respond to his body of work. Video interviews by Hans Ulrich Obrist examine Mari's lifelong ethical questioning of cultural production.
Born in 1932 in Novara, Italy, Mari studied at the Brera Academy in Milan from 1952 until 1956. From the 1950s he participated in avant-garde design movements like the Kinetic Art group, where he met another design icon: Bruno Munari. He taught at many European design schools and universities, developing design theories that he later put in practice in products, graphics and fit-outs. He also authored numerous books, most notably for children.
In 1967 he started a 10-year collaboration with tile manufacturer Gabbianelli, now included in the Altaeco Group. Instead of creating patterns for tiles, Mari deep-dived into the very role of decorative wallcovering. For tile collections such as Elementare (1968) and Traccia (1978) he used ancient technologies to develop ceramic tiles with basic, but poetic symbols.
His Pago-Pago vase for Danese from 1969 was a vase from moulded ABS that could be used straight or upside down, changing its aesthetics. His idea was to give people more agency over their use of products, given the impossibility to design objects to everybody's liking in all sorts of environments – an approach that is still relevant today.
Perhaps his most influential design project, however, is the book Autoprogettazione from 1974. It advocates for DYI design, encouraging its readers to construct furniture with the most basic of materials and tools.
In an interview with Alice Rawsthorn for The New York Times in 2008 he declared design dead. On a recent Instagram post the design critic reflected: 'It is rare to meet anyone in the Italian design community who does not have an opinion – positive, negative but seldom neutral – about the irascibly brilliant, remorselessly uncompromising Enzo Mari.'
Although his work has never notably featured in Frame, unfortunately, I would like to bring back a fragment of an interview I had with David Chipperfield from 2015. We spoke about design on the stand of Driade at the Salone del Mobile when Enzo Mari appeared on the scene.
‘I’m fascinated by the fact that objects which seem to have a lasting quality emerge from their own autonomous ideas,’ Chipperfield said. ‘I’ll give you an example: Frate, a glass table designed by Enzo Mari in 1974. It’s one of our bestselling tables. It comes in different versions, but all of them have black steel legs.’ [Chipperfield looks up and sees Mari walking by.] ‘There’s the man himself. This is amazing. He’s a genius. Grumpiest man on the planet.’
‘Mari didn’t design that table for the market. He didn’t think about what people might want. It’s not that Enzo Mari didn’t want anyone to buy his table. It’s just that he didn’t address people’s taste with his design. He’d be even grumpier if nobody bought it.’
Enzo Mari curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist with Francesca Giacomelli is on view at Triennale Milano until 18 April 2021.