by Jerry ElengicalJun 11, 2021
Lovingly called the ‘Grandfather of Italian Design’, Enzo Mari was a stalwart whose vast body of work and sensitivity towards his craft of design was met by the striking, often sharp relevance of his thought. A designer, artist, critic and theoretician, Mari was passionate in his critique, but also pining in his nihilistic views, with an enviable eye for spotting fallacies in design, and an unreserved tongue to point them out. The maverick passed away on October 19 this year owing to complications caused by coronavirus, leaving behind decades long legacy of design, art, and academics, pondering worker’s rights and the fate of design students.
Mari was scathing in his outlook of the very profession he practiced over his lifetime, often terming modern works “pornography”. The inimitable Italian designer even declared that “design was dead”. Among his favourite criticisms, a close second, was “Merda Pura!”, translating to pure shit, a term he used to describe contemporary works in design that he felt catered too much to the market and media. For his unapologetic lashings, Mari did earn a lot of infamy within the profession, but the sheer profundity of his work, and the influence his designs and theories have had over the era of post-modern design, is without dispute. For him, design could only be regarded as such if it also transmitted knowledge.
The sad news of his demise came in just as a collection of Mari’s most celebrated works curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist opened on October 17 at the Triennale Milano. Being among the first design professionals to advocate accessibility of the designed product for all, his projects have withstood the test of time and have been conceived to be sustainable, both from a material and aesthetic perspective. It is perhaps why any of his contemporaries and generations of designers thereafter remember him with only fondness and respect.
A Brief Rendezvous: Richard Hutten on Enzo Mari
He was one of my heroes. Enzo Mari was one of the few critical thinkers in design. He fought against meaningless products, which were only made to be consumed and replaced after a short time. He wanted to make meaningful products, and I totally agree with him. I recognise myself in his approach.
I only met Enzo once. It was at an event at Danese Milano, the only client we have in common. Unfortunately, we only spoke short, but it made a big impression. At his age he was still full of passion and dedication. Danese Milano is the company for which Enzo made some of his most iconic designs, like the apple and the pear. His Putrella centrepiece is one of my favourites. I have a few designs of him in my own collection; the Ameland letter opener (named after a Dutch island) and the Kurili salad server. There is a nice story about the Kurili. Enzo designed the Kurili in 1973. Last year Danese Milano decided to put it back in production. In the research for a supplier, they found the manufacturer who produced it back in 1973. And this producer still had 1000 sets of the design on the shelf. I am very happy I have one of these sets.
Enzo Mari influenced a lot of people, and he still does. On a personal level, I was and still am inspired by his critical thinking: designers should be trained to be critical thinkers, they should be craftsmen to understand what it is to make a product, and they should look beyond the surface and the style of a product and they should know the history. Otherwise, you get products which are only there for economic reasons, not to enrich people’s life.
Dear Enzo, you will be missed. You are already missed. Design needs more critical thinkers like you. You sadly died of corona, a disease which is the result of the endless drive of people to get more products for the cheapest price. You advocated slowness. I really hope your voice will still be heard for many years. Thank you for your inspiration.
Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket: Fabio Novembre on Enzo Mari
Jealously I keep a book about his work with an autographed dedication from him that says: “With sympathy (which means going together)”.
Willy-nilly we walked together for more than 20 years, probably without looking at each other in the face, but feeling the presence, and enjoying the company. We were very different, and we could strongly perceive it, but sympathy doesn’t imply a shared vision of things, respect is more than enough. And I can talk for myself: I deeply respected Enzo, I disagreed on many things, but his moral stature was overwhelming!
Let’s put it this way, I always saw myself as Pinocchio and Enzo as the Jiminy Cricket. So, all that wisdom was kind of annoying for me, I had to make mistakes by myself. Being so harsh and judgmental gave him the status of the “critical conscience of the design world”, but I think that was such a heavy burden to carry for him, because after all, let him who is without sin cast the first stone. We are all sinners and we all make mistakes, that’s why I force myself to remember Enzo’s face with a bright smile, taking it easy on the so many things that always made him angry.
A contemporaneous Leonardo: Patricia Urquiola on Enzo Mari
Enzo Mari was an important figure to me for many reasons. As Alessandro Mendini said, he was the “Conscience of Designers”.
There is a statement from him in which I recognise myself deeply. The role of the designer is to move the limits of a company. To be critical in a strong, positive way. The advantage of being an inside/outside agent allows the creative to see the client from a different perspective, while they always see themselves from within, with their responsibilities and obligations. The author is freer to read society, art, sociology, technology and every form of inspiration, being independent. At the same time, he can work together with the company, understanding the DNA and the identity of the brand and a coherent possible, necessary evolution. An external force, an antenna that can be symbiotic with the client, but not aligned.
Enzo Mari has been one of the great masters of Italian and international design. My generation owes him a lot not only for his work as a designer, but also for the brilliant theorist he was, in a moment when design was somehow still considered a sub-discipline of architecture or craft. An inquiring person, “a contemporaneous Leonardo” with vast influences and interests for subjects, topics, themes, questions, objects, tools, technologies, crafts, arts. To me Enzo Mari represented a provocateur, a free thinker who believed in searching for what is essential, who only wanted to work with people or companies that were passionate about the project. He believed this profession needed to read and interpret the reality, but especially he taught us the ethics of design. All these have been important lessons for me and are still a significant part of my identity as a designer and architect.
He described himself as a humanist with a global view, he always wanted to transmit the essential meaning of being a designer, to go to the core of this profession, started as an artist, experimenting and making projects that are worthy for the people living outside in the world. It is a blessing for an author to be able to span a career of 60 years. Being relevant even beside production, but as an intellectual that underlines not only the limits of the companies, but of society as well. Just like a designer has to be hard on himself, never being fully satisfied, never being complaisant.
If I have to think of a product that defines him, it would be Putrella tray from Danese. I hope that the Triennale exhibition curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist in Milan can have a virtual life and reach people in different ways. Not as a deserved celebration that coincided by a strange concurrence with the farewell to Mari, but as tool to continue the conversation.
The final exhibition of his works, titled Enzo Mari curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist with Francesca Giacomelli will continue till April 18, 2021, at the Triennale Milano, putting on display some of his most renowned works, including products from Danese Milano, plans, sketches, unpublished archive material, essays and interviews curated by Obrist chiefly from the constant dialogue he engaged with Mari over several years. Interestingly, Mari donated his entire collection of works to the city of Milan, on condition that no one would be given access to his archives for at least 40 years. This was since according to even Mari’s own “most optimistic” forecasts, it would take 40 years for a new generation that wasn’t “spoiled like today’s generation” to come along and make informed use of his designs and products, “taking back control of the profound meaning of things”, he stated in his recent interview, Enzo Mari: i miei archivi per Milano. The exhibition is thus the last frontier to access the archives of Mari’s work that has found new meaning and life after his demise, before being locked away for 40 years; his unyielding condition.