"Function is dead": Mario Trimarchi and Alberto Alessi on the role of poetry in design

In a video released to celebrate the centenary of Alessi, Italian architect Mario Trimarchi discusses why he thinks poetry in design is a rare condition to treasure.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Feb 05, 2022

"Design becomes very useful and almost indispensable if it contributes to the distribution of poetry around the world."

Mario Trimarchi

The debate to distinguish the fine line between what is art and what is design goes back a long way. I remember what I once heard from STIR’s founder and Editor-in-Chief Amit Gupta, and which got me thinking. He said, “Art is the architecture of an idea minus the engineering. While an artist visualises the idea on a canvas, an architect or a designer actualises a vision into a form and space where he/she marries the inspiration to what we call a state of being.” Once an expression of functionality and aesthetics, it could be said that the horizons of design today have expanded and that it sees the intangible and the experiential taking over the utilitarian side of the things.

An even farther take on the narrative fascinated us when we heard Italian architect Mario Trimarchi discuss in a conversation with Alberto Alessi of the iconic Italian design brand Alessi that “Function is dead and no longer applies as a discriminant of design” and that “we can finally admit that the only ordinary person in today’s society is the poet”.

The conversation between Alberto Alessi and Mario Trimarchi was hosted to celebrate the brand’s centenary and continued excellence in the field of product design. It was pegged on one of the 12 values that define the works of Alessi and the nuances around this value referenced a product from the brand’s museum archives. In the video, Trimarchi, who has designed various products for Alessi in the past including the Intanto flower vase and the Ossidiana coffee maker that bagged him a Compasso D’Oro in 2016, is seen sharing his thoughts on 'poetry' as a design value. The featured object in the dialogue is a prototype of the 1987-designed Neapolitan coffee maker by Riccardo Dalisi.

"When we consider objects today," Trimarchi notes in the five-minute video, “our goal is to energise them with poetry. This is the only reason for buying and owning them.” Describing the key positioning of functionality in design as “a myth upon which an ideological battle has been played out”, he gives an example of the vases of ancient Greece that were solely designed to depict the stories of the gods of Olympus, and “not to hold olives”.

Intrigued to know more, STIR speaks with the Milan-based architect and product designer. The following are the edited excerpts from the text interview.

Zohra Khan: In the video you have said that "poetry comes from the object itself". In the practice of product design, what triggers the independent development of transcendence and intangibility?

Mario Trimarchi: Every object can have a kind of superpower: in being able to speak with other objects and people, to almost come to life by building a relationship with us, and by representing a link between us and a higher emotion; we could say in a somewhat more general sense, between humans and god.

  • Intanto, flower vase for Alessi designed by Mario Trimarchi Italy | Alessi | STIRworld
    Intanto, flower vase for Alessi designed by Mario Trimarchi Image: Santi Caleca
  • “Poetry seems to be the one and only pursuable certainty lending deep meaning to objects”: photographed here is the Ossidiana Coffee Maker for Alessi designed by Mario Trimarchi | Alessi | STIRworld
    “Poetry seems to be the one and only pursuable certainty lending deep meaning to objects”: photographed here is the Ossidiana Coffee Maker for Alessi designed by Mario Trimarchi Image: Courtesy of Mario Trimachi Design

Zohra: What role does a designer play in bringing poetry home?

Mario: I believe it is the primary task. In fact, the design profession can be very dangerous if it is not focused on beauty. Design becomes very useful and almost indispensable if it contributes to the distribution of poetry around the world.  

For Mario Trimarchi, poetry and transcendence is brilliantly captured in the Dalisi coffee maker | Alessi | STIRworld
For Mario Trimarchi, poetry and transcendence is brilliantly captured in the Dalisi coffee maker Image: © Alessi, Drawing by Riccardo Dalisi

Zohra: With reference to the product featured in the video (Riccardo Dalisi's Neopolitan coffee maker), what aspects of it according to you make it a poetic piece of work? 

Mario: The design of this coffee maker clearly wants to tell a story: the ritual of making coffee - the waiting, talking and dreaming, perhaps all together around the table, smelling the hot coffee slowly transpiring from the machine. These hand-welded stars tell us about ever-changing skies, built by skilled artisan hands without the pretence of industrial perfection. They represent the soul of those who built them in dialogue with the soul of those who designed them.  

Zohra: Would you say that poetry surpasses functionality in it's design?

Mario: Perhaps. It's a rare condition, we need to treasure it.

Zohra: Can poetry and functionality inhabit a product in equal measures? Would that be a possibility? 

Mario: My idea today is to consider functionality as a basic fact, rather than a comet that guides us toward the project. It is well established now that objects work well; on the other hand, we are very interested in the surplus of emotion that distinguishes an object as poetic. Therefore, the definition of a great piece of design is addressed to those objects - the bearers of poetry - capable of giving us the miracle of feeling closer to the mystery of beauty.

Also watch: A candid conversation with Mario Trimarchi exploring lesser known facts about him

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