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Design / Portraits / Enzo Mari, disappearance of a genius precursor

Enzo Mari, disappearance of a genius precursor

At 88, Enzo Mari passed away on October 19. In 1997, he told Intramuros “] ‘try, to be up to intellectual work and I fight against mediocre projects”. Design loses one of its uncompromising and ingenious design activists, who will have worked equally well for Artemide, Danese, Daum, Driade… for pieces that have been reissued many times. Find its incisive tone in the portrait written in 1997 by Cristina Morozzi in issue 73 of Intramuros.

Piedmontese by birth, Enzo Mari, trained at the Accademia di Brera in Milan. From the 1960s, he collaborated with the largest Italian and foreign publishers. In 1974, he appears as an ardent defender of do it yourself with the project “Autoprogettazione” which makes the realization of furniture accessible to all, and where, against a stamped envelope, he offered the splans of his drawings from this collection. to make yourself. Between utopia and activism, Enzo Mari is the forerunner of a practice of Fablab and co-working workshops. In the 1980s, his collaboration with the Driade brand developed exemplary and sustainable collections.

Find the portrait written in 1997 by Cristina Morozzi in the number 73 of Intramuros.


“” Whatever people say, I’m not a Calvinist. “It is with these words that Enzo Mari concludes the interview in his Milan agency where the main references of his professional career are present. The modular ABS bookcase, designed in 1966 for Gavina, filled with architecture and design magazines; the lithographs with the sickle and the hammer from 1973; Piuma cutlery, produced by Zani & Zani in 1992; the Box chair designed in 1971 for Castelli and produced in 1995 by Aleph / Driade, and some historical pieces born from his close relationship with Jacqueline Vodoz and Brunon Danese from 1958.

It’s the truth, Mari is not a Calvinist, even if at first glance he seems a little “bear” and attacks in a polemical tone, preaching the good word with energy. Approaching more closely, we discover another character. A kindness pierces timidly under the stern gaze and reveals a disposition to be moved by the beauty of things and their intimate message.
If the tone is often aggressive, the works of Mari always show a great delicacy, like this tablecloth embroidered with flowers created for Zani & Zani (Macef, September 97). He says he designed it to give in to his publisher’s urges, but I suspect he takes a certain pleasure in creating pieces where feminine qualities dominate. Without radical austerity in him, he is a passionate man, both on a human and political level, convinced above all to be able to change the world, even if he has few illusions about the success of such a plan. .
“In the process of design,” he says, “there are contradictory positions: the human position and the post-modern position, which combine only to better fool you. There is a lack of an intermediate lucid position. This is the one. that I would like to occupy “.

No, Enzo Mari is not a Calvinist because he never tires of repeating: “in my work, I try to give answers to primary impulses like sex and hunger, for me men are animals that have evolved by building prostheses “.
He’s harsh on other people, on “zombie” designers who have never read a book of poetry, on people who think they are on the cutting edge because they are doing something different. He is above all severe towards himself and continually questions himself, even if “today we no longer dispute anything”.
“] ‘tries, he affirms to be at the height of intellectual work and I fight against mediocre projects”. Enzo Mari seeks coherence, engages in exhausting battles, “with producers who do not question themselves, are only interested in the superficial, in difference for the sake of difference, in redundancy”. “To design, he repeats tirelessly, supposes a negation”. This means pruning, removing to find the very essence of the project and the accuracy of archetypal objects, such as the comb and the sickle for example, that no one identified has designed. “The decoration is only repetition. It is like the rosary, he says, a litany that is repeated mechanically”.

Artist, designer, author of some emblematic pieces of design of the last 30 years, Enzo Mari is never satisfied and always dissatisfied. Almost monomaniac in the pursuit of an idea, he is “viscerally attached to utopia” he affirms, “even if at the end, we can only read a very small part of it”, and he invests entirely like a young beginner. He remains an artist even when he is not a designer, because he is sure that “everything we do is political”, he is convinced “that a good project always involves waste-looting, madness. and courage “, because he wants to work for society and not for himself, because he is constantly involved in the battles he is fighting.

Like all those who confront utopias, he was a brilliant precursor: with Metamobile, for example, a collection of poor and basic furniture in kit form, designed for Gavina in 1974; or with Ecolo, an instruction manual for making flower vases by cutting plastic mineral water bottles, produced for Alessi in 1995. Ecolo can be seen as a manifesto of the main prerogative of a good project to push the user to design themselves. “Everyone has to design projects, says Mari, basically, it’s the best way to keep control.”

In 1999 he will receive the design prize in Barcelona, 1 one, after Ettore Sottsass and Achille Castiglioni. At the same time, “Le Printemps du design” will host a retrospective at the Santa Monica Cultural Center. An award that he announces with a certain pride, as if the “system” which has always marginalized him because of his polemical attitude towards production methods finally realizes that his battle was a battle for quality. A quality accessible to all, clear and intelligible, an intrinsic and lasting quality, which encourages respect for the object.

“My most beautiful objects are those which were made by producers with whom I worked well, because the final form of a work always depends on the quality of the production reports which generated it”.

As for him a project consists of purifying, he is often considered as a “minimalist”, however, if we look at his work closely, we realize that it is very different from the minimalist approach of the moment, that by Jasper Morrison, or by Paolo Rizzatto for Luce Plan. In each of his objects, we can read this primary passion which gives the impetus to the project and this utopia that he never ceases to pursue. It is these tensions that make the products interesting.

Today, we talk a lot about relational objects capable of establishing a relationship of complicity with the user. The lines are rounded, in the illusion that the sinuosity will communicate the friendly character. Since its inception, Mari has always sought to establish relationships with the user of his project, not through formal artifices, but by trying to really offer an idea, something worth drawing; we think of the blown glass carafe for Danese, reissued today by Alessi, where each fold of the neck alternates between handle and spout. And this idea, even if it is filtered by the logical foundations of artistic action (especially in the current of programmed art) – which is a state of permanent research – this idea is always clearly perceived. Enzo Mari’s products are permanent, not because they reformulate archetypes, but because they are the difficult outcome of this research, of this need to always find meaning.

“I’m bored,” says Mari, “if I do a project that is just a rehearsal or a marketing trick. I want my work to be a game, work as a game is a declaration of freedom. “. For children, play is indeed a search for identity and expressiveness, which allows them to stand out from the adult world. Through his work as a designer, Mari proves his autonomy vis-à-vis the absurd laws of marketing, systems of mass production, artificial needs that lead to the proliferation of unnecessary objects. His work is a game insofar as he wants to be free. From this freedom, increasingly rare today, products are born that stand the test of time, such as the Adal fruit bowl in vacuum-molded PVC in 1968 for Danese, reissued by Alessi in 1997. Or the Box chair in injected polypropylene published in 1971 by Castelli, reissued by Aleph (Driade) in 1995 his first chair, proposed at the time as a negation of “plastic forms”, made of curves and organic connections and testifying to the frenzied enthusiasm for the “all plastic”. This is a solid chair, with four well-placed legs, which perfectly matches the original chair idea. Today, as plastics find new expressiveness, the “Box” chair looks more contemporary than many others who are desperately trying to be new. This cellar kit is an explicit invitation to build, this invitation that Mari has always launched to the user, and that he considers an active part of the project.
No, Mari is not a Calvinist, he is a dreamer. And it is undoubtedly this attitude so rare, rather disconcerting, which gives him the appearance of a bear. He is a dreamer who would like to live “in a country where there would be three designers, where I would be content to be the third”. Designers who would be in a way the custodians of a culture. “