HOME / News / Great Masters | Enzo Mari

Enzo Mari Self-Portrait

Great Masters | Enzo Mari

Enzo Mari (portrait)

“I am an artist and I work like an artist, precisely because of this, because I know what art is, I cannot stand sculpture objects because they are only the fruit of applied arts… The artist is the one who gives form to a collective value, in which everyone recognises themselves.”  Enzo Mari

From October 17, 2020 to September 12, 2021 at the Milan Triennale there is an exhibition “Enzo Mari” curated by Hans Ulrich and Francesca Giacomelli. Stefano Boeri, President of the Triennale Milano, describes it as “a constellation”, he says:

“I knew Enzo Mari for a long time because my mother Cini Boeri was an architect and in the 1960s together with Marco Zanuso, Gae Aulenti and then, Alessandro Mendini and Ettore Sottsass he was part of a movement that was historically changing the history of Italian design. So I knew Enzo because he was part of this group, but I also remember him as an extremely solitary creative.” (1)

Enzo Mari exhibition at the Milan Triennale(2021 – Milan – Triennale di Milano – Enzo Mari exhibition curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist with Francesca Giacomelli – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

The two Mari

I can talk about him as two distinct characters, antagonistic and complementary: the designer and the theorist, both of whom can stand each other and use each other. (…)

Mari designer’s logic is that of the tabula rasa, his projects seem to re-solve a problem each time and for the first time, and the character of “solution” often lies in the invention of an unexpected way of solving an old problem. Whether it is a vase, a basket, a sugar bowl, a joint or a chair, Mari’s proposals have the inevitable, they are almost like three-dimensional theorems; their formal quality would like to be a mere accident. In reality, Mari’s attention to form is decisive, but not invasive or prevalent, but rather consequent and measured. Where Mari loves excess is in the role of the theorist. He knows neither mediation nor compromise; his message is apodictic and global. In his words, the act of designing is charged with a general, anthropological, almost transcendent significance. To paraphrase Lenin, he might say “the project is always revolutionary”, but design, I might add, is a weak parody of it. This stubborn totalitarianism and faith in creative reasoning (which allow Mari not to pay much attention to the “glories” of Italian design) are also the mainspring that makes him start all over again each time, even when he implacably engages in a discussion with a new or old interlocutor on the fate of design, its utopias, its weak aestheticisms. Fortunately, the poet’s soul rests attentively at the bottom of this tangled crater.

The two Mari – Text Courtesy Franco Raggi (2)

Described as a “philosopher of design” by Vicky Alliata, Enzo Mari trained at the Brera Academy in Milan. “So: I lived in Brera and I happened to see the exotic world of artists and was fascinated by them. I decided to enrol at the Brera Academy because it is the only level of higher education where you can enter without a high school diploma, only with an entrance exam. At the same time, I read a book on art criticism and didn’t understand a fucking thing…”. (3) In the 1950s he carried out an intense activity with studies on the optical perception of three-dimensional space and visual communication. In 1963 he coordinated the Italian group Nuova Tendenza, which he organised at the Zagreb Biennale. He began working as a designer, with Bruno Munari creating the “Diamante” espresso machine for La Pavoni in 1957. Among dsign objects is the Glifo bookcase for Gavina (1969). In 1970 he authored the book Funzione della ricerca estetica. The Day Night sofa for Driade (1972), the Delfina chair for Driade (1974), the Pecorella armchairs and sofas for Driade (1979). In the same year he published the book Ipotesi di rifondazione del progetto. Also in 1979, invited to the exhibition “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape”, he intervened with a “non-project” and organised a counter-exhibition within the Compasso d’Oro. At that time he was President of Adi. The Tonietta chair for Zanotta (1985).

The Tonietta chair for Zanotta(1985 – “Tonietta” chair for Zanotta – Enzo Mari – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

Consultant for public bodies, for example, for urban furnishings in Milan. He also dedicates himself to teaching. (4) In 2002, the Faculty of Architecture at Milan Polytechnic awarded him an honorary degree in industrial design. His works have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, the Milan Triennale, Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin, the M.I.C. in Faenza, the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Moderna in Rome, the MoMA in New York and the Milan Triennale.

Light and Design

On the website of Ernesto Gismondi’s lighting brand we find lamps designed by Enzo Mari. As early as 1962 Artemide was looking for new design directions, as evidenced by the competition announced by Domus and Adi, for “Four lighting fixtures” (the announcement was published in Domus 398, January, 1963), won by the Città Nuova group of urban architects with the Nesso lamp, which would give the start in 1964 to the production of plastic furniture, and the Polluce lamp by Enzo Mari, in the catalogue since 1965. (5)

  • 1965 – “Polluce” lamp for Artemide – Enzo Mari – Anna Fasolis

Polluce lamp for Artemide(1965 – “Polluce” lamp for Artemide – Enzo Mari – Anna Fasolis – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

  • 1976 – “Aggregato” lamp for Artemide – Enzo Mari – Gianfranco Fassina

Another lamp by Enzo Mari for Artemide(1976 – Aggregato” lamp for Artemide – Enzo Mari – Gianfranco Fassina – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

You have made just one lamp, the “Aggregato” for Artemide, which is not a lamp but a system of lamps where a desire for “non-design” seems to be expressed, very moralistic, but also very ingenious; in your opinion, design – between ethics, aesthetics and technology – which way should it go?

I don’t know what design is. I can tell you what art is, what quality is, but I don’t know what the reference culture of design is or where it is going. Because instead of one reference scenario I have three: Art, Science (which is also technology) and Production Relations.

These three scenarios contain all of man’s knowledge. Fuller says: “design is an abject practice”, and in fact no one is known to have synthesised these three scenarios while design is trying to do so.

Art. Art has the function of denoting man’s dreams; in design, of course, it is applied art.

Technology. Dreams have nothing to do with it, but with the reasons for the material; in design, of course, it is low technology or the simulation of technology.

Production relationships. If design is to improve the quality of life, and life is made up of work, design should improve the quality of work. In reality people develop work in low quality conditions and then dump the desire for quality into the “domestic”. In design, it’s all very well working on a few small episodes, while in mass production the project is imposed by Marketing.

Text Courtesy Franco Raggi (6)

Stefano Boeri defines the “Putrella” centrepiece (1958) for Danese Milano as “perhaps one of the most incredible examples of Enzo Mari’s classicism”. A formal archetype for its essential expressive force, it is considered the paradigm of Enzo Mari’s research and work. Made of transparent painted iron, it is in a limited edition of 100 pieces per year.

The Putrella centerpiece by Enzo Mari(1958 – “Putrella” centrepiece for Danese Milano – Enzo Mari – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

Collaboration with Piero Castiglioni

In the “inspection” folder referring to the project of the exhibition “Enzo Mari e diecimila milioni di alberi di sugi” we find the following photo.

Piero Castiglioni and Enzo Mari at the Milan Triennale(2005 – Milan – Triennale di Milano – Piero Castiglioni and Enzo Mari – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

Enzo Mari claims the urgency of thinking about design in terms of the overall quality of the project. The exhibition recounts the meeting and collaboration of the famous Italian designer with the Japanese company Hida Sangyo, specialised in the production of wooden furniture. The sugi is an autochthonous species of cypress massively used by the Japanese to meet the need for rapid reforestation of areas devastated during the Second World War. In the Hida area, where the spirit of Japanese craftsmanship is still alive, Japanese sugi wood furniture is created by Enzo Mari, the great master of Italian design. Hida Sangyo has long promoted the development of processing techniques: it has succeeded in giving greater strength to sugi wood, which until then had been considered unsuitable for use in furniture because of its peculiar softness. Enzo Mari’s design enhances the pleasantness of touch and the gentle nuances characteristic of SUGI wood. The furniture was presented at the Triennale, the Milanese temple of industrial design, in April 2005.

Dialogue between Enzo Mari and Franco Raggi – 19 January 1992

Doesn’t the word project seem a bit vague? Project of what, when, for whom?…

When people talk about a project, I think they are mistaken because they confuse two absolutely legitimate but different procedures which I call Project proper and Project improper.

The improper project is the one that is mainly taught in schools and is the one where the answer is already given.

Why is it already given?

It is already given because it is in the manuals, because it is implicit in the procedure itself that retraces creative itineraries already experimented and described… Maybe it is a variant of a problem already solved, an evolution of it. When people talk, for example, about what computer-aided design (CAD) will do, about the great achievements and performances and miracles it will perform, I say that it will only do improper Projects, perhaps legitimate, useful, but predictable.

Because it uses known methods and procedures, and a method already contains the answer.

To make a comparison, it is like an engineer who is about to design a bridge with a manual that defines materials, calculation methods, structural types, etc., permissible loads, etc. Whatever solution he finds will already be contained in the manual. Whatever solution he finds will already be contained in the premises.

But designing is also the difficult exercise of choosing the most appropriate, harmonious and unpredictable solution or set of solutions in the infinite range of combinations of project components. A lamp is one of the infinite structural, formal and lighting variants, built around a light bulb. An architecture is one of the infinite possibilities we have of mediating between sunlight and enclosed space, and its result is only known at the end.

And that is legitimate, but the real Project, what I call the Own Project, is much rarer, riskier, uneconomic. I am of course schematising and simplifying, but this is the qualitative core, and the general misunderstanding. The real project is the one for which there is still no answer in the “Borgesian Library”. I use an allegory: it is as if you were entering a dark room blindfolded, and you have no reference points; what do you do?

You tell me

You do a lot of experiments, starting from their materiality you question their theoretical postulates. Like the new-born child, who knows nothing but immediately begins to construct an experimental method. So the more you experiment, the more models you build, the more knowledge you store, the more you have the possibility of recognising the unexpected and the new as it presents itself to you. Like Columbus when he ‘discovered’ America believing he was in India, then in subsequent voyages….

So your method is a kind of simulation of ignorance. Acting on every problem as if you knew nothing, but with an open method of collecting data and relationships.

Yes, and this is basically why I argue with the world of design and those who design it believing they are riding on innovation. Because apart from a few rare cases, in this world of objects that are all different but all the same, all that is done is Improper Design.

Give me an example of an object that is not.

Edison‘s light bulb, the boomerang, “Arco” lamp…

I agree, but these are “inventions”, objects/projects in which a brilliant intuition suddenly shifts the research front and the possibilities of doing things forward.  You cannot think that design is real only if it is always useful and innovative. Beyond the field of inventions, give me an example of a contemporary design object in which you recognise this innovative quality…

For example, Fuller’s geodesic dome for its utopian-technological implications, or Marco Zanuso‘s ‘Black’ television for its symbolic-expressive implications.

Geodesic Dome(Geodesic dome – Richard Buckminster Fuller – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

So you recognise that the language of objects has the capacity to force codes and express new qualities that are not only linked to performance. After all, you began by working in the most abstract and concrete way on languages, i.e. by being an artist, don’t you feel a bit forlorn?

In fact, I have a problem when I have to explain the job I do, because people only accept defined social and professional roles, and I am neither a designer nor an artist… for example, when I drew up the proposal for Piazza del Duomo, you cannot imagine how many people in the industry could not tolerate the fact that that project was being done by someone who did not have a degree in architecture; so if I have to think about who I am, who the artist is, who the technician is, I make this consideration. From the Revolution onwards, the petit bourgeoisie emerges, the multiplication of goods and the culture of kitsch, and art finds itself at a crossroads, either reflecting on itself and its brush, as Seurat did, or on the shit in the world, as Goya did.

Dialogue between Enzo Mari and Franco Raggi (6)

(1) https://triennale.org/magazine/em-stefano-boeri
(2) Courtesy Franco Raggi – I due Mari – published in Flare – Architectural Lighting Magazine – n°6 – September 1992 – page 102Courtesy
(3) Franco Raggi: Dialogue between Enzo Mari and Franco Raggi published in Flare – Architectural Lighting Magazine – n°6 – September 1992 – page 96
(4) Anty Pansera, Dizionario del design italiano, Milan, 1995, Cantini Editori
(5) Alberto Bassi, La luce italiana, Milan, 2003, Electa
(6) Courtesy Franco Raggi: Dialogue between Enzo Mari and Franco Raggi published in Flare – Architectural Lighting Magazine – n°6 – September 1992 – page 96

Leave a Comment

Other Posts

This section is dedicated to design and architectural history. We will attempt with historical analysis to understand the present needs and what will be the future goals. Have a pleasant read and feel free to leave any comments.