Exhibition - An Italian Master of Design

This spring, the Design Museum in London pays homage to the masterful Enzo Mari.

REGARDED AS one of Italy’s greatest masters and theorists of design, Enzo Mari (1932- 2020) enjoyed a long and prolific career, during which he created an array of extraordinary works in paper, wood, plastic, glass, pottery, iron, and steel that move effortlessly between the spheres of art, industrial design, architecture and graphic design. He created innovative home and office products, produced children’s games and books, designed exhibitions, wrote manifestos, made art, and taught at universities across Europe. Blending functionality with an elegant economy of form, many of his designs have become modern classics, furnishing homes and museum collections around the world. Mari was also a notoriously contrary man, famous for his rages against the design world, which earned him a reputation as a curmudgeonly firebrand. His scorn for the profit-driven mediocrity that he perceived in much product design was balanced by his own conscientious approach, which through careful investigations of material, form and process, advocated for socially responsible design that was accessible to all.

1953 I luoghi deputati (The designated places) Tempera on paper 70 x 100cm Private collection Photo: Benvenuto Saba

This spring, the Design Museum in London pays homage to Mari with a major exhibition celebrating his remarkable contribution to the world of design (29 March to 8 September 2024). Co-curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Francesca Giacomelli (Mari’s long-time archivist), the expansive retrospective, which debuted at Triennale Milano in 2020, will showcase hundreds of projects from his 60-year career, including prototypes, drawings and other rare material from his vast private archive (donated to Milan’s Centre for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts shortly before his death from Covid-19 complications in 2020). Having grown from years of dialogue and exchange of ideas between Mari and Obrist, the exhibition will provide new insights into the designer’s research processes and the key principles that guided and unified his work. ‘He is the most influential designer of our time,’ says Obrist; ‘The Leonardo da Vinci of our age.’

1957 16 animals Interlocking game produced by Danese Milano in wood in 1959 and later in polyurethane 5.5 x 36 x 27cm Danese Milano Photo: Federico Villa

Mari was raised in rural Piedmont and moved to Milan in 1947, taking on various jobs before enrolling at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in 1952, the only college that did not require a high school diploma. Here, alongside literature, he studied painting, sculpture and stage design, - nding great inspiration in the idealism of the arts and crafts movement. He also developed a strong interest in the methodology of design and the psychology of vision. After graduating in 1956, he worked as an artist, joining the Italian Kinetic Art group Arte Programmata and creating works such as Struttura n. 1065 (1965), a grid of natural and black anodised aluminium squares set at different depths to create an optical illusion of movement. At the same time, he was working with the Milanbased design studio Danese Milano, established by Bruno Danese and his wife Jacqueline Vodoz in late 1957. Described as a ‘long-term project to bring art into everyday life’, its main focus was the creation of small design objects and accessories, including innovative games and books for children.

Enzo Mari

When not creating kinetic art, Mari spent much of his early career developing games and toys, and a generation of children in Italy grew up with his innovative designs. One of his best-loved products was 16 Animali (1957), a puzzle game for preschoolers featuring a variety of stylised animals – monkeys, snakes, camels, elephants, alligators and the like – all jigsawed from a single rectangular block of oak. Commissioned in 1956 while he was working on research and development at Italy’s famous La Rinascente department store, 16 Animali was inspired by Scandinavian children’s toys and took 30 sketches and three prototypes before the design was finalised. While all of the animals slot elegantly together, each one is designed as an object in its own right, encouraging children to use their imaginations to develop creative play. After La Rinascente decided not to manufacture the puzzle, it was picked up by Danese the following year. Initially produced in wood, it was later made with Baydur, a durable, polyurethane resin that reduced production costs while offering a similar look and feel.

1961 The Nature Series No. 1: The apple with Elio Mari Silk-screen print on texilina paper 112 x 112cm Danese Milano Photo: Danese Milano

Mari, who loved to challenge the status quo, once described his approach to design by saying: ‘I take an industrial object, a pure, lovely object, I make a small change, I introduce a discordant element, that is design.’ This was certainly true of Putrella (1958), his elegant multifunctional tray for which he repurposed an industrial I-beam. By gently curving a section of the steel beam at either end, Mari created a sophisticated table accessory that paid homage to the rugged beauty of this utilitarian material. Made for Danese Milano, it is often described as a fruit bowl, though has no prescribed function. By using an object normally seen in the construction industry, Mari succeeded in evoking the architectural scale of the building site on a tabletop and, as with many of his radical designs, it challenged expectations of everyday products. Originally conceived as one of several variations on the I-beam form, the Putrella proved the most enduring, and its shape became something of a signature for Mari, echoed in later products such as the steel Arran Tray (1961).

1958/1969. La mela e la farfalla, printing draft Polychrome print on coated paper 193 x 203mm. Archivio E. Mari, City of Milan, CASVA Photo: Gianluca Di Ioia © Triennale Milano

In the 1960s, Mari and his wife Iela produced a series of books for children about nature and its cycles, including the acclaimed The Apple and the Butterfly (1969), a wordless picture book with striking minimalistic illustrations that tell the story of a caterpillar crawling out of an apple and retreating to its cocoon before becoming a butterfly and then feeding on a flower, which in turn grows into another apple. Originally published as La Mela e la Farfalla (the Apple and the Moth) in 1958, it was designed to help preliterate children understand the world around them. In its first edition, the spiralbound book had no cover; as with the cycles of nature, there is no obvious beginning or end, just the perpetual sequence of seasons, birth, life and death.

1964 The Nature Series No. 4: The panther with Elio Mari Silk-screen print on texilina paper 56 x 112cm Danese Milano Photo: Danese Milano

Mari enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with Danese Milano. ‘Real design is about who produces rather than who buys,’ he once said, revealing something of his attitude towards his products, which he saw as the convergence of designer and manufacturer. Many of his designs for the Italian company are still in production, such as the classic Formosa Perpetual Wall Calendar (1963) in which an aluminium back plate supports individual sheets of printed PVC that are manually arranged to display the date, month and day of the week. The minimal design, Helvetica typeface and grid format allows for clear legibility, while its timeless aesthetic gives it a relevance for the modern office. Available in either red or black versions, it has been translated into many languages and sold all over the world.

1965 Structure 793 small PVC tubes 48 x 40 x 30cm Collection E. Righi

Another of Mari’s perpetual calendars for Danese is the desktop Timor Calendar (1967), the shape of which was inspired by the old railway signals that he remembered from his childhood in the 1940s. PVC cards again represent the days and months but here they are fixed to a central pivot, allowing them to be fanned out in order for the user to select the appropriate combination. Given the number of parts involved, Mari opted for ABS plastic as the primary material, chosen for its durability, low cost and ease of assembly – factors that he felt should take precedence over taste. Nevertheless, he believed strongly that mass production should compromise neither elegance of form nor functionality, and the precision achieved here with the moulded plastic, along with its smooth, shiny finish, has no doubt contributed to the product’s enduring appeal. Yet Mari preferred not to use the calendar himself, saying: ‘I don’t want to have to remember to change the date every single day!’

1958 Iron section bar containers Putrella series, model A Plain iron tray 46 x 13 x 8cm Danese Milano Photo: Fabio e Sergio Grazzani


1963 Formosa calendario perpetuo da parete In natural anodised aluminium and lithographed PVC 31.5 x 31.5cm Photo: Danese Milano

Precision and simplicity became a hallmark of Mari’s plastic products for Danese, evident in designs such as the injection moulded polypropylene Attesa Wastepaper Basket (1971), his melamine Hawaii Egg Cups (1972), and the celebrated melamine Lampedusa Pencil Holder, originally released in 1967 and re-editioned in 2015. He also worked with Anonima Castelli, most notably designing the ingenious selfassembly Box Chair for the company in 1971. Comprising a perforated injection-moulded polypropylene seat and tubular metal frame, the chair is totally collapsible, allowing it to fit in a box for storage and easy transportation. Reflecting Mari’s love of puzzles, the innovative design recalls his earlier products for children while being a fashionable, highly desirable object available in a range of vibrant colours, including cobalt-blue, bright orange and a striking acid-yellow. Rightfully celebrated as a 1970s classic, the Box Chair was hugely successful and helped to further cement Mari’s reputation for intelligent, thoughtful and rational designs that made a personal connection with their users.

1987 Allegory of death Three gravestones, toy cars, soil exhibited at Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Republic of San Marino, during the Modelli del reale exhibition, 11 June – 24 August 1988 Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome

1975 Il Lavoro Second panel of the Critica della Ricerca Intellettuale Separata Lithograph 54 x 45cm Edizioni Il Lavoro Liberato Private collection Photo: Studio Enzo Mari

Another very important consideration for Mari was a­ ordability, which, as a committed Communist, re- ected his belief that good design should be as accessible as possible, enabling people from all walks of life to own beautiful, functional, well-made and lifeenhancing products. One of his most famous projects, and an apt example of his thinking, is the 1974 book Autoprogettazione, a guide to creating well-designed, economical and easy-to-assemble furniture using only rough wooden boards and nails. For Mari, it was less about helping people to produce ‘super cially decorative objects’ than sharing knowledge and cultivating a critical eye through the act of making. Foregrounding the project’s educational rather than pragmatic value, Mari hoped that the process of building practical furniture using simple techniques would nurture an appreciation for the issues connected to the design process and improve people’s ability to evaluate industrially produced objects. The book, which was accompanied by an exhibition at Galleria Milano in Milan, provided readers with instructions for copyright-free chairs, tables and beds, which have been reproduced countless times. Nevertheless, Mari maintained that most people failed to grasp the intention behind the project.

1974 Atlante secondo Lenin: Social Plate, Economy Plate, Geography Plate, Culture Plate, History Plate with Francesco Leonetti Edizioni L’Erba Voglio, 1976 Six lithograph panels, 33 x 45.5cm each Private collection

1969 L’uovo e la gallina, Emme Edizioni Polychrome print on coated paper 215 x 215mm Archivio E. Mari, City of Milan, CASVA

In 1974, Mari collaborated with Dino Gavina’s Studio Simon on the Metamobile project, which focussed on the production of tables, chairs and beds using the 19 Autoprogettazione designs. The furniture was constructed from simple pinewood boards as per the book’s original instructions but black lacquered metal screws, washers and nuts were used instead of nails. The same year, he designed the elegant Rexite Delfina chair, a stackable steel rod chair with removable Kvadrat fabric. The minimal, chrome-plated design was awarded the Compasso d’Oro and, 40 years on, still appears remarkably contemporary. A wide range of Mari’s furniture designs are included in the Design Museum’s exhibition, alongside lesser-known graphic works and early kinetic artworks, giving visitors a full overview of his diverse practice. Reflecting Mari’s belief in design as an interactive process, the retrospective also features a number of hands-on exhibits, where visitors can engage with replicas of some of his best-known designs, revealing the thought and craftsmanship that each piece embodies.

2011-2012 ‘Qualche puntino sulle i’ column Eight final handwritten plates drawn by the author Graphite and pastel on paper 33 x 45cm Published in Wired (from no. 31 of September 2011 to no. 38 of April 2012) Private collection

2009 Project 1810, il puzzle istruzioni per l’uso Photo: Gianluca Di Ioia © Triennale Milano

Mari has inspired several generations of designers and his radical ideas are still shaping contemporary art and design. Indeed, the exhibition’s inclusion of works by international artists and designers such as Adelita Husni-Bey, Tacita Dean, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Mimmo Jodice, Dozie Kanu, Adrian Paci, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Danh Vo, Nanda Vigo, and Virgil Abloh, highlights the farreaching influence that his work has had. The retrospective is a fitting tribute to this colossus of international design and will likely be the last opportunity to see items from his extensive 1,500-piece archive for several decades because, when donating it to the city of Milan, he did so on the condition that it could not be shown again for another 40 years. This, he said, was because it would be at least four decades before a new generation of designers, ‘not spoiled like today’s generation’, would be able to fully appreciate its significance and make informed use of it. Mari was a self-confessed utopian and, in this, we are reminded of his encouragement to aspiring designers to define their own model of an ideal world: ‘The designer cannot fail to have his own ideology of the world. If he has none, he is a fool who only gives shape to other people’s ideas.’

2002 Scale 1:5 P chair kit (Mantua: Corraini Edizioni), Steel frame with photo, technical sheet, nails and balsa wood panels 25 x 365 x 342mm Archivio E. Mari, City of Milan, CASVA

1994 Per forza di levare, ‘Broken vase’ The shape of the vase was obtained by hitting the porcelain cylinder with a mallet 38 x Ø 12cm KPM Berlin Private collection

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