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"Design is always education" -Enzo Mari
Artist-designer Enzo Mari was born in Novara, Italy in 1932. He studied art and literature at the Accademia di Brera in Milan, but, self-taught as a designer, began working in industrial design during the 1950s. He opened his own design studio in Milan in 1952, from where he has continued to work for over sixty years. Mari has long been interested in the theoretical role of the designer and objects in everyday life, as well as the broader psychology of visual perception; to that end, he has experimented in a variety of visual arts, even founding the Nuova Tendenza movement in Milan in 1963. A respected theorist and teacher, he taught at the Società Umanitaria in Milan between 1963 and 1966, since which time he has continued to teach both in Italy and abroad.
In 1974 he designed a series of DIY furniture pieces that required just some pre-cut pine and a few nails to assemble. He offered to post the book of instructions to anyone who would send him the cost of the postage, and had thousands of requests followed by 5,000 letters of appreciation. Some of these pieces are beautifully simple, others aggressively clunky. They were not intended as a viable means for the working classes to furnish their homes (in fact some accused him of fascism for making people do more work than they had to). Instead, they were a provocation, a counter-consumerist gesture aimed at making people focus on themselves rather than what was in the shops. For Mari, design is almost always a didactic act.
A lifelong Marxist, Mari often discusses design in terms of its producers rather than its users – it is the workforce he cares about, not the consumers. He worries about how they’ll earn a living in a world whose values are completely warped. He likes to tell the story of a cheap wooden bed that he designed for Driade that didn’t sell “because it was too cheap!” Mari believes design has become distracted by luxury and is caught in a vicious cycle of novelty – mundane observations, except that for him schools are complicit in the problem.
“The problem with form is the search for its soul” -Enzo Mari
The son of an artisan, Mari’s early years were preoccupied with helping to support his family. As a teenager he was a street peddler for whom “being an employee was a dream”. He didn’t go to high school or university, and thanks his lucky stars that he was never “castrated” by a design school. Eventually he enrolled at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan, moving from painting to sculpture to stage design. He finally took up design in the late 1950s, and made a name for himself with innovative exhibition designs and a series of wooden animal puzzles for Danese.
After that came scores of objects for the classic Italian brands: kitchen utensils for Alessi, everything from vases to letter openers for Danese, furniture for Magis and Zanotta. However, he never achieved the kind of success enjoyed by contemporaries like Achille Castiglioni or Vico Magistretti.
Mari was more the intellectual, the polemicist, the thorn in the system’s side. The Autoprogettazione project best sums him up. Its asceticism was a slap in the face of modern life with its ready-to-go plastic taste. One design in particular, a bed crudely cross-braced with bare planks, reads like punk anarchism and looks as though it belongs in a gulag. Mari complains that only one percent of the people who wrote to him about Autoprogettazione understood the project. Often they praised its rusticity, which suited their cabins in the Alps – they simply didn’t get it.
Mari talks about the pillars of “proper” design being “equality” and “the standard”. Comparing that to Ikea he says, “I’ve bought objects from Ikea myself, they are very cheap. But they are cheap because of the blood of the people,” he says, beginning a tirade against the Swedish company’s business practices and what he sees as its exploitation of struggling workers in developing countries – at one point he tosses in the word “genocide”.
Mari despises yes men and compromisers. He makes resistance sound like the only honorable methodology. “Often when I speak with young people they ask me but if you’re so critical why do you do this job?” he says. “And I answer: I do this job because I fight for the right to think. I don’t know if the things I do are so good, if I am so good, but when I fight against all the contradictions that my projects raise then I understand the world – that’s it.”
And there certainly are contradictions. A designer who hates consumerism and merchandise (“the genocide of the brain”). Here we are swiftly negotiating the terms of the post-industrial era and he’s still worrying about “the workers”. Well he’s quite right, industry no longer guarantees you a job for life. The atomized, globalized world of the 21st century must be a worrying place for one of the heroes of the Italian post-war miracle. He contemplates the state of things – population explosion, global warming, immigration – essentially an index of pessimism. No wonder he fantasies sometimes about retiring to a village to make furniture for the locals, simply, “like a baker or a pizza-maker”. In fact, his vision for a successful post-industrial model sounds distinctly like the pre-industrial past – a return to strictly localized production by craftsmen.
Rules. That’s what he thinks we need. That’s what design schools ought to teach, not “creativity”. Design used to be about a common grammar, now “everyone invents his own language”. All he sees is a Babel of creativity. “If someone tells me to be ‘creative’ I just want to give him a punch in the face!”