Enzo Mari – We say goodbye to an old-school design legend

Chris Fordam writes:

Enzo Mari – Photo: Ramak Fazel

I first encountered the name ‘Enzo Mari’ when my old friend and muse Francesca Perani was working for him back in 2000. Why do I refer to him as old school? It’s not  because of the 88 years he reached when he sadly passed away a few days ago (19th October 2020) in Milan, due to Covid-19 (sadly his wife died the day after of the same illness), but moreover how he took a broad approach to design that encapsulates for me what it is to be a designer. Enzo’s talent enabled him to create everything from vases, pencil holders, to furniture, paintings, books and light fittings, always with one eye on sustainability and functionality .

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Known to be a demanding, and some would say difficult, character, Enzo Mari was born in Cerano, Piedmont in 1932, with beginnings that were anything other than ordinary. These were different times, but he rose to great heights even though he did not go to high school or college, instead starting out as a street peddler. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that he attended the Brera Academy of Fine Arts, where he ended up studying stage design after a stint learning painting and sculpture.

I have always been surprised about Italian’s historical inclination to down tools at the slightest whim. Their strange pick-and-mix Marxism, where talk of democracy and freedom occurred whilst simultaneously supporting hardline communist parties; was the world where Enzo declared himself a Marxist, something that drove his design ideals. The objects he designed had to be intuitive, elegant, functional, but importantly low cost.

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Aggregato Floor Lamp by Enzo Mari for Artemide (1970) (designed with handle to move lamp around space).

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Alfiere‘ by Enzo Mari for Artemide (1980s)

According to Artforum  ‘Mari designed not with the consumer in mind, but rather the factory worker producing his objects, whose job he wished to make as easy and pleasing as possible’. I mean, can you imagine how the CEO of a large company would have reacted to those words?  Of course Enzo, don’t worry about us selling anything, you just go and make it easy for the people assembling it ..….

16 Pesci by Enzo Mari for Danese

One of Enzo’s most loved works was born from his collaboration with Danese Milano, a creation called ’16 Animali’ or ‘16 Animals’, as shown in the image below. Each puzzle was made of a rectangular oak wood block in which the shapes of animals were formed.

Whilst Enzo created many modern product and furniture designs for companies such as  Artemide, Alessi, Zanotta, and Danese, he had a philosophy close to that of the arts & crafts movement, and was well known to become intimately involved with the artisans and manufacturers whilst developing his work. I cant imagine how this went down, as he was certainly very opiniated, two of his favourite sayings, “Form is everything” and “Design is dead” became a little overused as he aged, but it was what he believed, oh to have such self-belief !  

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Aggregato SS by Enzo Mari for Artemide – (Modern chandelier with raise/lower counterbalance.)

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To really understand what made Enzo tick, his humility, his provocative nature, some excerpts from an interview made at the opening of an art exhibition in Turin from designboom in 2008 gives you great insight.  

The only possible design project the young understand is the god of merchandise. The design that is wasteful and nothing more than the dump of ignorance and horror. Even if design only touches small productive sectors, the word ‘design’ commonly translates to a quality project, but in almost all cases there is no quality, it is pure mannerism to encrust objects, goods must die quickly to allow for the production of other goods’ .     

If an entrepreneur manages to set up a business for which thousands of workers work, and the product is right this is to be respected, its is an exceedingly difficult job, its risky! People who ask for equality, should know that equality is based on risk. To maintain at least a little of the current welfare, we need to move on to making robust and repairable products, a product must last

For anyone brave (or foolhardy) enough to travel in this period, from October 17, you can see Enzo’s work at La Triennale de Milano, an exhibition curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist with Francesca Giacomelli. Lets hope it stays open until this coronavirus pandemic is over.

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