Enzo Mari (1932-2020), who died last October aged 88, was once described by architect Stefano Boeri as ‘a constellation’. Artist, furniture maker, graphic designer, architect and polemicist, the Italian was at once cerebral, uncompromisingly moral and playful. Many of his most famous creations are timelessly charming objects for children.
Mari was born in Novara, near Milan, and studied art at the Accademia di Brera in the early 1950s. He soon became fascinated by industrial design and sustainability. One of his earliest works was the ‘Putrella’ table centrepiece (1958), made from a length of repurposed industrial iron. It epitomised his lifelong philosophy that design should be both mindful of material resources, and affordable to all.
An ardent communist, Mari was scathing about the modern design industry, which he regarded as obsessed with profit, celebrity and frivolity over substance (he denounced its starrier personalities as ‘publicity whores’). Instead, he believed that in order to be worthwhile, design should communicate knowledge to ordinary people. Functionality, longevity and a respect for everyday human needs were always at the forefront of his mind.
The ‘Putrella’ collection marked the beginning of Mari’s lifelong collaboration with Danese Milano, which still produces many of his works. Among them are the ‘16 Animali’ and ‘16 Pesci’ wooden puzzles (1967) and simple silkscreen prints depicting apples and pears (1963), which are as enchanting to adults as they are to children.
A subtle approach to sustainability is evident in the ‘Formosa’ (1963) and ‘Timor’ (1967) perpetual calendars, and the elegant ‘Paros’ marble vases (1964), which are limited to just 100 pieces per year.
Mari also undertook thoughtful projects with other manufacturers. His ‘Seggiolina Pop’ polypropylene children’s chair for Magis (2004) weighs just 850g – it’s robust, but light enough for kids to carry independently. And in 2011, he created tableware in colourful, eco-friendly resin for Corsi Design. It’s made to order, minimising waste and making each piece unique.
For Mari at his most radical, though, look to his 1974 manual Autoprogettazione?, published by Corraini Edizioni. It contains instructions for making basic, customisable wooden furniture; Mari’s way of rejecting mass production and giving people the ability to build furniture as they needed it. In 2014, Mari permitted ethical craft project CUCULA to sell the designs, which were made by refugees learning new skills.
Mari is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Triennale Milano (until 18 April). It may be the last for a while, as he donated his archive to the city of Milan on condition that it remain sealed for 40 years. The reason? His sceptical view of modern commercialism, and his hope that future generations might see his work through more enlightened eyes. Nevertheless, his designs remain available to everyone – and they’re pure joy. triennale.org
This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration February 2020
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