One of the most thoughtful and intellectually provocative Italian designers of the late 20th century, ENZO MARI (1932-) has proved as influential to younger generations of designers as to his peers as a writer, teacher, artist and designer of products, furniture and puzzle games.
There is a possibly apocryphal story that Enzo Mari once devoted over a year to thinking about – and experimenting with – the design of a single ashtray. He worked on other projects at the same time, but the ashtray was always at the forefront of his mind. When finished, it was praised by Mari’s peers as exceptionally elegant and dramatically different from existing ashtrays. Unfortunately it proved too different for the public’s taste. The ashtray flopped and its only enduring legacy was Mari’s “two-packs-a-day” cigarette habit.
Such conundrums have characterised Mari’s career. As a designer he is too esoteric to have attained the commercial success enjoyed by fellow late 20th century Italian designers such as Ettore Sottsass and the late Joe Colombo. Yet the depth and complexity of Mari’s work ensures that he is greatly admired by the design community and, in his seventies, is still sought out as a designer.
Born in Novara, Italy in 1932, he studied classics and literature at the Academia di Brera in Milan from 1952 to 1956. As a student, Mari supported himself by working as a visual artist and freelance researcher. In a period when Italian design was flourishing as enlightened industrialists collaborated closely with designers to rebuild their businesses, he also became interested in design and painstakingly taught himself about it.
Mari’s approach to design was predominantly theoretical. He was more concerned with its role in contemporary culture and relationship with the user than with becoming a design practitioner. After graduating in 1956 he opened a studio in Milan to continue his studies of the psychology of vision, systems of perception and design methodologies. These studies took physical form when Mari created three-dimensional models of linear elements and planes. Forced to earn a living, Mari made contact with the Italian plastic products manufacturer Danese and agreed to develop a series of mass-manufactured products.
His first project for Danese was 16 Animali, or 16 Animals, launched in 1957. It was a wooden puzzle to which Mari applied his theories of problem-solving to create a group of simply carved animal shapes – including a hippo, snake, giraffe and camel – that join together to form a rectangle. The puzzle marked the start of a long collaboration between Mari and Danese, which continued at the turn of the 1960s with the development of containers and vases. Mari was determined to develop these products for mass production without compromising his belief that the outcome of each design project should be beautiful to look at and feel, while performing its function efficiently. Describing his philosophy as one of “rational design”, he defined his work as being “elaborated or constructed in a way that corresponds entirely to the purpose or function”.
Mari continued his experimental work in other areas of the visual arts notably by founding the Nuova Tendenza group of artists in Milan in 1963. Yet he was equally productive as a designer. In 1962, he began to work with Danese’s signature material – plastic – in a six year-long project to develop a hat stand, umbrella stand and waste bin. By the end of the 1960s, Mari could manipulate plastic so skilfully that, in his hands, it attained a sculptural fluidity. One of his most accomplished plastic products was Vase Model 3087 which Danese put into production in 1969. It was a reversible vase with a central cone to ensure that it functioned equally efficiently as a vase whether standing on its top or bottom. Made from glossy ABS plastic, Model 3087 had such a sensual shape that, to many design critics, it played a decisive role in persuading the public that plastic products need not necessarily be cheap and tacky.
Yet Mari’s interest in design remained predominantly a linguistic analysis of its role as a system of communication. Central to this was his continuing development of puzzles including Il Gioco dell Favole – The Fable Game – in which twelve pieces slotted together to depict forty-five animals, the sun and the moon. Mari saw this as a means with which people could engage their imagination to invent their own stories with the pieces. He designed the curvily abstract pieces in another puzzle – 44 Valuations – to interlock in to the form of a hammer and sickle, once the symbol of communism and the Soviet Union.
By the 1970s Mari expressed his principles in books: both theoretical, such as 1970’s La Funzione della Ricera Estetica, and visual in his series of pictorial “books without words” including The Apple and the Butterly and The Chicken and the Egg.
While continuing his work as a product designer, he also turned to furniture. In 1971, Mari unveiled the Sof Sof chair for Driade in which a single removable cushion upholstered a simple welded rod frame. Equally ingenious was the 1975-76 Box for Castelli, a self-assembly chair consisting of an injection-moulded polypropylene seat and collapsible tubular metal frame which came apart to fit into a box, just as his puzzles interlocked into a rectangle.
During the 1980s when Italian design was dominated by the flamboyant forms and kitsch colours of the Memphis group’s exuberant take on post-modernism, Mari and his thoughtful rationalism seemed dated. His designs of that decade, such as the perfectly plain Tonietta cast aluminium framed chair for Zanotta unveiled in 1985, looked like a carefully calculated antidote to Memphis. Yet the same rigour and restraint revived interest in Enzo Mari’s work during the 1990s, when once again he was acknowledged as an important influence on contemporary design.
By the early 2000s, as Mari entered his seventies, he won new commissions from Muji, the Japanese home store with a rationalist aesthetic remarkably empathetic to his own, and Gebrüder Thonet in Vienna, which invited him to create a contemporary version of its famous late 19th century bentwood chairs. Meanwhile Danese, the company for which Enzo Mari had begun working less than a year after graduating from the Academia di Brera, produced a limited edition of the first fruit of their collaboration – his 16 Animali wooden puzzle.
1932 Born in Novara, Italy
1952 Enrols at Academia di Brera in Milan to study classics and literature. During this period he also works as a visual artist and researcher.
1956 Opens a design studio in Milan where he will execute projects for clients including Danese, Driade and Zanotta.
1957 Designs the first of his wooden puzzles for Danese.
1963 Founds a new artistic movement – Nuova Tendenza – and becomes a teacher at the Scuola Umanitaria in Milan.
1969 Unveils the 3087 Vase made from glossy ABS plastic as a pair of reversible forms for Danese.
1970 Publishes the children’s “books without words” – The Apple and the Butterfly and The Chicken and the Egg with Iela Mari.
1971 Completes the development of the Sof Sof chair with a removable cushion on a welded rod frame for Driade.
1975 Designs the self-assembly Box folding chair which dismantles for storage in a box for Castelli.
1985 After five years in development, he completes the sleek, sparse Tonietta chair for Zanotta.
1987 Designs the Smith e Smith range of stainless steel kitchen tools for Zani e Zani.
2003 Creates a new series of resilient tubular aluminium chairs, including stacking chairs and rockers, for Gebrüder Thonet, Vienna and Poltrona Frau.
Fran?ois Burkhadt, Enzo Mari, Federico Motta Editore, 1997
Iela Mari + Enzo Mari, The Chicken and the Egg, Random House, 1970
Iela Mari + Enzo Mari, The Apple and the Butterfly, Black Board Book, 1970
Antonio d’Avasso + Francesca Picchi, Enzo Mari: Il Lavoro Al Centro, Edizioni Electa, 1999