Enzo Mari at the Design Museum, London

Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist with Francesca Giacomelli, a major exhibition celebrating the life and work of one of the greatest Italian designers of the 20th century

One of the most appealing aspects of the retrospective is the way it permits the viewer to enter into the mind of an artist and his or her intellectual development over the course of a whole career. The exhibition of the life and work of Enzo Mari (1932-2020), currently showing at London’s Design Museum, explores the designer’s evolution through more than sixty prolific years, from his first beginnings as a student at the Brera Academy of Fine Art and as a painter, right up to the closure of his studio in 2014.
The exhibition currently at the Design Museum was first curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist with the designer and researcher Francesca Giacomelli for the Triennale Milano. The original opened on 17 October 2020, sadly just two days before Mari died from Covid-19. The timing is presumably why no reference is made to his death, even in the present iteration, until the ‘Acknowledgements’ board at the exit.

The exhibition is based on ‘The art of design’, the last one to be curated by Mari himself, which was held at the Turin Civic Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in 2008. Obrist has followed Mari’s idea of displaying around 250 of his works primarily in chronological order, without distinction of medium or discipline. Although such an approach is currently less fashionable than a thematic one, it is very effective for Mari’s work, allowing the viewer to trace the course of his intellectual progress through the meandering sections divisions of the Design Museum’s temporary exhibition hall. Four filmed interviews between Obrist and Mari in the 2000s give the designer an extra presence in the hall, almost as though his ghost were talking.
As a student at Brera, Mari studied painting, sculpture and decorative arts, as well as stage design. In his early work in the 1950s and ‘60s, he painted pictures and constructed models with geometrical patterns that were informed by his experiments into the effect of light on the perception of colour, depth and dimensions, and the creation of perceptual ambiguities. He was among a group of young artists to develop the idea of ‘Programmed Art’, which for him involved producing designs through a detailed sequence of processes including the use of numbered grids on which a single ‘module’ of pattern could be reiterated with variations in size, colour and orientation. The intended effect of this was to enable the viewer to experience a single module which, as it were, moved through space and time, by its changes from one iteration to the next. One of the early exhibitions in which Mari participated was ‘Arte programmata’ (1962), which displayed work in the contemporaneous movements of programmed and kinetic art, and multiplied and open works. Umberto Eco, who himself published a book on The Open Work (Opera Aperta) in the same year, wrote the catalogue, in which he described the exhibits as embodying ‘art and beauty…in the process of “becoming” while we watched it.’

Enzo Mari © Ramak Fazel

In the intellectual context of Italian and wider European culture in the second half of the twentieth century, Mari’s place is further shown by a series of covers that he designed for the Turin publishers Bollati Boringhieri between 1965 and 1992. The books were on scientific and mathematical topics, and authored by luminaries including Einstein. Mari’s abstract, formalised designs were also produced using a method of ‘programming’ that began with a regular 12-square grid. Taking an image inspired by the contents of each book, he repeated it in fragmented variations across the grid, in a procedure that aimed to form an analogy with scientific thought.
Umberto Eco also participated in the dissemination and interpretation of Mari’s work in 1967, when the latter presented an installation called Module 856 at the San Marino Biennale. Module 856 is a hollow wooden sculpture made out of two white, elongated boxes joined together in a shape resembling a number ‘7’ with an extended cross-stroke. Visitors could stand with their heads inside the top of the overhanging box and look at themselves in a mirror on the inside. Eco described the installation as ‘a device to test the reactions of a contemporary art exhibition viewer’, and wrote a wonderfully whimsical ‘survey’ to accompany it that purported to ask viewers three multiple-choice questions: ‘What is this object? Do you like it? What does it mean?’ Possible answers to the final question included, among others, ‘4) it is a complete return to figuration… 8) it is based on the myth of Narcissus… 12) it wants to make the spectator feel uncomfortable…’. Eco also wrote an interpretation of the work in an article for Domus (no. 453), in which he described this large wooden box as ‘not only … an object to contemplate but a modest machine to test the reactions of a visitor at an exhibition of contemporary art’.
Another piece that plays with the relationship between mirrors and the viewer is Specosfera (1965), the title of which suggests both a sphere (sfera) and perhaps a play on ‘mirror’ (specchio) and ‘observatory’ (specola). This is a hollow football-shaped structure made up of PVC discs joined by metal bolts and containing circular mirrors on the inside, each oriented differently. The structure permits the viewer to peer inside and see a fragmented series of infinite reflections, including, disconcertingly, parts of their own head from unexpected angles. Such games with infinity, along with more ‘programmed art’ structures that Mari produced in the 1960s and that seem to move as the visitor passes along, may call to mind the interest in mathematical combination found in the literary Oulipo group, active at the same time, or the drawings of MC Escher (1898-1972) – albeit Mari’s aesthetic is much more austere. Tantalisingly, the exhibition displayed a catalogue written by Mari for the 1981 exhibition Dov’è l’artigiano (‘Where the artisan is’) on the cover of which is a reproduction of of a man holding an impossible cube, taken from one of Escher’s studies for Belvedere (1958).

Enzo Mari Exhibition Photos by Eva Herzog

The qualities of austerity, asceticism and minimalist simplicity are particularly strong in the designs that Mari produced for the industrial manufacturing company, Danese Milano. Starting in 1958, he would work with them for several decades. His designs from 1958-73 drew on his research into ‘experimental manufacturing’, in which he employed mechanical tools and industrial techniques, as opposed to the traditional methods of artisans, to create a new language and aesthetic of design. One of his best-known designs from this period is the Putrella or ‘Girder’ series, in which he converted sections of iron beams into household containers by very slightly bending them. As he put it, ‘for better or worse, this is the allegory of design.’ Another early collection, showing his facility with different materials, is the Paros series (1964) of vases made in white marble, for which a circular saw was used to cut down into the initial block to create reductive abstractions. While the title was appropriate in this case, as Paros was an ancient centre for quarrying marble, the exhibition reveals that Mari, in consultation with Bruno Danese, made the decision to name many of his works after islands just to ‘save time inventing titles’ – an attitude that seems appropriate for objects designed to introduce aesthetic quality into mass production.

Despite the asceticism of Mari’s furniture designs, he also had a playful imagination and an eye for colour. These qualities flash out from time to time, notably in the children’s games that he produced after the birth of the two children he had with his first wife, Gabriela Ferrario (known as Iela with an initial ‘i’). Particularly striking among these is The Fable Game (1957-65), a series of slotted panels containing lithographs of animal scenes, which could be linked together and rearranged so as to enable a child to experiment with new stories and combinations of characters. On a similar theme is 16 Animals (1959), a wooden puzzle block consisting of interlocking creatures in simple but recognisable shapes, which are each thick enough to stand up independently and form part of the child’s own games.
Iela and Enzo also designed two picture books together: La mela e la farfalla, ‘The apple and the butterfly’ (1960), and L’uovo e la gallina, ‘The egg and the chicken’ (1969). Through the metamorphosis of caterpillar and egg into butterfly and bird respectively, with illustrations in simple but appealing block colours embellished details in fine black ink, these books without words stimulate young children’s wonder about the natural world. La mela has no cover page, enabling children to begin to perceive the evolution from grub to butterfly as an endless cycle. As Mari put it, ‘discovering the world and working out one’s own behaviour in it is a condition of childhood’. His books and games were designed to encourage children’s free imaginative play, so that they could understand the world around them – and perhaps, as adults, have the vision to design the world of the future.

Close up of 'The Nature Series' screen prints and Formosa Calendar

Mari’s first marriage would end in divorce. In the 1960s, he met Lea Vergine, a leading art critic and curator, when he was invited to be the graphic designer for the magazine Lineastruttura, which she edited. They married in 1978 and remained together for the rest of their lives. Vergine also died of Covid, the day after her husband.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, Mari became increasingly disgusted with the consumerism of contemporary Western society. His work in this period challenged and criticised consumer values and aesthetics, leading him to be labelled ‘design’s conscience’ by fellow designer Alessandro Mendini. One of his ideas was for the Aggregate lighting system (1972): this consisted of components which could be assembled by the user in 72 different ways. The aim was to give the user maximum freedom in adapting the design to their own needs and so to encourage them to participate in the design process and, through experiment, start to understand why design mattered. In its use of combinations, it might almost be seen as an adult version of The Fable Game. A more extreme development of the idea of user empowerment came with his Proposal for self-design (autoprogettazione) in 1974. This provided a manual of drawings and instructions which would enable anyone who received them to put together their own simple wooden furniture using basic carpentry skills.
Mari’s approach was clearly informed by his political leanings, which are underscored in Atlas According to Lenin (1974), a collection of six ‘maps’, with his graphics and texts by the poet Francesco Leonetti. This presented Marxist-Leninist revolutionary strategy in relation to class division, knowledge production, power relations, the proletariat’s route to power, capitalism, and the ‘liberation of intellectual research from bourgeois ideology’. Regardless of politics, they form a very visually pleasing set of images, with a dynamic interplay of word and image.

Another political poster is Work, from Critique of Separated Intellectual Research (1975), a group of three lithographs created for an unrealised exhibition. Work symbolises Mari’s conception of the relationship between the artistic imagination and the ‘real’ world: the artist, a bearded man, is represented in a drawing in the top half of the picture as imagining the shadow animals that could be made by different hand movements; the bottom half contains a photomontage of a man’s torso and hands moving rapidly between boxes of nuts and bolts. As the caption at the bottom puts it, ‘Intellectual research when it is conducted outside the reality that it intends to transform becomes alienated and destined to produce cultural merchandise.’ In other words, imagination without a serious, practical purpose is merely idle shadow-play, and feeds into the commodification of culture. The recurrence of the animal motif in this picture suggests a contrast with the more positive place of animals in Mari’s children’s games, which allowed greater room for imaginative play for its own sake – or at least for the broader, less ideologically constricted goal of the child’s long-term intellectual development.
A similar mistrust of artistic pleasure for its own sake is perhaps seen in two pieces of Mari’s designed in glass – of which there are, significantly, very few in the exhibition – from a series entitled What to do in Murano (1991), produced by Danese. One of these pieces is a bowl made of two layers of slumped canes in amethyst, yellow and grass green, whose simple, woven-style form recalls the Samos collection of ceramics that he designed in 1973 along similar lines. The other consists of three concentric glass vases, one protruding from another, in transparent amethyst and deep blue. To someone familiar with Muranese glass, there is something unfinished, almost ungainly about these objects. It is as though their designer was uncomfortable with the luxuriousness and extravagance of the whole Muranese tradition – a point also suggested by the somewhat deprecatory title.

Close up of the installation 'Lo zoo di Enzo' by Nanda Vigo

A few of the works on display from the twenty-first century hint that Mari may have allowed his artistic imagination, so sternly chastened during much of his career, a little freer rein in his later years. What culture? (1998), a display of aluminium cards, a form reminiscent of The Fable Game, presents a pantheon of his cultural references: these include images of figures and objects as diverse as Simone Weil, Stonehenge, Edison’s light bulb, a manuscript of Galileo’s, and Bruegel’s Tower of Babel. In the penultimate section of the exhibition is The intellectual work: sixty paperweights (2010), a fantasy work table displaying prints of rough drafts, designs and music by famous people, all held beneath a collection of ‘found’ paperweights – a bronze claw, a few lumps of glass, door handles and old tools – which Mari had amassed over his lifetime. It is thought to be a reflection on how he might preserve his own archive for posterity.

The final section presents a few of the many artists and designers to have been influenced by Mari. One exhibit, Enzo’s Zoo, made in 2020 by artist Nanda Vigo (who also died that year), presents large-scale coloured LED silhouettes in the shape of the animals from Mari’s early jigsaw puzzles, hung one behind another as though in a gigantic toybox. In some ways, this installation might be thought a slightly facile – if not commodifying – response to the seriousness, even in play, with which Mari approached his work; and indeed, reproductions of his 16 Animals and Fable Game can be found in the museum’s gift shop.
On the other hand, Enzo’s Zoo also puts its finger on some of the most aesthetically appealing forms that Mari ever produced. Such a creative, dynamic tension, between the serious and the playful, the analytical and the imaginative, the disciplined and the free, seems, judging by the present exhibition, to have been at the heart of this complex figure, the ‘conscience of design’.

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