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Enzo Mari. Photo: Ramak Fazel.
Enzo Mari. Photo: Ramak Fazel.

Enzo Mari (1932–2020)

Firebrand Italian designer Enzo Mari has died today at the age of eighty-eight, in Milan’s San Raffale hospital. A towering and radical figure in the design world, Mari was as well known for his volatile temper as for his sleek, functional objects, which included furniture, ceramics, kitchen utensils, and games for such storied manufacturers as Alessi, Danese, Magis, and Zanotta.

Born the son of an artisan in Navara, Italy, Mari forwent high school and college entirely, working instead as a street peddler. In 1952, he enrolled at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied painting and sculpture before settling on stage design as his focus. He began designing objects in earnest in the late 1950s; among his best-known creations from this time are the wooden 16 Animals puzzle he designed for Danese in 1957. The following year, he created the Putrella tray from a bent raw-metal industrial beam for the manufacturer. Like many of the objects he would design over the ensuing sixty years, these items are still in production today.

Never one to be bound by the strictures associated with a single field, Mari in the 1960s aligned himself with the Arte Programmata, or Italian Kinetic Art movement, publishing the text-free children’s picture book The Apple and the Butterfly that same decade. He expanded his oeuvre further in the 1970s, publishing a guide to making one’s own furniture from boards and nails, believing that people would better appreciate something they had made with their own hands. In 1976, he contributed to the Venice Biennale a gigantic marble “puzzle” in the shape of a hammer and sickle, a work in line with his lifelong commitment to Marxism.

Mari continued to innovate throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, notably with the 1974 Delfina chair for Driade and the 1985 Tonietta chair for Zanotta, both of which won him the prestigious Italian Compasso d’Oro design award (he would win four of these over the course of his career), and his iconic 1999 exclamation-point-shaped juicer for Alessi, a relatively affordable object found in kitchens the world over.

Affordability was an abiding concern for Mari, a lifelong Marxist whose main interest lay in creating elegant, functional objects from low-cost materials whenever possible. A study in contradictions, 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; Mari continued to work in this vein in recent years even though this imaginary every-worker was well on his way to becoming obsolete, a victim of automation and technology.

Though his two favorite sayings, “Form is everything” and “Design is dead,” were so oft-repeated as to become meaningless, his more barbed offerings, including his description of merchandising as “genocide of the mind,” his assertion that “bread and terrorism” were the only laudable products of the twenty-first century, and his branding of contemporary designers as “lazy” and “shit” outlive him, as does his assertion that in continuing to operate within the system he so despised he was “[fighting] for the right to think.”

Some 250 of Mari’s designs are the subject of an exhibition, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Francesca Giacomelli, which opened Friday, October 17, at the Milan Triennale. The works will be on view through April 18, 2021, and many of them may not be seen for decades to come: Mari donated his archive to the city of Milan, with the stipulation that its contents not be displayed for forty years.