Los Angeles

Gaetano Pesce, Foam Table, 2014, urethane foam, metal, PVC, 29 1/2 × 58 1/4 × 102 1/2".

Gaetano Pesce, Foam Table, 2014, urethane foam, metal, PVC, 29 1/2 × 58 1/4 × 102 1/2".

Gaetano Pesce

Gaetano Pesce, Foam Table, 2014, urethane foam, metal, PVC, 29 1/2 × 58 1/4 × 102 1/2".

Few buzzwords encapsulate the totalizing ambitions of the data economy as effectively as customization. Indeed, the idea that any given product could be individually tailored to the desires of a particular consumer seems to describe the inevitable end point of an age already defined by algorithmically targeted advertising and on-demand content. And this fantasy is fast becoming a reality in many branches of product design, in which new technologies such as 3-D-printing and robotic assembly promise to retain the low cost and efficiency of standardized industrial production while generating an endless series of unique objects. But as radically futuristic as this may sound, it is nothing new to designer and architect Gaetano Pesce.

More than four decades ago, as a young designer growing increasingly impatient with the lingering hegemony of modern design and its efficiency-based rhetoric, Pesce became fixated on the idea of creating unique pieces of furniture at the same cost of those made on a typical assembly line. This led him to a series of canny subversions of industrial-manufacturing processes, perhaps best exemplified by his iconic Sit Down armchair, designed in 1975 and produced until 1982. The piece was made via a cutting-edge process of injection-molding polyurethane foam then being pioneered for industrial applications. But when Pesce learned that the material was highly sensitive to heat and humidity as it cured, he left the mold open and varied the temperature and moisture content of the air as each chair was being produced. Thus the same quantity of polyurethane injected into the same mold would always expand into a different shape, resulting in an infinite variation of bulbous, puffy chairs coming out of an otherwise identical production process.

As made abundantly clear by the title of the mini-retrospective recently organized by Allouche Gallery, “One-of-a-Kind Iconic Works 1967–2015,” this type of exuberant diversity has remained Pesce’s obsession. Because of his predilection for soft, pliable materials such as resin and foam, Pesce has continued to favor molding, a technique that has been used for standardization for so long that the term itself has become synonymous with form making. But, as he did with the Sit Down armchair, Pesce shows a genius for leaving the molding process open-ended or partially unresolved. For Foam Table, 2014, Pesce dolloped gobs of urethane foam in an eye-popping assortment of vivid, Crayola-like hues onto a flat mold, where they congealed into a miniature landscape of swells and oozes. To turn the resulting cast into a table, he simply flipped it over—revealing a surprisingly glassy and entirely functional surface—and added legs. A similar duality underlies any number of the works that were in the show: SenzaFine Unica, 2011, is an oversize armchair that Pesce made by draping extruded ropes of pinkish-gray polyurethane over a chair-shaped mold, producing a queasily biological mass that looks like something between a tangle and a pile. If current discussions of customization are predicated on the fantasy of total (digital) control over both material and form—nothing less can guarantee the customer exactly what he or she wants—Pesce partially cedes control to the unpredictability of his processes and materials themselves. As a result, the objects he creates are not just unique but contingent, often raw, always genuinely surprising, and endlessly beguiling in their sheer weirdness.

In their emphasis on contingency, Pesce’s works seem, in fact, to have less in common with contemporary design than with the artistic experiments that were unfolding concurrently with his early design work in the late 1960s and early ’70s. An emphasis on chance and the use of amorphous materials, including foam and resin, was characteristic of any number of post-Minimalist practices (including those of Pesce’s compatriots in Arte Povera). But while these practices tended toward the abject and purely oppositional—antiformal, anti-compositional, antirational—Pesce’s work retains an improbable utility, along with a tectonic logic and an attention to detail that seem rooted in his sensibilities as an architect. His practice is as distinct from the pure critique that once characterized the neo-avant-garde as it is from both the pure complicity with the market and the conflation of consumption with the expression of individual identity that drive most product design today. He offers instead an understanding of design as a continually evolving means of reconfiguring the world.

Julian Rose