Arturo Carol Quintavalle

Design Friday, Enzo Mari.

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 – and prototyping the design of a single ashtray for Allesi. 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 was a flop and its only enduring legacy was that it contributed to Mari’s “two-packs-a-day” cigarette habit.

Enzo Mari was born in Novara, Italy in 1932. An artist and designer, he studied classics and literature at the Academia di Brera in Milan from 1952 to 1956, and dedicated his attention to research into the methodology of design. As a student, Mari supported himself by working as a freelance artist and researcher. This was a period when Italian design was flourishing as enlightened industrialists collaborated closely with designers to rebuild their businesses after the second world war. This had a significant influence on Mari and he also became quite interested in design and painstakingly taught himself everything he could 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.

Mari’s 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 that included 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”.

As a true philologist of the language of the visual arts, Mari turned his attention to design in the late 1950s, fully aware of the need to work towards a global project of quality with mass culture. The disciplinary complexity of his activities have been commented on by personalities in the world of culture: Enzo Mari thinks creatively and builds logically (Max Bill, 1959), Enzo Mari a philologist of a creative language (Pierre Restany, 1967), Enzo Mari the more he thinks about it (about the crazy, ambiguous, uncertain and slippery “profession” of design) the worse he feels (Ettore Sottsass, 1974), Mari the designer’s conscience (Alessandro Mendini, 1980), Enzo Mari, who works at a systematic level (Arturo Carol Quintavalle, 1980) the various Enzo Mari (six in all) who are known as Tomas Maldonado (1980), Enzo Mari who would be an aesthetic, political and design operator all at the same time (Atenor-Pedio, 1980), Enzo Mari the greatest moral authority in the field of Italian design.

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