REDISCOVERED

Enzo Mari’s Willful Obscurity

The Italian design legend, who refused to abide by the rules of his industry, will be celebrated in Milan—and then his archive will disappear for decades.

44 Volutazioni, 1977.

The curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has many fond memories of spending time with Enzo Mari, the iconoclastic Italian designer he interviewed more than 10 times. “One of my favorite games was to go with him to the Salone del Mobile,” Obrist says warmly by phone from London, where he directs the Serpentine Galleries. “We would go to an opening or we would go see a show, and he would start to scream about how bad it was.” One of Mari’s favored exclamations was “Merda pura!” Pure shit!

However, if the Salone opens in Milan this June, as it is now scheduled to, the 87-year-old designer may be one of the stars of the proceedings. Obrist is organizing a Mari retrospective at Milan’s Triennale, telling the story of the designer’s inimitable career through more than 200 works. “I think it’s extraordinary that he’s not a household name,” the curator says, “because there are so many dimensions to him.” (The show was originally set to open in April; the Triennale said it is planning to announce new dates.)

Enzo Mari 4
Enzo Mari
Formosa wall calendar, 1963. Courtesy of Danese Milano.
Enzo Mari

Camicia vase, 1961. Courtesy of Triennale Milano.

Camicia vase, 1961. Courtesy of Triennale Milano.
Enzo Mari

Allegory of death, 1987. Courtesy of National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, Rome.

Allegory of death, 1987. Courtesy of National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, Rome.
Enzo Mari

Delos Ashtray, 1979. Courtesy of Triennale Milano.

Delos Ashtray, 1979. Courtesy of Triennale Milano.
Enzo Mari

Seggiolino Pop children's chair, 2004. Courtesy of Magis.

Seggiolino Pop children's chair, 2004. Courtesy of Magis.

Always fighting against the idea of design as a rarefied object for the wealthy, Mari created industrial products, exhibitions, books, children’s games, and, most famously, his 1974 Proposta per un’Autoprogettazione (Proposal for a Self-Design), a set of diagrams that allow anyone to build sturdy, angular furniture with cuts of pine and some nails. He’d mail the instructions to all who sent him postage. (That project was an inspiration for Obrist’s own Do It project, which, since 1993, has invited artists to write instructions for artworks that others can realize.)

An avowed communist, Mari was also an artist, and showed 44 abstract sculptures at the 1976 Venice Biennale that, when pieced together, form a hammer and sickle. That work will appear in the Triennale show alongside his elegant and streamlined furniture, early artworks he made in kinetic and abstract modes, and even recreations of exhibitions he designed, like a 2008 retrospective of his own work in Turin, Italy. Artists such as Danh Vo, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Dayanita Singh are also readying contributions that pay tribute to Mari.

Proposal for a Self-Design Furniture, 1974. Courtesy of private collection.

If Mari is less well known than he should be, it’s because “he refused to play the game of galleries, of the commercialization of his designs into fetishes,” Obrist says. Mercifully, the show will travel (those logistics are also still being worked out), providing an opportunity for the designer, who quit working a few years ago, to reach a much wider audience.

But those who are unable to see it may have to wait a great deal of time to make Mari’s full acquaintance. Much of the work for the exhibition is coming from his own collection and archive, which he has donated to the city of Milan with an unusual condition: After Obrist’s show wraps, it cannot be shown for 40 years. “He’s so devastated about the current state of design,” the curator says, by way of explanation. The artist Hilma af Klint famously decreed that her abstract work go unseen for 20 years after her death, reasoning the world was not ready for it. With Mari, Obrist explains, “It’s kind of the feeling that the world has been made unready.”

That said, Mari’s philosophies may find a sympathetic audience right now. “He really wants to get rid of this idea of profit, of finance, of industry, of brands, of advertisements,” Obrist says. “It’s a very timely moment.”

This story appears in the March issue of Surface. To experience the complete issue subscribe here.

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