Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari

Enzo Mari

Interview by Tim Small
Photography by Marco Velardi

Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari
Apartamento magazine issue #4

The following interview was originally published in Apartamento magazine issue #4.


Milan: I was in a really tight spot when Marco’s iChat bubble came up on my screen, asking me if I wanted to interview Enzo Mari. I didn’t know what to say. Why me? I just didn’t get it. I’ve never been interested in design, or architecture, or chairs and whatnot. To me a chair is something I sit on when I work, read, eat, and watch TV. That’s it. I just don’t care about it and I don’t know anything about it. Now, you might ask me, ‘So why are you bothering me with your thoughts? Why are your words even on this page, guy?’ Well, the answer is simple. I just couldn’t say no to Enzo Mari. Even I—a person who has never set foot in a design store and who doesn’t know the names of more than seven living architects—have total, absolute respect for Enzo Mari. He is a living legend who transcends the boundaries of his practice, whose linear, clean designs are as graceful as his mind and as tough as his no-holds-barred attitude. A man who called Rem Koolhaas a ‘pornographic window dresser’ is a man I couldn’t say no to. So, here is our conversation. We ended up talking about form, the essence of design, capitalism, and the intelligence of children. Enjoy.

Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari

Hello, Enzo. I’m sorry to start with a bummer, but I’d like to come clean and say that I don’t know a thing about design. And that’s that. The good thing is that this allows me to ask the following question genuinely. If you were to convince somebody who doesn’t know anything about design, somebody like me, of the value of your practice, what would you say?

I obviously would have to talk about my own experience. I always try to understand what is objective about design… beyond the obvious interpretations and the myriads of opinions. Sociologists say it’s a suitcase-word, in which everybody puts whatever they want. When I was younger I used to detest the use of this English word, and, while writing, I preferred to use the Italian word for the term project, progetto. That’s because even 50 years ago I already didn’t like anything that was being done. Design should correspond to the essence of form, which is a very different thing from the formalism of ‘art pompier’.

OK, so, what gives rise to the idea of the project?

Well, whenever something that exists is hideous. It’s hideous because it’s a pollutant, or obsolete, or redundant. Basically something could be hideous for various reasons. Ancient projects were created by artists or artisans, in coherence with a humanistic culture that permeated their world, without them being overtaken by industry and the exploitation of the global market. Design has a social responsibility; it should have an effect on collective thought. Those who deal with design have to try to find a new way, to negate what isn’t working. It’s not easy. It’s not easy because whoever does this job is permeated by the banality of collective thought himself. Today we tend to avoid honouring our father and mother, the first of our commandments. This means: honour your history. I don’t mean this rhetorically. History can teach us by the way that it repeats itself. It can teach you how to distinguish what’s correct from what’s not. When we talk about a good project, we talk about an essential shape that could not be any different, that has no alternatives. If it does have alternatives, this means the shape is not essential, it means its shape is, at most, dull, if not awful. When we speak about the quality of the shape in schools we speak about formalism, more or less decorative, about things that are in style, but this is formalism, nobody talks about the form or the shape. And I say this because we know we can never define aesthetics in rational terms.

Why would you say that?

Well, our only references come from masterpieces that were completed hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. Only one or two can be completed in a century, and this is because the perfect shape deals with everything that contributes to its production, which is infinite; that basically means all the knowledge in the real world and in the potential world. We cannot forget that every invention contains the history that leads us to it, like man’s process of knowledge.

Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari
Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari
Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari
Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari

Would you give me an example of what you consider a masterpiece?

Take the Erechtheum. When I see what remains of it, it touches my heart. It’s like seeing God. The form is absolutely perfect. Le Corbusier, before majoring in architecture, went and studied Athens’ acropolis, and that is where he learnt the ropes. I’m not talking about neo-classicism, but that is the quality level we should aim at. I should add one more thing. Aesthetics is a word that sounds very close to ethics. There are actual correlations between these two words. We can write about ethics. Almost all the great philosophers wrote about ethics. We can practise ethics. Simple, down-to-earth people, farmers, they live ethically. But, speaking of a famous person, Gandhi lived ethically. He behaved ethically. When we look at what men have done, we see that only those great masterpieces—Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation rather than the Sistine Chapel or Caravaggio’s paintings—communicate ethics.

So the project, using the word you prefer, is an instrument that can change the world and make it better. I’m curious as to how you would teach something like that.

Projects can only be taught concretely. It can’t be done abstractly, using fragmented, banal theories, but only by intervening critically in a student’s practice. Every time I asked them to choose what to design, they would propose things like—like chairs, say: things that have already been designed thousands of times before. I would say all the time, ‘Look out the window. If everything you see outside is beautiful, and right, and you approve of it, there’s nothing left to design. If there is something that makes you want to choke the designer and the commissioner with your own bare hands, something that horrifies you, that is the reason of your project’.

I like the parallel between beautiful and right. Like you think they mean the same thing.

Almost. Look at your hand. We could look at a child’s hand, or at a girl’s hand, at an old lady’s hand. They are all very different, but you can’t really say that my hand is more beautiful than yours. A hand has to grab things. In order to grab things, it’s made of inner workings, bones, muscles, then the blood that runs through it, etc. It can’t be in any other way. A hand is always right.

And therefore it’s beautiful?

Therefore it’s beautiful. The problem would only arise if I were to paint this hand. If we were to sculpt it. That’s when difficulties arise, because the reasons for that representation are going to be different from those of the natural hand. These reasons would have to be defined with the same quality. It’s right; therefore it’s beautiful. From this point of view, there are no categories of beauty. They can exist if we’re talking on a formalist level, we can say that a thing is more or less beautiful. But we can’t have rules that say how to artificially create beauty.

Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari

During your creative career, how many truly beautiful projects did you design, in your opinion?

I need time to work on things. If somebody else needs two hours, I need a year. But I know very clearly who my masters are: Piero della Francesca or Michelangelo Merisi, and I try to stand up to them. I have that standard of quality, even if I am forced to work on objects that are limited by banal functions. The cultural horizon of Masaccio, for example, is total, absolute, it encompasses everything, it’s infinite. The form that the painter then realises is an essence, and allegory. I try my best, but I am aware of my objective limits. And my projects have to deal with a manufacturing process. Industry is based upon specialisation, and every person that works within it wears blinders. They just need to know their specific little technique and totally ignore the rest of the process, while the key of beauty is the global tension of it. This is impossible to do in industry. You see, industry is a monster; it reduces all of humanity, even those who think they are outside of it, to simple robots.

Let’s talk about children and childhood. I seem to understand you feel limited within the boundaries of the ‘functionality cage’, let’s say.

An object has to respond to its function. For example, a chair needs to obey certain ergonomic dimensions. If I design an ashtray, it needs to be very stable, easy to wash, reliable, and good for putting out a cigarette. Even if the best ashtray possible is not owning an ashtray. In today’s banality, when the market asks for certain things—

OK. Well, I wonder if you followed the same reasoning when you worked on projects for children.

Then my first statement needs to be about children. Look, there is less difference between a 20-year-old Australian Aborigine and a 70-year-old Swedish professor than there is between a three- and a six-year-old child. We’re talking about an evolution that can’t be generalised: from two months up to one year we have one situation, from one year to two and a half years we have a completely different situation, and so on. It’s true that we can talk about this long period of time that we call ‘childhood’, but watch out when you hear the words ‘kid’s room’ or ‘kid’s toys’. There are always several toys, and they are very different from one another. We can’t generalise. You know, I’d give a Nobel Prize to every kid that turns a year and a half.

Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari
Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari

Ha. Why?

The mental capacity in the first year of any human life is superior to Einstein’s as an adult. The new-born baby doesn’t know anything, he doesn’t know what space is, what time is, what language is, and he knows nothing. He isn’t even aware that he has hands, and, not only doesn’t he know a single thing, he doesn’t even know that he himself exists, and you can’t teach him anything. Autonomously, he experiments with movement and he deduces possible descriptions, after which he correlates these descriptions with others and goes out to experience the world again. It’s the process of praxis and theory that is at the very base of all human knowledge.
I am worried about the survival of toys. That kind of dump that is a kid’s room today is completely made of stuff imposed on the child, ugly objects bought by aunts and parents. The child himself never buys anything. And the things we buy them are ‘childish’, usually gifts, so they have to be showy.
Have you ever realised that when you give a toy to a kid, he sometimes doesn’t even look at it, he’s not interested, sometimes he even breaks it? He doesn’t care, because in his experience-process he’s just not there yet, or maybe he’s already past that level. If he’s past that, he doesn’t care whether the little toy is big and yellow and green or that it has little bears on top of it. His problem is knowledge-related. The kid does not play to use up free time; he’s working to know the world. So if he breaks the toy, he breaks it because he’s angry, or just because he wants to see what’s inside of it.
I made a toy, a wooden puzzle, known as 16 Animali (16 Animals, 1959). It was very difficult to piece together, and the animals were very lifelike, not childish, and they became characters in a potentially infinite story. Children love to hear stories. I used to tell a lot of stories to my children, but then after a while, as I had the vocation of never repeating the same story twice, I must say it became very tiring to keep inventing them. So I thought, ‘Why not let the children tell themselves their own story?’ Therefore, I created the card game Il Gioco delle Favole (The Fable Game, 1965), I chose the animal characters from Aesop’s and La Fontaine’s classic fables, and I added some basic scenarios and attached them all to cards, so that the child’s free association and the composition of the animals and scenarios would suggest different stories. I wanted my toys to be freeing, not limiting, without putting dampers on the possibilities of play.

Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari
'16 Animali' (detail), Danese, 1957.
Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari
'Il gioco delle favole' with Elio Mari, Danese, 1959.
Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari
'Il posto dei giochi', Danese, 1961-67.
Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari
'Il posto dei giochi', Danese, 1961-67.

You said the animals in 16 Animali were very lifelike, which brings to my mind your Pop chair in the Me Too catalogue for Magis. It looks like the only object in the whole catalogue that isn’t childish.

First off: before the Pop chair, there was no catalogue. I answered Magis’ request that I make a chair that could be sold for under 100€. So I designed it, and it was what is now the Pop chair, but bigger, for grown-ups. Then we discovered that the material is really cheap, but the production process is really expensive, because they could mould only one chair at a time. The businessman found out that it would have sold for 200€, which was crazy for such a poor, flimsy material. So we thought, ‘What if we make the chair smaller and the machine could put out maybe five or six chairs at a time?’ So we went back to the businessman, and the little chair could have been sold for under 50€ and so we made the first Pop chair for children.
And it works. I gave a couple of prototypes to some friends that have little kids and I discovered this little chair became to them just like Linus Van Pelt’s blanket in Peanuts. You can carry it around, it’s really light, and the child could walk with his tiny chair always with him.

That’s wonderful.

I don’t want to make things in children’s style. I treat children like they are adults and I use my techniques for what they are. I don’t want to be slapdash about the form. I want it to be perfect. So if I design a kids’ chair, I design the object with its shape and with technical reasons and ergonomics in mind, without adding some Donald Duck or some bears on top of it. Why should I treat a child like a moron?

You once said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that the object of design is not to give pleasure to the person who uses the product, but to give pleasure to the workers who produce it.

That’s my utopian idea, to liberate them from the alienation of industry. It’s not such an abstract idea, after all. On the one hand, industries are trying to fire as much as they can because every industrial cost is always measured on the cost of labour. Keep in mind that there’s a common, unbreakable rule among economists: the public pays 3€ for every minute of a worker’s job on the production line.
When you hear politicians talk about how we need to help industries that make investments in technical equipment, it’s a joke, because the industries’ investments finalised are aimed at reducing the human workforce. So, to return to my utopian idea, obviously every worker has a right to a good wage, but he can also ask to feel part of a project. If you talk with workers in car factories, and you ask them what they like of their job, well, if for their whole life they have worked with bolts, they will talk about the essence of that bolt. Making a perfect bolt becomes the dignity of that man’s work. He will never say that he is proud of that particular car model. He will say that he is proud of his bolt.

Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari
Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari
Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari
Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari

I am curious to know your thoughts about IKEA.

IKEA was created 80 years ago by two craftsmen that came up with a catchphrase. They said, ‘We want to make objects that every single person can afford, no matter what his income is’. Which is a good thing, because they did all the work. But today it’s a monster, it’s the biggest sales system in the world. And this monster does not produce the objects directly; it has them made by its consumers. IKEA is a commercial system, not a factory. Things are bought wherever they cost less. Like in China, where a worker gets paid less than a dollar a day. The consumers might be happy about the lower cost of each object, but what about those whose job it is to produce that object?

The only thing I know about good design is that it has to be functional, beautiful, and affordable. Especially affordable. And that’s where the conflict gets interesting, to me: how to make things that don’t cost much for the consumer, who is at the same time a worker and a producer and sales assistant, and therefore has a limited income, who cannot and should not be exploited in the interest of lowering prices. How do you get over that tension, that balance?

In the Italian design industry—in the more decent ones—all contracts are national: I know it’s not much, but it’s always better than black market labour or Chinese labour. Italian design objects are expensive because the shops look like art galleries rather than shops, and also work like galleries, in that they don’t care about the mass market. They have really high costs. Some of them really exaggerate. Anyway, you brought up a major issue: the design object, as a good, is only available to a limited number of people.

In Social Killer, Mark Ames makes a parallel between people that go postal on their workplace and kill their colleagues, and slave’s revolts. He says that capitalism is, essentially, a form of slavery and therefore that these people who go insane and kill everybody are essentially to be seen as slaves revolting against their masters. What do you think of that?

Capitalism, paradoxically, is worse than slavery. Wherever there was slavery, there was the possibility for that slave to be freed, even if he was not treated as a human and could be sold and traded like an object. And he was also, ideally, cared for with a roof and meals for his whole life. Comparing that to the situation of manual labourers in modern capitalism, well, you know, vaffanculo.

Apartamento Magazine - Enzo Mari
art, interview
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