Design is Dead. Form is Everything.
These are two of Enzo Mari’s most famous quotes. The man is known to have said both dozens of times in one sitting during his many lectures and interviews. Among furniture and product designers, he is a living legend for his idealistic designs and his famous disregard toward other designers and art schools. Mari has garnered many prestigious awards, including four Compasso d’Oro prizes, for designing some of the most iconic pieces of furniture and home goods of the 20th-century – and, most importantly, has taught thousands of people how to make their own through his revolutionary manual, Autoprogettazione?.
Born in Novara, Italy, Enzo Mari was raised primarily in Milan. Though his family lived a modest lifestyle, without money to afford even a radio, Mari’s father firmly believed in education, and sent young Mari to the best schools in the area. His father wanted him to become a teacher, encouraging him to read classic works of literature that the family had collected over the years.
In his early teens, Mari became the main breadwinner of the family after his father fell ill. Mari claims to have worked over 30 different jobs during this time, mainly artisan and craftsman work, such as carpentry and metal working, through which he learned many of the skills that guided him toward the field of design. More importantly, the constant need to pick up new talents forced him to understand improvisation when taking on new projects, which proved useful in the future.
This period also developed in Mari a life-long appreciation for the worker. A self-proclaimed leftist and Marxist, he considered pleasing the worker who makes the product one of the biggest objectives when creating furniture. A radical sentiment, perhaps, until one considers that a work will inevitably suffer if the maker does not take pride or pleasure in creating the product. Mari’s focus ultimately helped the consumer by giving them a product that was made with integrity.
Mari’s first works after graduating from the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan, where he studied painting and sculpture while working on stage design, consisted of three-dimensional constructions and geometric paintings. In 1952, he opened a design studio to take on work from several design firms. Mari’s ability to improvise with materials and incorporate spatial dynamics, similar to how a carpenter might build scaffoldings (semi-spontaneous, yet stable and functional) attributed to a collection of unique pieces that helped grow his career.
By 1957, he had become close with Bruno Munari, a well-known futurist designer and artist who is best known for his innovative toys made for children. Working together on exhibitions for Murani and the Danese company, the duo formed a close relationship, and Bruno chose a toy Mari had made to become part of 16 Animali. The three-dimensional wood puzzle featured pieces shaped like various animals that, separately and together, work as essential form. The toy educated the user while maximizing its function (rather than un-usable puzzle pieces, each animal could be enjoyed separately or all together), an objective that Mari applied to all his designs.
The popularity of 16 Animali thrust Mari into a thriving career of product design, primarily for Danese. He created paperweights, trays, vases, lamps and more, all the while concentrating on making products that fit perfectly into mass production. Mari believed strongly in providing products to as many people as possible that were affordable, beautiful and, most importantly, functional, saying “When I create a project, I always want it to last for at least 100 or even 1,000 years.”
In 1968, Mari was asked by Driade to design a sofa bed. At first he was unreceptive to the idea, but then realized that the product was a necessity for the everyday worker. “I wanted to develop an affordable object because someone who lives in a two-room flat is a person without a lot of money. The sofa had to be cheap, but at the same time it had to be of highest quality. […] It was the cheapest of its kind on the market, yet the salesmen did not want to buy it. It was a commercial failure,” Mari told the Finnish furniture company Artek in 2010.
Mari grew restless after the lack of success from his bed sofa. By the early ’70s, designers were not creating for function, but to build a name. According to Mari, “I was so angry that I thought that my work had lost all its meaning. […] An idea came to me. If someone actually tried to build something, they probably would learn. […] Having constructed something with their own hands, they would understand.”
From this realization came the slim manual, Autoprogettazione?, roughly translated to ‘Self-Design’ – which Mari had a hard time accepting. “Self-Design is misleading since the word ‘design’ to the general public now signifies a series of superficially decorative objects,” he wrote in the book’s introduction. The guide includes 19 pieces of furniture with DIY instructions on how to build each. Mari limited himself to only common dimensional lumber and nails, avoiding glue, joints and anything involving advanced carpentry. The free manual was sent to anyone who sent Mari postage. Not only is Autoprogettazione? a guide for the modern consumer, but also an educational trip through Mari’s thought process on design, rooted in a desire to connect directly with his consumer and to help people understand the work and dedication involved in making furniture. It’s filled with visionary musings such as, “The quality-quantity ratio is central to the whole of industrial production: quality is determined when the shape of a product does not ‘seem’ but simply ‘is’. This statement, anything but a paradox, is not understood by most people. And this makes it difficult to execute projects of real worth.”
Autoprogettazione? inspired a new approach to design within culture: Giving the consumer part of the responsibility in the construction of affordably made furniture – and empowering them with the knowledge of how to do so. Over 5,000 letters of appreciation have flooded Mari’s mailbox since the publication of Autoprogettazione?. To this day, it’s considered a classic work for designers and DIY-enthusiasts alike. While Mari may deny it, one cannot think of Autoprogettazione? without seeing the looming essence of Ikea, a company Mari criticizes for using cheap labor to keep retail prices down.
In the last 30 years, Mari has continued to develop products for a long list of companies. In 1985, he designed the Tonietta chair for Zanotta, a simple four-legged chair that is currently part of MoMA’s permanent collection. In 2001, he was awarded his fourth Compasso d’Oro prize for the Legato Table he designed for Bonluxat. That same year, he published Progetto e passione, a collection of biographical stories and ideas, and in 2008, the Galleria di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GAM) in Turin held a retrospective.
Still, Mari has continued to voice his criticisms of the design world. “Form matches the meaning of the object, it is the reason why it has been constructed, and it represents, if done well, its best qualities,” he told Artek. This, he believes, is the objective designers continue to ignore. They strive for a ‘name’ more than functional design. They are told to be creative, when Mari believes they need less creativity and more objectiveness. He is the rule-breaker that believes strongly in rules.
Mari stopped focusing on furniture due to a lack of freedom from commissioning companies. “They say, ‘You are totally free to do whatever you want’ and I say, ‘Can I fire the whole technical department of the company? Can I fire the commercial department, all the marketing, can I change the CEO? If I can do that then I am free. Otherwise you are just taking the piss out of me.’” As that may not be an option for any design firm, we can only appreciate the designs still available from Mari – and, most likely, appreciate them for another 1,000 years to come.