With the loss of Enzo Mari in Milan last Monday, the design world has lost one of its original rebels, a radical proponent of a conceptual design that commits to social causes and aims to be accessible and affordable for all. Mari, born in Novara, Piedmont, on 27 April 1932, studied literature and art at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan from 1952 to 1956. He became as well known for his work for Italian companies such as Danese, Gavina, Artemide, Olivetti and Castelli as he did for his numerous literary publications about critical issues in design.
His book “Autoprogettazione?”, released in 1974, particularly stands out in this regard. It contains handy, straightforward designs for tables, chairs, shelves and beds – all the furniture needed for a home – made from off-the-shelf timber boards assembled without a saw, hammer or nails. Mari held a mirror up to luxurious furniture design with this do-it-yourself series – which long ago reached cult status – and brought the DIY movement to design culture. Forty years later he gave Cucula, the “Refugees Company for Crafts and Design” in Berlin, the right to use, recreate and keep developing the designs.
Bearing in mind that Mari spoke only of “projects” as a young man and for a long time avoided the word “design”, his design practice generally aimed for objects that had easy-to-grasp construction principles and symbolism and that appeared uncompromisingly forward-looking, like manifests in which art, politics, clean aesthetics, practicality and reason all melt into one. “I work for the factory, not the boutique,” the staunch Marxist was happy to explain. He also spent time conceiving of a design that did not harm factory workers or the environment, long before the word “sustainability” became fashionable and ultimately disparaged.
For him, good design was there for everyone; it was never a luxury product. That is also why Mari embodied the archetype of a constantly slightly crabby left-wing Italian intellectual at odds with the state of the world. An intellectual, though, who added a human sense to the word “design” in complex ways by writing, teaching, curating exhibitions and improving things. When asked in a Proust Questionnaire in 1994 what he thought would be the greatest misfortune, Mari answered in his typical style, “Dealing with stupid people all day.”