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Design beyond uniform mass production: he experimented with plastic and felt, loved bright colours, played the joker and anarchist, and never lost any of the radicalism of a child’s imagination: Gaetano Pesce has now died at the age of 84.

By Thomas Wagner

Gaetano Pesce

The ordinary was never enough for him. He never wanted to bore himself or others. Gaetano Pesce, born in 1939 in the Italian harbour town of La Spezia, loved changing roles and enjoyed playing the enfant terrible. Art, architecture and design were not strictly separate disciplines for him, but welcome playgrounds for his alert mind, which liked to provoke, think politically and act anarchistically. In this way, he brought design to life as part of a diverse, colourful and lovable world. At a time when so much seems to be called into question, not least a positively connoted object culture, this is no small achievement.

The Foam-Born Goddess

From 1958 to 1963, Gaetano Pesce studied architecture in Venice and attended the Institute of Industrial Design. It was at this experimental school that he met Milena Vettore, with whom he opened a studio in Padua and founded the “N” group in 1959, which focussed on “programmed art”. He later joined the Radical Design movement, which rejected both consumer design and average taste and attempted to overcome the functionalism that prevailed in industrial design.

Pesce became known as a designer in 1969 with his “Up” armchair, which, as soon as it was released from its vacuum packaging, unfolded like a foam-born goddess into an opulent form. It was a time of pop and love and peace and hopes of liberation, and so the “Up 50” armchair, which alluded to great, prehistoric fertility idols, was immediately named “La Mamma”. It is still disputed today whether the sensual curves of the armchair express criticism of the oppression of women and whether the sphere, which can be used as a footstool, is to be understood as a child or as a symbol of captivity. In any case, the whole thing was unconventional and, not least due to the technology developed by C&B Italia (Cassina & Busnelli) for foaming large-format parts, a break with the traditional production methods of upholstered furniture.

Sessel Up, B&B Italia, 1960
UP 1, © Vitra Design Museum | Photo: Roland Engerisser.

The Golgotha of Mass Design

When Cassina founded “BracciodiFerro”, an offshoot for experimental design, in 1971, Pesce took over the management. With “Moloch”, an ironically gigantic table lamp was created, elevated to the status of an industrial sculpture. Under the motto “Design as commentary”, Pesce also took part in the famous exhibition “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape” at the MoMA in New York in 1972 with a living module.His first experiments with synthetic resin led to the “Golgotha Chair”. Once again, Pesce proved to be a master of allusion and commentary, who wanted to make symbols anchored in the collective memory effective beyond the usual norms.

What other designer would have dared to thematise the suffering of the Christian Saviour? The Golgotha series is dedicated to biblical motifs from the Passion of Christ, with the Golgotha chair referring to Christ’s burial shroud. The chair in the colour of a linen cloth is made of glass fibre fabric, polyester fibres and epoxy resin. To form the seat, the soaked cloth was placed on a cube to harden and the backrest was hung on two hooks. The imprint of a person’s body gave the whole an individual shape – comparable to the imprint of Christ’s body on the Shroud of Turin. On the table in the series, the red-coloured resin, reminiscent of the blood of Christ, seems to drip upwards from the top, as if the gravity of the proportions had been suspended.

A Photo Wallpaper as a Sofa

The cheeky and playful approach of Pesce – who moved to New York in 1980 and set up studios in SoHo on Broadway and Houston Street – is also demonstrated by his Element sofa “Tramonto a New York”, which depicts a sunset over the Manhattan skyline. In “Montanara”, which combines snow-covered peaks with raging waterfalls, the ironist also turned the photo wallpaper into furniture without further ado. Pesce was one of the first to experiment with felt. This resulted in one of his most successful designs: the armchair from the “I Feltri” series. Modest as a king, Pesce, as regent in the land of design, preferred to design thrones rather than simple everyday objects.

Tramonto a New York sofa by Gaetano Pesce | © Cassina | Foto: Luca Merli

A Caffetiera that Pokes Fun at Functionalism

With his “Vesuvio” mocha pot, Pesce has shown with unrivalled clarity how much humour and irony functionalist design can be taken to extremes and transformed into cheerful self-criticism. . As the water in the lower part of the pot evaporates when heated on the hob and the resulting excess pressure forces the boiling water through a funnel insert with coffee powder, whereupon the coffee bubbles into the upper chamber, a caffettiera resembles an erupting volcano. In keeping with the formula “form follows function”, Pesce designed his “Vesuvio” as a mountain massif whose summit has been blasted away, forming a crater of glowing lava with a plume of steam and ash hovering above it.

Funny Fish Design

Pesce’s inventiveness knew almost no boundaries. In 1994, he founded the company “Fish Design”, based in Milan and New York. He produced vases, bowls, mirrors, wall clocks and plates, as well as belts, necklaces and rings in all kinds of resin moulds.

Pesce’s creations were never solely for the eye; their anarchistic spirit is only fully revealed through the touch. Anyone who takes a closer look at the flower vases from “Fish Design”, which are made of solid-coloured synthetic resin, will notice that the designer has essentially deconstructed them. Not forgetting his brightly coloured rings, which appear to be knotted together from thin spaghetti threads, two-coloured plates and many more witty accessories.

Pesce, who was active on Instagram until the end, continued to design tirelessly even in his old age. In 2022, he designed 400 chairs made of synthetic resin for Bottega Veneta, the hottest fashion brand in the world at the time. The project went viral on social media. Each piece of the colourful “Come stai?” collection was unique – and could be purchased online.

‘Come stai?’, ©Matteo Canestraro | Courtesy Bottega Veneta

The Unavoidable Janus-Faced Nature of Design

Pesce never criticised design as a consumer good and mass phenomenon in an abstract way. Instead, he visualised in his objects the attitude he took towards them and the context in which they were created – with all the myths surrounding the fetish of the commodity. With this and his fearless experimentation with materials and methods, he expanded the spectrum of design and emancipated it from its role as a servant of industrial production. His deliberately provisional furniture and objects repeatedly reveal the unavoidable Janus-faced nature of all design. All young designers should remember that this is no reason to become melancholy. “I think,” Pesce once said in an interview, “it’s important that we as designers make people laugh. Even if life is sometimes difficult, we shouldn’t lose sight of that.” Gaetano Pesce died in New York on 4 April.

Directed and Produced by Chiara Clemente for MAD Ball 2023

Exhibition in Milan

On the occasion of the upcoming Salone del Mobile, the exhibition “Nice to See You” by Gaetano Pesce will be on display at the Bibliotheca Ambrosiana from 15 to 23 April – with 30 of his last works created between 2023 and 2024. “In the Sala delle Accademie of the Ambrosiana Library, we are showing that design is not dead,” said Gaetano Pesce about the exhibition.

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