Enzo Mari, Industrial Designer Who Kept Things Simple, Dies at 88


This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Enzo Mari, an irascible industrial designer, artist and polemicist who made simple, beautiful objects, including toys and traffic bollards, that delighted generations of Italians and design buffs all over the world, died on Oct. 19 at a hospital in Milan. He was 88.

The cause was complications of the coronavirus, said Hans Ulrich Obrist, who, with Francesca Giacomelli, curated a major retrospective of his work at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan, which opened two days before his death. Mr. Mari’s wife, Lea Vergine, an art critic, theoretician and performance artist, also died from the coronavirus on Oct. 20, at 82.

Mr. Mari was known as much for his grumpy pronouncements on the state of design — which he disdained as mostly unnecessary and a waste of labor and material — as for his own designs.

His most beloved works include an elegant platter made from a slightly bent I-beam (a functional art piece that presaged Donald Judd’s explorations by a few years); a cunning puzzle of 16 animals jigsawed from a single piece of oak; a perpetual calendar that worked like old traffic signals, with days and months printed on plastic cards that pivot out; and a do-it-yourself handbook and anti-industrial manifesto for making furniture using only nails and standard lumber (no need for fancy joinery, or a fancy designer).

That all of these things became collectibles for design aficionados was particularly irritating to him.

Deeply imprinted by the Marxism of the era he grew up in, and by his family’s impoverished beginnings, Mr. Mari fretted about the nature of work and the suffering that came from so-called alienated labor. He wanted to make things that were useful, but that would also bring pleasure to the worker who manufactured them.

He was annoyed by fame, too; he once slammed Rem Koolhaas, the well-known Dutch architect and urban theorist, as “a pornographic window dresser.” In response, Mr. Koolhaas shook his fist at Mr. Mari. (It was in 2006, and the two men had been invited to speak at the Serpentine Gallery in London by Mr. Obrist, the gallery’s director, who said recently that their behavior was more theatrical than aggressive, like two lions growling at each other.)

Along with Ettore Sottsass, Vico Magistretti, Cini Boeri, Andrea Branzi, and Pier and Achille Castiglioni, Mr. Mari was a leader in the postwar generation of industrial designers whose work for Danese, Olivetti, Alessi, Artemide and other forward-thinking companies produced what Mr. Obrist called “the Milan Miracle.”

“Here were risk-taking manufacturers who hired these visionary designers,” Mr. Obrist said in a phone interview. “They were all very different, but they all believed that world-class design should be for everyone. That it shouldn’t be a luxury thing. Mari was the most extreme; he really wanted to get rid of this idea of commerce, industry and advertising.”

Mr. Mari also made paintings, sculptures, posters, manifestoes, manuals, games and what artists call “propositions.” For an art fair in the late 1960s, he made a conceptual gallery for one person: a giant cantilevered box with a mirror inside, the top of which fit over one’s head. The point was that what was on view was your own reflection. It came with a questionnaire, written with the Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco, that read, in part:

What is this object?

a) it is a work of art b) it is not a work of art c) it is a device for psychological experiments

Do you like it?

x) I like it y) I do not like it z) it irritates me

“Many of Mari’s works are masterpieces — rare combinations of intellectual puzzles and beautiful lines,” the British product designer Jasper Morrison told the design critic Alice Rawsthorn for The New York Times in 2008. “Most designers who analyze problems to the extent that he does end up with rather dry, systemized solutions. His works are highly original and uncompromising, with a kind of poetic and heroically human touch.”

Among his most humble and humane designs are the cement “panettone” bollards that have dotted the Milan streetscape since the 1980s. Named for the Milanese cake from which they take their shape, the bollards are ubiquitous and adorable, and useful not just for organizing vehicular traffic but also as an impromptu bench to plop down on for a quick smoke or sandwich.

“They are one of the most beautiful elements of the city,” Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, said in a phone interview. “To me Enzo Mari means Milan. It’s not easy to make something that becomes part of everybody’s lives.

“People always talk about him as a curmudgeon,” she continued, “and it’s all true, but I always found him so poetic and romantic. Maybe it was an armor.”

Enzo Mari was born on April 27, 1932, in Novara, Italy. His father, Luigi, was an orphan who at 15 traveled on foot with his younger brother from Puglia to Milan and lived on the streets there. Luigi apprenticed with a barber and a shoemaker and eventually opened his own business, a combination cobbler and barber shop. Enzo’s mother, Carolina (Stagnoli) Mari, worked in a rice field and later in a textile mill.

Enzo and his two younger brothers grew up in Milan. When his father became ill, Enzo dropped out of high school to support the family, working as a peddler and doing odd jobs.

He attended the Brera Academy of Fine Art — because, he said, it was close to where his parents lived and did not require a high school diploma. He took courses in painting, sculpture, decoration and stage design; he wasn’t interested in theater but ended up there after art professors complained that he asked too many questions.

After graduating in the mid-1950s, he was among a group of young avant-garde artists who made what they called Arte Programmata, or kinetic art. Two of them, Mr. Mari and Bruno Munari, went to work for Danese Milano, an industrial design company whose owners, Bruno Danese and Jacqueline Vodoz, shared their goal of producing beautiful, useful objects for everyone, not just the rich. Social transformation in a fork, so to speak.

Over his long career, Mr. Mari also designed for Alessi, Artemide, Muji and Le Creuset, among many other companies. He was a design professor at the Humanitarian Society School in Milan in the early 1960s. He was awarded the Compasso D’Oro, or Golden Compass, Italian industrial design’s highest honor, four times.

He also made children’s books with his first wife, Gabriela Ferrariol, an illustrator and designer he met in art school, who went by the name lela (with a lowercase “l”) Mari. They had a daughter, Agostina, and a son, Michele, who survive him. His survivors also include Meta, his daughter with Ms. Vergine, and two brothers, Maria and Elio.

For the museum retrospective, Mr. Obrist and Ms. Giacomelli chose 250 objects, a fraction of the 1,500 items that make up Mr. Mari’s creative archive, which he donated in its entirety to the city of Milan with a caveat that it not be shown for 40 years. (The show is up until April 2021, after which the curators hope it will go on tour.)

“I am convinced, like a slightly optimistic child, that it will take 40 years before we have a new generation that is not as spoiled like today’s generation,” Mr. Mari told Mr. Obrist in an interview included in the show’s catalog. “I am extremely hopeful that in the near future there will be a generation of young people who will react and take back control of the profound meaning of things.”

By Penelope Green

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