19 November 2020
by Marco Romanelli
Enzo Mari: A two-syllable Christian name coupled with a two-syllable surname. Did this dry, timbral name have special hidden connotations? You expect something completely different from an En-zo Ma-ri than you do from a Luigi Caccia Dominioni or even an Achille Castiglioni. It’s a different story – a story of poverty and of redemption. One of political ideology really put into practice.
Enzo truly was unique, not just for the quality of his work, which was extraordinary, but for the way he presented that work to the world. Enzo was an evangelising missionary, without a God (that would have been too easy!), or rather with a God understood as a combination of beauty and social justice, non-alienating work, and serenity in our relationship with objects.
Objects for Mari weren’t just empty shells or functional structures or even casual accidents. Every single one served as a message in a bottle. For many a long year, Mari, chucked them into the sea, hoping their “content” would end up with people of good will, and regularly being pissed off when it became clear that this miracle had failed to take place and that people went on lapping up vulgarity and clichés, noise and colour. That’s why Enzo was constantly pissed off. That explains why all those of us who had anything to do with him felt a certain ambivalence in the process – we learnt a huge amount, but at the not inconsiderable cost of finding ourselves constantly attacked, derided and put down. To such an extent that some people gave up, leaving him to howl in his lair, preferring to engage with his teachings “at a distance.”
What were these teachings? The most profound, the most topical and the most cogent had to be “design as negation.” Design implies responsibility. Bringing a new object into the world implies a responsibility: it is not to be undertaken lightly. One can’t just add a new “nothing” to the formal nothing already doing the rounds in huge quantities. This means being able to say NO.
But did Mari know how to say no? I really don’t think so, in fact he was hungry for design opportunities. So Mari said yes (not before insulting the entrepreneur offering him the latest opportunity, at length), but it was the method applied to tackling the commission that caused him to say NO to the existing thing when it was useless or wrong or kitsch, and producing a “nothing” (as he put it) that pointed in a new direction: purity, lightness, something that carried a message. This is so true that any one of us can quite simply put it to the test by putting an object designed by Mari into a furnished space - even a wastepaper basket slightly inclined towards the millionth screwed-up ball of paper we’re about to lob at it, or a long, narrow table, as spare as a convent refectory bench, or 16 wood-cut animals, the hippopotamus supporting the elephant – to create a quite different atmosphere. A more rarefied atmosphere, but equally a more necessary one. Give it a go and let me know.
But in the meantime, we will sorely miss that brooding yet kind look, with its black eyes and hairy eyebrows, and that preacher’s beard (as we said, evangelising missionary), which helped conceal the pursing of his lips when wit and amusement prevailed. That signalled the end of the skirmish: once he had yelled CRAP at the world, at all the youngsters and all his colleagues, work could finally commence. Regardless of whether we were exhausted or on the verge of tears ... come on, come on … let’s get going: a design, an exhibition, an article, a poster. Most especially, building a collective consciousness, piece by piece.
Sottsass said, in 1973, that Mari’s objects were like bandages that relieved the pain of our wounds. How true! More than that, his words are spurs, helping us open our eyes to the wounds of the world. Helping us draw our heads out of the design treacle in which we’ve become mired and which always drags us down. That’s why, now that Enzo is no longer with us, we will go on repeating his words, until a chink of light appears at the end of the tunnel (causing him to smile at last).
Top image: Photo Ramak Fazel
Home page: Photo Elliot Erwitt - courtesy Danese Milano