Enzo Mari is legend amongst furniture designers -- a cranky old radical, chewing over cigars and long Italian syllables as he lacerates the current state of design. Now 85, according to the Wikipedias, he is still best known for his 1974 book Autoprogettazione ?, a DIY instruction manual detailing 19 simple pieces of furniture. Setting out harsh constraints for himself, Mari used only common dimensional lumber fastened with nails, avoiding cuts, joinery, and finishes. The results are severe in form, stripped to an irreducible degree (much like the zip-tie). Pre-internet, Mari then released the designs as a simple, (initially free) book instead of as actual products, in the hope that folks would learn about carpentry, design, and the expression of quality through the process of building.
Recently, I ordered a copy, and after patiently waiting out its transit across the Atlantic, was finally able to get to reading. Given the refinement, wit, and intelligence of his words, most of this post will be direct quotes, as I have nothing intelligent to add. From the introduction:
"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 . . . In 1974, I thought that if people were encouraged to build a table with their own hands, for example, they would be able to understand the thinking behind it.
It is not easy to translate into English the Italian word autoprogettazione . Literally it means auto-self and progettazione-design. But the term self-design is misleading since the word 'design' to the general public now signifies a series of superficially decorative objects. By the word autoprogettazione Mari means an exercise to be carried out individually to improve one's personal understanding of the sincerity behind the project. To make this possible you are guided through an archetypal and very simple technique. Therefore the end product, although usable, is only important because of its educational value." -- p. 5
Even tempered by forty years, that introduction is slyly progressive, poking a thumb in the eye of the design establishment. As the text continues, Mari establishes himself as an irregular, skewering the laziness of both designers and the general public. In one sentence, he sums up a guerilla approach to design, construction, and life far better than I will ever be able to:
"In my job as designer, or rather as an intellectual who contradicts the actual state of things, I try within the network of commissions and projects to 'smuggle in' moments of research and ways of creating the stimulus to free oneself from idealogical conditioning, standard norms, behavior, and taste. " -- p.33
"There's nothing odd about Enzo Mari's proposal. It may appear touched with ingenuousness, or even up to its neck in unrealistic ambitions. So what's this -- from now on we are all going to start sawing tables and nailing planks together? Mari is the first to realize this is a limit, perhaps an insurmountable contradiction: of course, he says, his 'gesture' is undoubtedly utopian . . . but what is a designer to do who so far has fought without success to propose to the industry objects and solid furniture at low cost that could provide an alternative to dominant taste? . . . Should he shut up, stop working? . . . The designer for all his unrealistic ambitions . . . needs instead to try to move within the narrow confines available to him, to take the only route open, i.e. that of the challenge, the provocation, appealing to public directly for support . . . " -- pp. 34-35
G.C. Argan, an art historian and politician, wrote part of the catalog, placing the furniture into a political context. Argan himself vacillated wildly through his own career, starting as a Fascist in the 1930s, then winding up at the other end of the dial in the 1970s, becoming the first Communist mayor of Rome. Mari himself is a self-described socialist, and hasn't been shy about using his work as a political platform. From Argan's review:
"As regards us, with more explicit idealogical and political commitment, Enzo Mari has turned his back on the illuminated entrepreneurs and is proposing anti-industrialist design. It harks back to a pre-artisan, pre-linguistic stage . . . It has social ends: to give away projects, executive drawings. It is not the DIY that the Americans preach about for their free time; by thinking with your own hands, by making your own thoughts you make them clearer . . . To survive [Mari} had to start making the tools with which to build himself a place to live in." -- p. 35
A radical text, an opinionated designer, a soap-box just tall enough to get its occupant into trouble: Autoprogettazione? has all the makings of a durable design meme. Perhaps predictably, it has slipped quietly into the canon, subject of scholarly books, retrospective videos, and inevitable hipster co-option. But then again, it is also still serving its original purpose. The other day, researching makerspaces for my day job, I came across the website for 3rd Ward Philly, and recognized the furniture in all the pictures. Mari himself continues to throw grenades, calling Rem Koolhaas (who was in the audience at the time) a "pornographic window dresser" at a lecture a few years back.
Back then, Mari was engaged in a practice that was far more radical then it is now: subverting the traditional means of production by giving away his designs. Though in his mind he may have been fulfilling a Marxist goal -- putting the means of production back into the hands of the individual -- his work is, in my mind, democratic with a small "d", more Jeffersonian than socialist. He recognized the disruptive power of distributing the instructions to make the thing instead of the thing itself far before MakerBot, Instructables, and all the other innovations made possible by the Creative Commons copyright license.
We should all be so lucky, still able to work and make waves late into life. But we should also keep the fundamentals in mind: it's about the work, not the designer . We are so cult-ish about our design culture these days, watching TedTalks and reading about starchitects, that we forget that praise was once a by-product of one's intellectual rigor and purity of form.
If you have a few minutes, please watch the video below -- it's much better to hear the roar from the mouth of the lion instead of my tinny echo.