Enzo Mari, born in 1932 in Novara, northern Italy, studied with moderate enthusiasm: “I was constantly tempted to switch. I asked too many questions,” he said of the period from 1952 to 1956, when he studied literature and art at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan. Obviously he did not find what he was looking for as a basis for his work.
During this time Mari devoted herself more and more to her own studies. Mari’s attention was initially directed to exploring the psychology of the idea and visual perception. Similar to a linguist – he examined and dissected the language of the visual arts – he devoted himself increasingly to design from the mid-1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s he expanded his research to include the development of ideas for new planning structures, dealt with the methodology of design, the role of object design in everyday life and the function of the designer in our world – social-theoretical aspects became increasingly important for his work . 1963-66 Enzo Mari taught at the Scuola Umanitaria in Milan.
Mari’s work can be described in work phases – phases in which he focuses on aspects of the creative world. These work phases initially build on one another, condition, overlap and weave cross connections. This structural arrangement reads as Mari’s own university framework, similar to a basic teaching.
He started with studies and perception models to research structure, color and perspective – the first works were strongly influenced by the metaphysical painting of Giorgio de Chirico – then in the late 1950s and 1960s he devoted himself to the logics of a wide variety of materials in order to maximize characteristics Find efficiency. In “Serie della natura” (1963-76), a series of monochrome, silhouette-like graphics of fruits and animals and the “Calendario” from 1962, the interest in the simplest form manifested itself.
Telling a room with tiles
From there, Enzo Mari approached the exploration of the complex form, with the help of literary, metaphorical approaches. This phase is clearly indicated by “Serie elementare – sistema di 27 piastrelle maiolicate” from 1968 for Gabbianelli – a series of 27 tiles with differently dense line and point structures, with which perspective spaces can be built and told. Investigations into joints, couplings and joints form a second level within the exploration of the complex form. Symptomatic of this phase of work is the Glifo system shelf (1966-67), a shelf made of white plastic panels measuring 35 by 35 centimeters, which are put together using a sophisticated, intelligent toothed strip without any further aids.
With the project “44 valutazioni”, designed in 1977, Mari’s interest in exploring the integral form becomes apparent – the part is seen as part of a whole. 44 amorphous, wooden moldings each stand in their free – seemingly artistic – beauty. When combined, eleven generally readable symbols can be created – for example the symbol of communism (whose ideals Mari felt obliged to): hammer and sickle.
The most visible and radical activities in Mari’s work emerged in the 1970s, when he addressed the possibilities of design as an educational – if you will, world-improving – component for our environment. In “Proposta per un’autoprogettazione” (1974) he developed a series of 19 simple pieces of furniture to build yourself. In a postage-paid envelope, Mari’s office provided one-page assembly instructions free of charge – consisting of a material list and drawings. Simple wooden planks could be put together quickly with a hammer and a few nails. With this, Mari gave the essential impetus for a do-it-yourself movement in design that is flourishing today more than ever. On the other hand, with this proposal he questioned and criticized common consumption, production and distribution mechanisms in the design world.
Unique diversity and curiosity
His work includes over 2000 projects and spans all genres of artistic, graphic, spatial and object-related design. In addition to products and series products for well-known design manufacturers, Enzo Mari developed art exhibitions, branded architecture, branded spaces, children’s books, prototype machines for reflecting on and testing perceptual habits, posters, graphics, comic-like dialogues as miniature theaters, and buses as libraries.
In short: there is hardly anything that Mari has not designed. His work is characterized by an unprecedented diversity and sparkling curiosity about the topic of universal design and can be seen in the close context of the Milanese architecture, design and art scene: Achille Castiglioni, Marco Zanuso, Vico Magistretti, Bruno Munari, Ettore Sottsass Jr . and the artist collectives Gruppo T, Gruppo N and Movimento per l’arte concreta (MAC).
His work was presented at the Venice Biennales in 1967, 1979 and 1986 and Documenta 4 in Kassel in 1968 and was awarded four Compassi d’Oro at the Triennale in Milan. All in all, however, Mari’s work does not have the place in design history that it should have because of its quality, innovation and radicalism.
This may result from the perspective that Mari’s work is difficult to classify due to its many facets, that his projects seem more bulky compared to his Milanese colleagues and that he seemed to like to abandon successful paths once he had taken. Mari was someone who got to the bottom of things, an uncomfortable spirit who was constantly looking for new challenges, the prototype of a researching practitioner, he was a brilliant nonconformist.
The art world is losing two brilliant minds
In 2016, Mari announced that he would bequeath all of his works to the city of Milan. On one condition: It may not be shown to the public for 40 years. A statement that we were not used to from Mari, the angular maestro.
Two days before his death – he succumbed to the consequences of a corona infection – a retrospective of his work opened, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Francesca Giacomelli. The exhibition at the Milan Triennale, which can still be seen until April 18, 2021, will now become a legacy of his lifelong search for a better world, in a political, social and creative sense.
And just one day after Mari’s death, the Italian newspapers reported that his wife, the renowned art critic and author Lea Vergine, had also died at the age of 82. She was one of the most important personalities in Italian art criticism. She was best known for her essays on body art and performance, summarized in “Il corpo come linguaggio” (“The Body as Language”).
With Vergine and Mari, the design and art world is losing two brilliant, critical thinkers – their ideas remain! We can already look forward to access to the Milan archive. The time will come in 40 years!
Andreas Glücker is an architect and researches the Hamburg University of Fine Arts about Enzo Mari.