The Nature Series No. 2: the pear, 1961. Photo: Danese Milano.

Six years ago, back in 2014, I had the chance to sit down with Enzo Mari at his Milanese home. As with all former architecture and design students in Milan, I considered Mari a founding figure, a mythological man who set the basis of a specific approach to design, something every student at the Politecnico di Milano could relate to. As stressed as I was to ask the right questions, I soon realized I was not the one to do the talking.

Mari sat on his Sof Sof chair, took one look at me and seemed to knew exactly what he needed to tell me, the conversation about his work often digressing into personal opinions. I remember leaving the place with a sense of having failed, and never used that material until now. 

A few weeks ago, the world lost Enzo Mari in the cruel sweep of the ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic, and ironically one day after the Triennale di Milano opened a major retrospective of his work, Enzo Mari curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist with Francesca Giacomelli. After hearing of Mari’s death, I revisited my notes from that interview, and realized I’d been wrong not to use them. Mari’s obsession with form and quality, his firm belief in access and design’s social mission, and his opinions about contemporary design leave an important legacy for designers today. 

Born in 1932 in Cerano, a small town near Novara, Mari was the son of very poor, yet supportive parents, who soon moved to Milan to improve their children’s future. At the age of 15, two years into his high school classical studies, Mari’s father fell seriously ill and, as the oldest son, Mari dropped out of school to provide for his family. He did all sorts of jobs, but never gave up on his education, and when he discovered he could enroll in the Brera Academy in Milan without a high school diploma, he jumped on the opportunity. 

At the time, design as we know it wasn’t as much of an interest as it is today, and Mari moved from the academy into the local Kinetic and Programmed Art movements, befriending artists but still dreaming of a steady job with financial stability. He failed to understand why his friends with “ordinary” jobs “just wanted to talk about soccer, cycling and women,” until it hit him—“they all hated their job.” He was after something else; he wanted his work to be all-embracing. 

By the early ’50s Mari had become a good friend of the artist and designer Bruno Munari, who introduced him to Bruno Danese. The Italian entrepreneur was starting to develop Danese into something more than a furniture manufacturer, and had just opened a design gallery in Milan. He became Mari’s first client.

16 animals, an interlocking game produced by Danese Milano, 1959. Courtesy Danese Milano. Photo: Federico Villa.

With Danese, Mari first gained recognition in 1956 with 16 animali, the first of many children’s games he would create to capture his own children’s fleeting attention. 16 animali is a single piece of oak cut in one shot to contain 16 different animal silhouettes, which can be used as a puzzle or played as a classic animal toys game. Mari’s exploration of design for children continued with several games and books, mostly because in this realm he could work with simple concepts and develop his signature raw aesthetic, fully focused on the project, its development, and its social mission.

Even in Mari’s early pieces, you can see what became a defining characteristic of his work: an obsession for understanding form applied to every person’s daily experience, rather than the creation of a beautiful object. “All my life I analyzed where quality lied and I did it through knowledge,” Mari told me, summarizing his lifelong approach to design. “Knowledge entails a reference to history. Without this everything is approximate, close to ignorance.”

A lifelong Marxist, Mari distinguished himself for his incessant need to frame design as a method to solve or improve specific problems rather than create product and profit. The Putrella centerpiece represents a good synthesis of this thinking: Made from a piece of a simple iron beam, the object not only evokes an idea of sustainable design ahead of its time, but also asks its owners reflect on the meaning of the form and its unpolished expressive intensity.  

Putrella series, model A, 1958. Courtesy Danese Milano. Photo: Fabio e Sergio Grazzani.

When I met with Mari, he lamented what he felt like was a lack of this type of thinking in today’s designers. “The problem today is that the ability of the mind to dream—but also the ability to go from a dream, an idea, to its actual realization—has money as the only benchmark,” Mari said. “The idea of creativity doesn’t live in artists only, yet in everybody, a banker, a doctor, a politician […], this idea of equality is completely wrong. It can be accepted when we’re young, but it’s unacceptable once a person gains experience.” 

“The problem today is that the ability of the mind to dream has money as the only benchmark.”

He went on, “I always tend to radicalize a bit, but the human component has disappeared from people’s thinking. Men today are permeated by ambiguous, confused languages. Since most matters of primary survival have been solved, the problem lies in a communication system so deceptive that men overlap the idea of creativity and culture in these language systems. I studied this matter all my life. The problem is that the human race is almost extinct and what we see walking around our cities are human-like cyborgs that conform to the easiest rules without thinking.”

By the end of the ’60s, Mari was already considered a pioneer and a solid voice in the emerging field of industrial design. Though his production as a designer grew incessantly—his design portfolio reaches over 2,000 pieces—it was his own vision of good design that he chased all his life in the attempt to share it with people and enable them to experience objects from another point of view. This desire was translated in his most famous work, Autoprogettazione, a manual of instructions for people to assemble their own furniture that sums up Mari’s vision for an accessible, functional, beautiful, long-lasting, and affordable design. 

“I thought I could pass my thought to everybody, and I worked [toward] this,” Mari affirmed while reflecting on the result of this project, “but I was so wrong, so naive.” What might sound as a nihilistic perspective actually explains how Mari’s direction in both work and life finds its perfect definition in the German term of Gesamtkunstwerk, a comprehensive artwork where personal belief and work are the same, and are aimed to improve society.

It’s not the objects per se, but rather a philosophy constellated by discreet yet exceptional design that defines Mari’s work. The comprehensive Milan exhibition curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Francesca Giacomelli explores this aspect highlighting the designer’s obsessions and extensive theoretical work, giving a glimpse of his overwhelmingly rich archive, the true heart and key to understanding Mari’s work. An archive Mari decided to give to the city of Milan on one condition: its content should not be shown to the public until 40 years after his death. 

Upon Mari’s recent death, the exhibition is now a call to catch up with this design maverick’s thinking. “Design is a scam” he told me in his challenging fashion, while pondering about the danger of digital culture, “a drastic system where the fundamental rules of thinking are already given by its creators, and therefore followed as if we were robots.” 

Forty years from now we’ll see where we stand. In the meantime, we might as well take Mari’s suggestion to keep exploring design’s abilities, functions, and repercussions, and to develop a personal point of view, fight for it, and show it through our work.