Obituary: Enzo Mari, one of the industry’s greatest masters and theorists of design

The renowned Italian furniture designer, architect, artist, critic and theorist spent 60 years carving a legacy that pervades all creative disciplines.

19 October 2020

Italian designer Enzo Mari passed away in Milan aged 88 on Monday 19 October. The designer enjoyed a 60-year career as one of the design industry’s most prolific and respected practitioners, specialising in furniture but also known for his illustration, art and influential design theory.

Mari was born in 1932 in Cerano, Novara and studied art and literature at the Brera Academy in Milan. His views on art, design and its purpose drew from both the arts and crafts movement and his political views as a communist. Adhering to rationalist principles, in bold contrast to postmodern contemporaries such as Ettore Sottsass, he strived to make furniture that reflected its function and was not only sustainable and accessible but well made and beautiful.

In the 1960s, he published a series of books including picture book The Apple and the Butterfly, about the circle of life and the seasons, and became a prominent figure in programmed and kinetic art, coordinating the Italian Nuova Tendenza movement and its participation in the Zagreb Biennial Exhibition.

In the 1970s, he began to make waves with his furniture design, with the award-winning Sof Sof and Delfina chairs (both for Driade) and Box chair for Castelli, a self-assembly chair with low-cost parts that exemplified his ethos towards design. As did his book Autoprogettazione, a manual for DIY furniture making. Existing as a set of exercises for individuals to make their own furniture out of boards and nails, the book aimed to teach its readers basic construction, the root of “good” design in responding truly to human needs, and how to develop a critical eye towards commercial industrial design.

Mari went on to design over 1,500 furniture and product designs for brands including Driade, Artemide, Zanotta, Magis; and several illustrations and books for children. One of his best-known works is the 16 Animali wooden puzzle he made for Danese, a set of 16 animals made from one continuous cut through a single piece of oak. Mari was also a teacher for much of his career at various institutions in Italy, plus others in Berlin and Vienna.

A huge, 250-piece retrospective of Mari’s work is currently on show in Milan’s Triennale, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist with Francesca Giacomelli. The show features a delve through Mari’s archive alongside specially commissioned tribute works from artists and designers such as Tacita Dean, Virgil Abloh, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Mimmo Jodice and Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.

A catalogue for the show states: “According to Mari, design can only be regarded as such if it also transmits knowledge. His projects, which have withstood the test of time, have been conceived in such a way as to be sustainable – from a material as much as aesthetic perspective – and accessible to all.” It also quotes curator Hans Ulrich Obrist as saying, “For Enzo, everything revolves around the object, and good design alone is destined to triumph”.

Obrist had previously said that Mari “always saw design as inherently political,” and saw him not only as an industrial designer and artist but a “manifesto-writer, a polemicist especially famous for his rages against the design world”.

Mari’s archive will be donated to the city of Milan, however, the donation was on the condition that no one is given access to it for at least 40 years, with the exception of the current show in Milan.


Enzo Mari: Uno, La Mela, with Elio Mari for Danese Milano (Copyright © Danese and Enzo Mari, 1961)

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Portrait of Enzo Mari in 1974, courtesy Adriano Alecchi and Mondadori Publishers.

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Jenny Brewer

Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.

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