Marco Zanuso and Alessandro Mendini: an illusory opposition

Through the work of two pivotal figures in design and architecture, an exhibition at ADI Design Museum in Milan explores the Italian way to design, its open multiplicity and pursuit of contamination.

ADI Associazione per il Disegno Industriale has opened “Marco Zanuso e Alessandro Mendini – Design e architettura” in Milan. In the vision of Pier Luigi Nicolin, who curated the concept, the exhibition on the two great Italian designers aims to go in an unusual direction: leaving aside the juxtaposition of biographies, the pretext of parallel lives where to find similarities and dissonances, the choice is to disassemble the two characters into multiple themes. A thematic exhibition, therefore, to investigate first of all the trajectories that have animated Italian design, still acting as a structural framework today.

This exhibition features the collaboration of Domus, which provided archival materials, and comes in a time which could be defined as the “shadow cone” following Mendini’s death in 2019, and the recent consolidation of academic literature on Zanuso, who died in 2001.

Apparently, Zanuso and Mendini represent two really distant characters of design. Zanuso the industrialist, Mendini the storyteller. Zanuso the “professional”, Mendini the writer, if not the advertising art director. Zanuso the modern and Mendini the postmodern, in short.

But their work could also be read as two ways of accessing a single and peculiar reflection, two very characterized and personal views on the Italian way to contemporary design. 

domus - zanuso mendini - ADI design museum
Marco Zanuso e Alessandro Mendini. Design e architettura, ADI Design Museum, Milan. Exhibition view, 2022. Photo: Martina Bonetti. Cover picture: portraits of Marco Zanuso and Alessandro Mendini by Matteo Sambonet.

In conversation with Nina Bassoli, Gaia Piccarolo and Maite Garcia Sanchis, curators of the exhibition, several openings emerge rather than possible closures or chances for any intellectual “boxing”. Zanuso and Mendini shared a love of objects – expressed in different ways – and used to act as experimenters who were anything but ideological: extremely phenomenological indeed. They paid great attention to environmental issues and tackled design and architecture through continuous cross-overs, ceaselessly contaminating different disciplinary fields.

domus - zanuso mendini - ADI design museum
Marco Zanuso with some of his most iconic products. Balerna (CH), Archivio del Moderno, Fondo Marco Zanuso. Eredi Marco Zanuso

Marco Zanuso “the modern”, whom we associate with projects such as the Grillo telephone, Brionvega radios or Olivetti and IBM factories, has characterized his career, in Piccarolo's words, with continual incursions into art but above all, while placing his trust in the scientific method, with a vision of the entire planet as a place to be inhabited, anticipating the environmental issues on which design and architecture are now questioning themselves.

Alessandro Mendini, “the postmodern”, the creator of design as a collection (Alessi, Swatch...), of objects as media, anticipates a contemporary attitude: “he is already in some way self-decolonised, with strong themes of internal pluralism”, as Bassoli defines him, a deconstructed designer, opposing the “machista” designer figures of previous decades with an awareness of the fragility of contemporary thought, of its contaminability.

domus - zanuso mendini - ADI design museum
Alessandro Mendini on his Magis Proust armchair (Magis, 2015). Archivio Alessandro Mendini. Photo Carlo Lavatori

It is no coincidence that these two figures reflect a clear and inedited internationalizing turn in Italian design: Zanuso, receiving orders from all over the world, and Mendini with what he called the “call for foreigners” in his projects for Alessi, starting with the Tea&Coffee Piazza in 1984 and continuing throughout his time as a brand art director.

domus - zanuso mendini - ADI design museum
Alessandro M., 2003. Fondo Alessandro Mendini – Collezione Permanente Triennale Milano. Courtesy Archivio Alessandro Mendini.

Their heritage remains in any case very differentiated, almost difficult to define, relating to individual and independent peculiarities (Zanuso), or the narrative matrix of practice (Mendini). Legacies that are therefore very difficult to identify as belonging to some “team”, yet they are essential in defining the specificity of an Italian approach to design – and this is how the circle closes.

domus - zanuso mendini - ADI design museum
Marco Zanuso e Alessandro Mendini. Design e architettura, ADI Design Museum, Milan. Exhibition view, 2022. Photo Martina Bonetti

Divided by themes also in its spatial layout – curated by Studio Sonnoli – the exhibition allows several transversal crossings through objects and images, original texts and drawings, aligning themes that apparently belong to one author, but actually intertwine in continuous cross-reference dynamics creating a common narrative, New Aesthetics with Text and Image, Global Toys with Large Scale, Innovation with Alchemies.

Marco Zanuso e Alessandro Mendini. Design e architettura
Pier Luigi Nicolin
Curated by:
Nina Bassoli, Gaia Piccarolo, Maite Garcia Sanchis
Exhibition design:
Studio Nicolin, Maite Garcia Sanchis, Studio Sonnoli
Lighting design:
ADI Design Museum
Piazza Compasso d'Oro, 1, 20154 Milano
Opening dates:
March 8 – June 12, 2022

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