Enzo Mari. 25 modi per piantare un chiodo

The autobiography of an almost quixotic figure. Testimony to an ethical focus on improving the environment.

Enzo Mari. 25 modi per piantare un chiodo (Enzo Mari. 25 ways to drive a nail), a cura di Barbara Casavecchia, Strade Blu, Mondadori, Milano 2011 (pp. 171, € 17,50)

"I am convinced," writes Enzo Mari at the opening of his autobiography, 25 ways to drive a nail , "that design corresponds to a deep human instinct like survival, hunger, sex. We are a species that wants to change its environment." More than the sequence of events in Mari's life, which is perhaps the book's pretext rather than its end, the driving force of 25 ways ... is the desire to express this principle through theoretical discussions and concrete examples; the desire, so to speak, to manifest the bridge linking design to human life.
The book follows the life of Mari almost chronologically,  grouped around core themes, often narrated through anecdotes
The book follows the life of Mari almost chronologically, grouped around core themes, often narrated through anecdotes
The book, edited by Barbara Casavecchia, follows the life of Enzo Mari almost chronologically and is grouped around a few core themes that also provide reference points for his work as a designer: from his apprenticeship when, as a young and inexperienced 'gofer,' he alternates his first design work with odd jobs and even a little fraud as a street vendor, to his relationship with art; from his commitment to centering his work on labor conditions—one of Mari's cornerstones—to the disappointment of seeing his principles ignored or perverted by successive generations. From a purely narrative point of view, the story is captivating. It is, after all, the story of an incredibly talented visionary, whose passion and curiosity lead him through the birth and explosion of one of the core disciplines of the 20th century (in terms of its intellectual charge, in terms of its innovation, in terms of its economic power)—design.
The complex layers of information that constitute human knowledge, and therefore the world, and the intellectuals' desire to expand its boundaries  (symbolized by the curved lines)
The complex layers of information that constitute human knowledge, and therefore the world, and the intellectuals' desire to expand its boundaries (symbolized by the curved lines)
And the book's narrative contains some of Mari's anecdotes, which often become exempla , in light of their relationship with his theoretical positions. The one that stands out from the others is the tragicomic tale of the difficulties encountered in assembling an IKEA bunk bed (by the theoretical master of self-design!), rendered impossible by the poor quality of the materials that were necessary for cutting costs. But even more revealing, and just as ironic, is another episode regarding his relationship with the ceramicists responsible for producing the vases designed in 1974 for Danese. The forms of the first production were dictated, in part, by circumstance—by the roughness of materials, by the force of gravity. Following their success, Mari—also with a view to recovering the creativity of craftsmanship—recommended that the ceramicists continue in the same way without following the initial scheme too closely. After some time, when visiting the laboratory, he realized that his recommendation had led them to meticulously copy the deficiencies and inaccuracies of the first models, voluntarily abdicating (due to habit or due to 'alienation') that margin of autonomy that Mari had so striven to give them.
Design corresponds to a deep human instinct like survival, hunger, sex. We are a species that wants to change its environment.
Memories of the  Golden Compass won in 1967 leads Mari to formulate some thoughts regarding the boundaries defining the design profession
Memories of the Golden Compass won in 1967 leads Mari to formulate some thoughts regarding the boundaries defining the design profession
The episode is emblematic of many of Mari's other battles which were always linked in some way to the conquest of autonomy: his own—as a designer reluctant to join groups or schools, also because of the infertile terrain that they offered to his most radical insights—and that of others, such as the autonomy of the workers responsible for the production of what the designer designed, often neglecting their needs and their potential. What emerges from the book is how the consideration of the "material conditions" of production have always been at the center of his practice, to the point of driving him to devise innovative and seemingly counter-intuitive solutions (such as the hinge of the sugar bowl designed for Danese in 1968) to save workers from alienating gestures. Like many positions that Mari illustrates in the book, this may seem almost quixotic today, but what emerges clearly from the book's historic breadth is that it has always been so. It has become like this, just as Mari's utopianism apparently became 'outdated' when the design industry was increasingly subjected to economic constraints. This change, which Mari dates to the 1970s, is what his professional and personal commitment, as recounted in the book, always attempted to limit.
The last chapter of an autobiography that chronicles the hopes that accompanied the life of the designer is dedicated to children, to their conquest of the world from scratch and the theory/practice process, indicated as  a possible "salvation from disaster"
The last chapter of an autobiography that chronicles the hopes that accompanied the life of the designer is dedicated to children, to their conquest of the world from scratch and the theory/practice process, indicated as a possible "salvation from disaster"
It is almost spontaneous to conduct the autobiography of a figure like Enzo Mari to a hagiographic dimension, but on the contrary, 25 ways ... is perhaps above all a history of failures. Not practical failures—from a strictly professional point of view, he was very successful—as much as idealogical failures—of radical projects that were rejected (such as those for Piazza Duomo in Milan in 1984), of invitations to think that were accepted only as provocations (such as Proposta di comportamento , drafted in 1971 with Lea Vergine), of his intuitions that were first listened to and then betrayed. There are, of course, many positive stories (above all, the retraining of the KPM workforce in Berlin through a collective design experience), but somehow, in reading the book, they evoke a darker sensation, the shadow of unresolved hope, a form of tension.

This tension is an ethical tension. The drive to design, says Mari at the book's outset, is the drive to improve one's environment, and as such, it is the inherent human need to adapt, or to adapt it, in order to survive. But no idea of improvement can i can disregard the idea of good ; and only a semantic artifice can distinguish the moral sense of the term from the seemingly more practical one when we say that the function of an object is good , that its production is good , that its design is good . The same ethical tension is perceived—backlit—in the book's style; always terse and clear, educational in intent without being didactic, careful to explain every word and every cultural reference (even the apparently more 'banal' ones) in order to avoid placing barriers on access to a discipline that should be, constitutionally, for everyone. Will this tension get stuck, like the knight's lance, in the blade of a windmill? It seems not. The last chapter of the book is entitled The world saved by children . There is no Epilogue .
Vincenzo Latronico

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