Notes on design: Enzo Mari by Jasper Morrison

In advance of an Enzo Mari exhibition this spring at the Triennale Milano, Jasper Morrison presents a selection of archival drawings and sketches investigates the process of his search for true form and a vintage photographic summary of his key works.

This article was originally published on Domus 1042, January 2020.

My first physical encounter with Enzo Mari’s design was his Box chair. As a young designer, there was something miraculous about a chair which could be sold in a plastic bag no bigger than its seat. I bought one and I still have it.

I greatly admire his conceptual approach to design, and though I am less conceptual in my approach, we share an appreciation of archetypes and arriving at a design by elimination of possibilities. So, I do not claim to be an expert on Enzo Mari, merely an appreciative onlooker who, as a designer, owes part of his education and inspiration to the example his work provides.

Looking back over his work one can’t help thinking that an approach as uncompromising as his would not go well for a young designer these days. So what has changed? Mari describes himself as a designer, or rather an intellectual “who contradicts the actual state of things” and seeks to free us from the constraints of conditioning. He remains a role model for designers seeking a pure and honest approach to the profession precisely because the production of design has drifted so far from his ideal of what it should be, the search for the only possible form for an object to “be rather than seem to be” and only then will a qualitative result have been achieved. Alessandro Mendini claimed Mari was not a just a designer but the conscience of us all.

Enzo Mari, Mama saucepan, Le Creuset, 1970. Photo Enzo Mari
Enzo Mari, Mama saucepan, Le Creuset, 1970. Photo Enzo Mari

I see him in a more quixotic light, as a designer whose projects are never compromised by the industrial or commercial theme of the moment, convinced that sanity will one day return and the consumer will understand the difference. His projects are educational in their aspiration to make us aware of why they are the way they are.

Starting out as an artist and discovering design as a more effective field of action might explain the experimental approach of his work close to the process of artistic creation as his drawings express. What might be termed design’s “age of enlightenment” saw an unprecedented cultural appetite for the project, whereby greater importance was given to the intellectual and conceptual content of a design than to its commercial potential.

In those marketing-free days, producers were closer to art galleries in their service to design.

As design has shed its somewhat elite, cultural role in favour of a larger market, the greatest casualty has been the sense that an object can be something more than purely functional or simply commercial, that it can play an ethical and a cultural role too. Elimination of the superfluous is at the core of Mari’s work. A project to design an object should result in an essential solution without superfluous additions which only serve to disguise the weakness of a concept.

The value of his work and the inspiration it provides, apart from the appreciation of the projects themselves, is to remind us all to see the difference between the real and the fake.  

Jasper Morrison (London, 1959) graduated in design from Kingston Polytechnic and the RCA. In 1984 he studied at Berlin’s HdK. In 1986 he opened his Office for Design in London. Today Jasper Morrison Ltd has studios in London, Paris and Tokyo. He designs an ever-expanding range of things for firms such as Vitra, Cappellini, Flos, Magis, Emeco, Punkt, Camper and Muji. He has published several books and worked on a variety of exhibitions. Every month, together with Francesca Picchi, he will look to design precedent to illuminate the way forward.

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