Arts & Affairs Features

First Solo UK Exhibition of Italian Designer Opened at the Design Museum

The first ever U.K. museum exhibition devoted to one of the most significant designers of the 20th century opened at the Design Museum.

The 60-year career of designer Enzo Mari — a pioneer of post-war Italian design — is spotlit in this major exhibition. It is co-curated by Mari’s friend and collaborator, and artistic director of Serpentine, Hans Ulrich Obrist, with Francesca Giacomelli, Mari’s studio project assistant, designer, curator and researcher.

The large-scale retrospective includes the full spectrum of Mari’s prolific output, from his work as a designer, but also as an artist, teacher, critic and theorist. In total, more than 300 objects are on display — most have not been seen in the UK before.

The exhibition — produced by Triennale Milano — comes to the U.K. after debuting in Milan in 2020. The original exhibition opened just before Mari’s death, aged 88. He is remembered as a “giant” of Italian design and a figure whose life and work has inspired generations of creatives around the world.

The vast array of works that visitors can see spans the spheres of art, design, exhibition and graphic design. Hundreds of Mari’s projects are examined, ranging from furniture to conceptual installation-based works, and from product design to graphics. Also on show are his children’s books and games, which were an important aspect of Mari’s output as in his vast creative field, he considered the needs of children just as important as those of adults.

Archival material throughout the show provides greater insight into Mari’s research process, and the key principles that guided and unified his work.

During his long career, many of Mari’s timeless designs went on to fill homes across the globe, as they continue to do to this day. They include his ‘Nature Series’ prints of apples and pears, perpetual calendars in injection moulded plastic, and timeless furniture and kitchenware.

Mari had a firm commitment to creating designs that were accessibe to everyone, and sustainable in both their materiality and aesthetics. This approach was radical for his time, and today he can be seen as a trailblazer for many of design’s and society’s most pressing issues. His seminal instruction booklet “Autoprogettazione” (Proposal for self-design), is one such example, predating open-source design practices.

Underlying much of Mari’s work was a belief that play is, “The activity needed to discover one’s potential and to learn about the world.” After seeing his children playing, he decided to design new toys and games for them. These went on to become some of his most famous works and are highlights of the exhibition. One of his works, ‘16 Animals’ — which he created in 1957 — is a wooden puzzle composed of the silhouettes of sixteen animals, including a camel, elephant and kangaroo. Its production by the Milanese manufacturer Danese, proved so popular that sixteen years later Mari designed another version, ‘16 Fish’, which featured silhouettes of fish, seals, an octopus and other sea creatures. Both puzzles were intended to encourage children to discover through play. Other toys and games Mari created and on display are ‘The fable game’, and ‘The apple and the butterfly’.

Known for his uncompromising beliefs and subversive opinions, Mari has been described as ‘design’s conscience’. His stance was one of activism, calling for a greater social responsibility in design, and access to knowledge. His durable, low-cost and multifunctional objects speak to these beliefs, as do his broader installation-based works.

Hans Ulrich Obrist worked closely with Enzo Mari on a series of interviews in 1990s and continued a dialogue and exchanges with him since. The exhibition is drawn from the final show Mari curated during his lifetime — Enzo Mari: L’arte del design at the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Turin in 2008. It has been expanded to include archival material assembled by Francesca Giacomelli to illustrate the process of creation and the evolution of key projects resulting from Mari’s research.

The projects featured in the show can collectively be considered the most representative works of the nearly 2,000 Mari created during his career. The objects are displayed in chronological order, without distinguishing between disciplines, media or types of research.

The exhibition also includes a number of tributes from contemporary international artists who reflect on Mari’s extraordinary life and legacy through site-specific installations and new, specially commissioned works. These pieces — by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Mimmo Jodice, Dozie Kanu, Adrian Paci, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Nanda Vigo, Danh Vō and Virgil Abloh — make up the final section of the exhibition.

Thirteen London-based, contemporary designers displayed select pieces of their work which demonstrate how their practice has been inspired by Mari’s thinking or his legacy. The designers are Jasper Morrison, Studiomama, Martino Gamper, Industrial Facility, Andu Masebo, Michael Marriott, Special Projects, Jaclyn Papparlardo, A Practice for Everyday Life, Rio Kobayashi, Sound Advice, Livia Lauber and StudyOPortable, and the display — titled “Grazie Enzo: Contemporary Responses to Enzo Mari” — opened on the same day as the exhibition.