words Justin McGuirk
Design started to become art in 1978. That was the year that Alessandro Mendini crossed a rococo armchair with an impressionist painting.
The Proust armchair now stands as a totem of the kind of ironic design that has been so prevalent since the Dutch school of the 1990s. Although Mendini had transformed kitsch into high design, it is actually kitsch for which most people will know him. His Anna G corkscrew, a smiling lady in a plastic dress, is one of Alessi’s most famous products. With its souvenir-shop gimmickry, you wouldn’t assume that it was designed by the leading theorist of Italian postmodernism.
Mendini wasn’t always a designer. He came to prominence as an editor of architecture and design magazines – first Casabella (1970-76), then Modo (1977-81) and finally Domus (1979-85). As an editor, a prolific designer and an architect, most notably of the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, he has a spectrum of experience only equalled by Gio Ponti (another former editor of Domus). When he offers
a trenchant opinion about the disappearance of polemic from design magazines, you know that he knows what he’s talking about.
Mendini is sitting in a kitchen in a showroom off Via Tortona in Milan during the city’s furniture fair. There are four other kitchens in the showroom, all designed by Mendini for Alessi and all newly unveiled to the throngs of visitors. But this kitchen is a bare shell, more like a morgue, and Mendini, a diminutive 75 year old in a black mac buttoned up to the top and round spectacles that magnify his eyes, could be an undertaker in a Mel Brooks movie. He is smiling sweetly, utterly unassuming and entirely unnoticed by the crowd of people pushing past to see his designs.
“I am not a master,” he says gently, carefully unthreading what turns out to be near-perfect English. “Maybe I am an isolated designer, because my approach is very strictly connected with painting – for example, Futurism and Kandinsky and Seurat.” It is not quite humility that prompts Mendini to forgo the idea of being a design “master”, because often his techniques were antithetical to design, such as his taking other people’s works and redecorating them. He did this with the iconic Panton chair in 1998, giving it camouflage colours and relabelling it “Iran”, and of course the Louis XV armchair. It was Georges Seurat’s pointillist style that Mendini appropriated for the Proust armchair. In the same way that it served the impressionist to dissolve a scene, it served the designer to dematerialise the edges of the object, as if to disguise it.
What we have here is an unusually literate form of postmodernism. Mendini doesn’t think it pretentious to relate the chair to the role that textiles play in Proust’s work. This is an artist’s form of design, done with a writer’s wit, and making cultural references with a sophistication that has rarely been achieved in furniture.
But, more than just literate, the armchair was also not a design object in the traditional sense. Other designers, notably Achille Castiglioni, had used “readymades” before, but as a sculptor would, as part of an assemblage. For Mendini, as for Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, to paint an object was to make it his own.
“I wanted to obtain an object without designing,” says Mendini. Why was he against the idea of outright originality, I ask. “Because most of the work has already been done. But also because my name, Mendini, came from ‘to mend’: people that work on what is done,” he says, sewing in the air with an imaginary needle. “This is a kind of joke.”
Mendini trained and worked as an architect before taking the reins of Casabella in 1970. It was under his aegis that the magazine became a vehicle for the ideas of Italian avant-garde design groups such as Archizoom, Superstudio and UFO. His conversation still resonates with the vocabulary of those days: “radicalism”, “crisis”, “rhetoric”. What were the differences between magazines then and now? “Now is no more a time of ideologies. The magazine is more a high-quality catalogue, what can I say? And now the photograph is better.” And the writing? “It’s more information than critique. The magazines today don’t try to look at utopias, they work just for now, with very short new trends.”
Mendini had different editorial agendas at his three magazines. Casabella was devoted to “radical design”, Modo to a multidisciplinary scope and Domus to postmodernism. But, he says, “in my mind was always the idea to design”. In 1976, Mendini was one of the founders of Studio Alchimia [Italian for alchemy], which championed avowedly anti-modernist values in design such as decoration, humour and irony, and which was the precursor of the more famous Memphis group. Ettore Sottsass, Memphis’ leading light and the creator of some of the most brilliant and garishly tasteless furniture of the 20th century, had been in Studio Alchimia before he and Mendini realised that they were ideologically divided.
“Memphis was designing strong objects for status symbols and Alchimia was more eclectic, more easy, more delicate, a kind of feminine design – hermaphrodite design,” explains Mendini. “Sottsass always has been very optimistic and I am not. Maybe this is the most precise difference.” In Mendini’s eyes, Sottsass is a neo-modernist preoccupied with bold, original forms (in other words, a designer in the traditional sense and, in contrast to himself, “a very, very important master”). As a die-hard postmodernist, Mendini’s design was more playfully referential, using figurative representation, as in the toy-like Anna G corkscrew. “I like to use anthropomorphic [imagery], for example, the corkscrew has a face, a smile, it’s a portrait of a person, it’s a mobile performer.” Is it an actual portrait? “Well, when I was a child I looked at my grandmother. She opened the bottle of wine and was a kind of ballerina.”
Mendini’s first piece of architecture was a house for Alberto Alessi, designed in 1979. Alessi remained a steady patron, hiring Mendini to design the Alessi factory in Omegna in 1996 and most recently his country house, currently being built. But Mendini’s most impressive building is the Groninger Museum, designed in 1989. With its neo-Egyptian monumentality, it was a built manifesto of Mendini’s notion that architecture, like design, should connect “symbolism and expressionism”. But he went on to design structures that were less historicist and more personally expressive, such as the Paradise Tower in Tokyo and a series of bus stops in Hanover, Germany.
Although a legendary figure in Italian design, Mendini ultimately picked a loser in postmodernism, and he could easily have been consigned to history by now. But Atelier Mendini, the practice he founded with his brother Francesco in 1989, is as active as ever. The fact that Mendini has just designed a range of kitchens for Alessi is evidence not just of his own vivaciousness but the fact that Italy has failed to nurture a new generation of important designers and is still honouring ancient heroes. Ironically, Mendini’s kitchens have a feel of the zeitgeist about them. They are a riposte to the clinical minimalism that has governed kitchen design since the 1990s. “All the kitchens in the last years were very cold, too minimal, like something for space, not for a house,” says Mendini, who has designed four models: one technical, one rural, one “artistic” and one for young people. “I wanted to connect the new materials, the new way of producing kitchens with a very old tradition of cooking, very emotional.”
I ask Mendini which designers he admires today. “The fratelli Campana,” he says, “because they are very original and very connected with the ethnic culture of their own country but they are also able to connect this culture with the international situation of design.” I ask if he has heard of the young Dutch designer Marten Baas, who burns armchairs and design classics with a blowtorch, and he says that he has. I suggest that Baas’ way of appropriating and reclassifying design objects is very similar to his own. “Why not? Yes,” he says. And then his minders whisk him away.