words Justin McGuirk
Italian designer and architect Gaetano Pesce was in London recently to relaunch his 1969 UP chair. He met up with icon for a few frank words on meaningful design, boring architecture and the beauty of the badly made.
In the 1960s, when you started out, the Italian design industry was a closed shop. Now Italian manufacturers still dominate but the designers are more likely to be British, Dutch, French … what do you think about Italian design today?
Italian design is losing a little bit of energy. But on the other hand, Italian design is not made only by creative people, it is also made by the manufacturers – without them there was no Italian design, so if they can allow English designers to express themselves, or Dutch or whoever, it means that Italian design is still a force. Dutch designers still go to Italy. I welcome the day when Dutch manufacturers become curious, or English manufacturers. Where are they?
The UP chair is extremely suggestive. Can you explain the design?
Well, first of all it was a time to experiment because Italian manufacturers were competing to see who was the most advanced. So I came up with the idea of using a resin sponge. But there was also something more private: a chair was just functional, for sitting. If it’s broken then we just throw it out. But a chair is a document of its time. It can express other things than just form and function, like a political point of view. I wanted to express an important issue: the difference between men and women. Women have always been victims of what the masculine world thinks of them. So I made a chair that was a female body chained to a ball – a prisoner. And it was interesting because some people interpreted it as the mother and child, or as a sex symbol. But what was important to me was to see that people were ready to receive a message and to make an interpretation, for people to see that industrial designers had the right to express themselves and that these objects can carry meaning.
Your work is often compared to Pop art. How close to it were you?
Pop art was the most advanced expression in art at that time and for sure there was a connection but really they were working for other reasons. Me, I was convinced that the art of our times was closer to the factory, to industry and technology. The expression was much more complex than my making a piece of art in my studio: that is very limited, very romantic. Pop art was the last romantic art movement.
It took a while, though, for you to make explicitly figurative works like the spaghetti lamp and Sunset in New York sofa. We were coming from an abstract tradition and in architecture it’s still like that. But our time is using more and more images, the universal language. I thought “we have to use the image, and the image if possible has to be ordinary”. We always think that art is very important, that the subject of art is up there but we forget that Mozart made music for people to dance to. We shouldn’t let things get too complicated; let’s talk about a lamp that reminds you of spaghetti, let’s stay simple.
You were also working during the Radical Architecture movement in Italy, which was against functionalism and high modernism. Was this your agenda too?
We had something in common. Today architecture is very monolithic and totalitarian. It is standardised, and the standard is a fact – facts are for movements like Marxism or Communism, where they try to say everybody has to think in the same way. In politics that way of looking at the world is over but in architecture the International Style is more or less still there. The modern movement, which became a kind of minimalist movement, is unthinkable for representing the complexity of our time. The message you receive from these buildings is that there is no room in society for difference. And we call our age pluralistic.
Your work is anti-minimalist, it’s playful, and there’s a strain in design today that is very clever, baroque even. You must like that.
Well, perhaps things are changing. After Le Corbusier and Mies the real expression of that minimalist movement was over. So when I see a Dutch designer making a vase that is soft, it means that there is still curiosity. There isn’t only the sense of vision, you have to have emotion through touching, smelling even. I want to make a chair that has a certain smell that I can remember. I want a chair to give me sound, to connect with me at another level.
Many of your pieces are furniture disguised as art, or vice versa. Do you see any distinction between art and design?
There is a funny new thing in Manhattan, a Museum of Arts and Design – that’s like saying a museum of art and art. This is a very important subject. Art was always a functional product. If someone in the Middle Ages wanted a portrait of their mother they asked a painter but they didn’t ask for an artistic masterpiece, just a portrait, a product. Only later did this become “art”. So, if art was functional then what is the art of our time? Clothing, advertising, objects...
I am more and more convinced that products are super important. We are taught that consuming is superficial, but it’s not, because I consume books, I consume music, or shoes. All these things tell me that this is my time; I wear my time. There’s more culture in a supermarket than there is in a museum. If I visit a museum in Sau Paolo I can probably see what they have in Paris or London. But a supermarket is more reliable. If I drink a cup of coffee, that cup is full of knowledge, in the taste, in the materials and design of that cup. Culture is not just about going to a concert and being able to recognise Brahms. Fuck Brahms. Recognise your own time. The designer’s function is to make people’s lives better, more joyful, more colourful. The other side of things is dogmatism, rigidity, fuck that.
Some see your work as rejecting good taste. Is that fair?
I offend good taste? Sure, because I am against old taste.
The materials and processes you use mean most of your works are effectively limited editions. Do you feel that mass production stifles creativity?
Well, my work is not numbered but it’s true that some objects amount to only ten pieces. We’re coming from the idea of standardisation, and that was very important but it’s over. Today, each object should be similar but not the same, like we are. Thirty years ago communist papers attacked me as an idiot, but today you can see car companies thinking like this. This is the time of non-homogeneous production. And it doesn’t only make economic sense but political sense also – democracy is a system that guarantees to maintain difference. When you say my work is ugly, yes, because in the human being there is beauty and ugliness, and large and small, but what is really beautiful is what is different.
On your website some of your works are listed under a category called “poorly made”. What are you trying to say?
This is another important point in my work. This idea of perfection that we still have is, I think, wrong. In Japan, if you have ten tea cups, the perfect one is the least expensive, then the second one with a little fault is more expensive until you get to the tenth, which is rough and totally imperfect – that one is for the emperor. To me that means that human error is a quality. Perfection is for God. If we can accept that even the imperfect is good then not only can we have originals instead of just copies, but we can make things less expensive. Because economically speaking when I see a mistake and I throw out that object, I’m throwing away money. So the badly made is a valuable expression. This could be a position for young people today.
The UP armchair and footrest are available from B&B Italia.