Gaetano Pesce Influenced the Current Generation of Designers More Than Anyone We Know

Earlier this week, I had the occasion to look back at an article we’d published in 2016, where I referred to Donald Judd as the patron saint of Sight Unseen. I was puzzled, even as I reread my own words: “As our tastes and interests have shifted over the years, we could often point to different historical figures — Ettore Sottsass during our heavy Memphis phase; Bruno Munari during our Shape Shop days.” I suppose I felt uneasy in my nearly decade-old declaration because in my mind, as we’ve watched the design landscape mutate and come together over the past few years, there’s one designer who has remained at the top, inspiring more of the current crop of young designers than anyone else we know: Gaetano Pesce, who the world lost today at the age of 84. Name a style that’s popular among young designers, and chances are Gaetano did it first, years ago: gloopy (his Fish Design vases), chubby (his La Mamma chair for B&B Italia), obsessed with body parts, wildly colorful, faces on everything — because why not?

I remember my first encounter with Pesce’s work. At the 2009 Milan Furniture Fair, after we had slogged through most of our favorite booths at the fairgrounds, Monica and I wandered into another hall to see what we might be missing. Pesce’s Montanara sofa for Meritalia stopped us in our tracks. If you’ve ever seen it in person, it is, in a word, bizarre: a flexible polyurethane sofa in the shape of a mountain range, upholstered in a digitally printed fabric that depicts peaks, lakes, moss, and trees. In another designer’s hands, it would read an amateurish joke. But though the piece has a sense of humor, it also has the whole of Pesce’s convictions behind it. It is nothing if not sincere.

Both Monica and I had the opportunity to interview Pesce over the years. Monica, in 2013, on the occasion of his first solo show in New York since the 1980s, and me twice — once in 2010 to discuss, for T Magazine, his DIY rubber ankle bootie for Melissa (where he espoused a vision for the future of mass production that intrigues me to this day: “With the technology we have today,” he said, “we can give people something that is half done and ask them to finish it.”) and again, during that first summer of the pandemic, for W Magazine’s Originals issue. For that interview, we sat in his Navy Yard studio — six feet apart, masks off — and spoke for more than an hour, followed by a tour of his studio. It was there that I came to understand that Pesce’s commitment to what he called “mass customization” — where each piece, even those in a series, ought to be slightly different — is the precise reason why each of his works feels like a gift. I’m reprinting a condensed version of that interview below today in honor of Pesce’s legacy. Gaetano, you’ll be missed.

(For further reading, some of our favorite other Gaetano articles include The Pope of Gloop by Matthew Schneier and this Aesthete column from the FT last year 🫶)

At 80 years old, you’re considered something of an iconoclast, after building your career on a kind of radical experimentation with process and materials. It’s a practice that’s become quite popular with the current generation of designers, but it was considered highly unusual at the time you started out, when Modernism was at its peak. In the ’60s, you began a decades-long love affair with industrial materials like polyurethane foam, resin, and plastics. What inspired this approach?

I went to architecture school, and when I took my materials exam, I realized that they were only asking me about traditional materials, like stone, or wood. There was nothing about materials from my time. So, I sent a letter to several chemical companies in Europe, asking if it was possible to visit. Two companies answered. I had never thought about foam or rubber before! I started to become very interested in those materials, and when I started making experiments, I discovered something very important: that there was a relationship between contemporary materials and our time. Time is no longer rigid, with values that stay the same for a century. No, our time is very liquid. Values go up and down, and disappear. Not only that, the materials I was using allowed me to be sincere. I was not using fake materials.

What do you consider to be a fake material?

A fake material is a material from the past. They do not represent reality anymore. In the Renaissance, they used metal, marble, stone; the Romans used bricks. The bricks used in buildings today — they are not from today, they are from Roman times. This morning I didn’t come here with a horse. I came with a car. You see?

So, you consider your materials be a more authentic expression of the time we live in. At the same time, your work often acts as a commentary on the current moment. I’m thinking in particular of your 1969 La Mamma chair — depicting a female form with an attached pouf, resembling a ball and chain — which is meant as a commentary on the patriarchy.

It’s like with architecture. Most architecture we see, people have nothing to say about it except: “Oh, how beautiful.” With design, same thing: “How nice is that.” But design today is capable of being a commentary on reality. This light I made here in my studio, a head with a folded sheet ­— it’s talking about a kind of cultural slavery where men control women, and want them to cover their bodies. You wouldn’t say, “How nice is that.” You would say, “I agree,” or “I disagree.” If the white fabric is full here or more full there, it doesn’t make a difference. The form of that light is not relevant. What is important is the message.

Many of your works, like the ones you’ve mentioned, feature a figurative element: a face, a mountain, a parrot. They’re very human, and they’re very different from the Modernist designs of your peers, which were typically concerned with abstraction or geometry.

At a certain moment, I understood that traditional geometry was not interesting and that the defining characteristic of our time was communication. We communicate with people who don’t speak the same language through forms that are recognizable. The computer uses a symbol that everyone understands.

Like an emoji.

I said, ok, figures are the way to communicate. So, my work is full of things that you recognize.

Okay, but let’s say you make a cabinet. Everyone recognizes that it’s a cabinet. What does the portraiture add to it?

When you have a form that talks to people — people don’t like to be out of the process.

So, you’re inviting people into a dialogue with their furniture.

Yes, I’m inviting them to communicate.

© Sean Davidson, courtesy of Salon 94 Design

It sounds like it’s also important for you that a product reflect reality. Can you talk a little bit about how that connects to this idea of “mass-produced originals” — pioneered and espoused by you in products like the Pratt chair — that not every product in a series should be exactly the same?

When I was 19 years old, I was very close to members of the Communist party who kept saying: “The paradise of freedom is in Russia.” I said, ok, one day I’ll have to verify this. So, I arrived in Russia, and it was not paradise. On the contrary, it was really hell. One night, I met a teacher at the university in Moscow and the guy invited me to have dinner at his house. He had two children at the table and his wife. I said, “What is this freedom people speak of?” The guy was really embarrassed and he answered something like, “This beautiful weather.” I thought it was so strange. After dinner, he said, “Do you want to see my garden?” So, we went to the garden and he said, “I’m sorry I didn’t answer you, the children were there, and if the children hear something that is not correct, they will go to their teacher and denounce me to the police.”

So why do I say this? Marxist theology says we are all the same. In China, everyone has not only the same thought, but the same dress. But democracy is not something that allows you to protect your equality. No, it allows you to protect your differences. I started to think not only are we different and free to be different, but objects are also different and free to be different. I started to think how a machine could manufacture something that, in production, each time was similar but not equal.

At the time, I was working with Cassina. They understood this was important. The first object I did with them in 1975 was a chair called Sit Down. It was done with foam that was sensitive to temperature. If the temperature changed, the foam would change shape, depending on the person.

I believe that the time of copies is in the past. Technology allowed us to make perfect copies, but today technology allows us to introduce difference in a perfect way. When we serve the market, we give it something that is unique at the price of something that is a copy. This is the future.

You’ve managed to do this kind of mass customization on a larger scale with your company, Fish Design. Each resin-poured vase or tray is slightly different — a different color, or a different level of transparency. Those pieces are also much more affordable than your gallery work. Is that important to you, that everyone be able to have a piece of Gaetano Pesce in their home?

No. Only certain people are interested in my objects. I’ve never had an exhibition in Germany. I’ve never had an exhibition in Austria. Why? Because those countries like strong rules, and my work is about telling you not to care about the rules. Rules that are valued now — in five years, they’re not valued anymore. Reality changes.

Where are people most receptive to you work?

The first place to give me an exhibition in a museum was Paris. Then the United States, then Italy.

Do you think that’s because your work elicits emotion, and those countries place a higher premium on emotion?

Yes, it shakes your brain. Some people like that, and some people don’t. Some people say “the same chair for everybody.” No. The idea of one object for everybody is communism. There was a movement in architecture called International Style, where they did the same architecture everywhere, which is totally wrong. A place like Brooklyn deserves its own architecture.

Architecture also has to discover a material for our time. I want a building that’s red in the morning, at 12:00 it’s blue, tonight it’s black — where the humidity in the air changes the space. In Brazil, a few years ago, I designed a little guest house in blocks of rubber. Nearby, there was a rubber plantation, so I went and there was a horrible smell coming from the rubber. They told me that if you mixed in juniper juice, the rubber would smell like medicine. So, we did, and there was this beautiful smell. If someone had a cold, they could go to sleep in that house and the day after — no cold. I had discovered a new possibility for architecture — that a certain kind of material allows you not only to live in it, but also makes you feel better.

Now one day, because the rubber was elastic, everything collapsed. But experiments are research. Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you don’t. When Leonardo made a fresco in Florence City Hall, after three months, there was no fresco because he used a new technique. That kind of accident happens, but it reminds you that architecture can smell, can have a perfume. It doesn’t have to just be visual. Maybe you touch it, and the wall is elastic like our skin.

These ideas — that you should respect and deploy materials from your local community, that design can respond to its environment — were forgotten for a long time, and have only recently begun to come back into fashion. What does it say about you that these are ideas you considered from the beginning?

My education was very important. I learned that there is no difference in expression. You are free to be a painter one day, a sculptor another day, a poet another day, a musician another. There are no barriers. At the school of architecture, there was a philosophy exam. Can you imagine? Architects today are a little ignorant; they think that a tower that looks like a suppository is good for London. I did a lecture at the Royal Academy, and I asked two people, “What is the relationship between you and the suppository?” [Laughs]

What does design look like to you right now?

Until today, we’ve maintained that design is a brother to art, but that it’s not art. I believe it is art. When an object expresses a political point of view, it’s no longer only design. We have to move design from the basement. Design schools have to start teaching much more complex concepts. If I asked this chair, “Where were you made?” No answer. The future is that a chair or object is able to tell where it was made, who made it, and what it represents.

But that does happen on a smaller scale, among designers who make their works by hand in the studio. Their works do answer those questions.

Today there’s a confusion between an artisan who makes things by hand and industrial objects. I’m talking about industrial products. The future of industrial products is to make originals — one piece, unique. It’s like the relationship between one person and another. If I have a lover who goes with 100 men, or 100 women, it’s not very interesting. It’s the same with objects. If I know that all of my objects are the same out there, that my neighbor has the exact thing I have, it’s not fantastic.

I read an interview with you where you said it was “important to be incoherent.” What did you mean by that?

In the 18th and 19th century, values were more or less the same for a hundred years. Today, reality is so fast that we cannot maintain values for more than one day, or even one week. I like red today, and tomorrow I like blue, and tomorrow I like cherries, and then pears. We are free to change. I heard someone say, a wife to her husband “You changed ideas!” Me, I was thinking, “Fortunately he changed! Or else it would be boring.” Change is interesting. It’s provoking. Incoherence represents that. The tendency is to be always the same, but reality pushes you to be different, and you have to accept that.