"Of what is visual we have had enough", Gaetano Pesce once told me. And he has not changed his mind, about this, or any other of the strong convictions he has been defending for over forty years. Today it seems almost natural that designers are difficult to place in pre-established categories like art or design. There are a lot of them who question the industrial production, who are interested in process, who are not scared of imperfections and celebrate mistakes, who believe that design is a commentary on reality. But there was a time when this was a radical position which was seen as subversive, and it was Gaetano Pesce’s flexible mind of an "outsider" who led the way.
Pesce is convinced that design is the real art of our times, because it is an expression that has to do with all the characteristics of our reality: production, technology, complexity, expression, politics, etc: "Design is not the decorative expression that we thought and instead is a very deep and complex language which is a commentary of reality, meaningful and philosophical; that is what art is. A practical art, but wasn’t art always practical? Let's talk about an art which is related to our time, which is not romantic at all… materials, marketing, advertising…these are all things of our time and all these together are related to design, a discipline which has a strong power of communication: it speaks to everybody." The political aspect of reality has been very present in Pesce’s work from an early stage in his career, the best example for this is his "Up 5 La Mamma" chair known world-wide, designed in 1969, made of moulded foam, without an internal structure, which was sold as a flat package that would swell up when opened, recuperating the air which had previously been taken from it. "It has soft, rounded curves, very sensual, like the female body and it has a ball attached to it with a chain, to remind us of the situation of women at the same time. Or the Chador lamp, which speaks about women in Islamic countries who are forced to use it, and I find very depressing." According to this thinking, it is also clear that form no longer follows function, but the expression of the senses: “Design is able to have a second meaning, not only be practical. And I am talking about a psychological meaning, an emotional side with colour, sensuality, that kind of thing. I have made a lamp which vaguely reminds me of a human presence that allows people who live alone to feel that they are in company. Slaves existed in the past, people who were useful and who were eliminated when they did not fit the purpose. We do the same with objects, we throw away the glass that breaks, if an object is not only useful but is able to tell you meaningful things, you keep it. It has a double function: psychological and functional. So I thought of giving the object this second aspect."
There are several preoccupations which are crucial to understanding Gaetano Pesce’s work and which remain fresh today. The first of them is the idea of “customization of series”. Pesce is convinced that design should evolve towards a differenciated industrial production, objects that resemble humans in the sense that they are similar but not identical. This idea comes from a political point of view and begins when he was young and went on a trip to Moscow. Then he started to think about standarization as opposed to freedom and the fact that industrial production gives us objects which express a very repressive image of society: “People have the right to be different, democracy protects difference. At a certain point I started thinking about why objects have all to be the same. Sameness is produced by a machine and it implies a perfection which is not human. Humans are full of imperfections. Each one of us works, lives or thinks in his/her own way. I asked myself, why not objects as well? Maybe this was a third industrial revolution, because what could the next industrial revolution be, if not about the profound nature of objects? It could be the fact that they are unique. Not the uniqueness as it is perceived by the art market, but because right from their mass production each one has its own identity in terms of form, colour, texture, etc. In this way, the revolution is really profound in that you open new markets, you are at the service of people with objects of low cost, everyone has access to things which are unique. In the future, when machines will produce more and more perfect things we will regret not having imperfections and mistakes, the human touch.” It was in 1971 when Pesce started to think about this, searching for a way to give form to this idea of considering individuality a strong point of his work: “The first object I made in this way was the Golgotha chair which consists of a piece of fibreglass cloth to which the workers at the factory give shape. Then, in 1975 with Cassina, an armchair called “Sit Down”, a design in which every unit produced was similar but different. That is another aspect of what we can do as designers; not to work with the form but in the concept, in the process and by asking people to work in a more creative way. In fact, technology allows us now to produce originals and not copies."
Equally important in Pesce’s work is the idea of expressiveness between the figurative and abstraction. He has always been an advocate of figurative work and firmly believes the abstract is the wrong way to represent our times, including when we refer to Architecture. According to him, if you transfer the order and repetition of this type of building’s façade into an idea of society, what you get is a very repressive society in which there is no space for differences, where everything is “standard”: “Architecture is more or less always done with an abstraction of forms, with geometry which does not relate to normal people. We are in a moment of communication, the widest in human history, so why not develop this communication at the maximum degree possible? If we apply that to architecture, we have to be clearer in the message to the audience, and the only way to be clear is to work with forms that they recognize, figuratively. You enrich, you give more, when you work figuratively. Abstraction I believe has been over for a long time… nevertheless most architects are still using it, making things solely based upon geometry. I learned at school, with a fantastic teacher, Bruno Zevi, that most of the time we talk about architecture and what we are really talking about is “edilizia”, which means “to construct”. We need “to build” structures, to live in, to work in, etc, it is a standard production which needs to be done. But to call that architecture is a little too much. I haven’t been interested in architecture for a long time because it is too bureaucratic, “edilizia” is about compromising all the time, and I don’t want to make concessions. Why do buildings always have to look the same? This is what interests me in architecture. I prefer to work with objects, where the process is simpler, the scale is more controllable and I can realise very advanced projects. If you don’t innovate you just do repetitions, and I am not interested in repetition.” An example of this way of thinking is clear in a project for a tower he designed for Sao Paulo, and which was never built. The tower’s design was based on the idea of democracy. The building consists of a series of piled platforms which are connected with lifts and stairs, but are independent and could be sold as such, with added services like telephone lines or electricity. This way, each client can buy a platform as if it was a piece of land, call his favourite architect, and people in the street could recognize an apartment in the same way they can recognize a house in the countryside. The idea is to convey a pluralistic expression which is what a democratic society is about. As a consequence of fighting the standarization resulted of the industrial production, Pesce defends a different canon of beauty, the aesthetic of imperfection: “Beauty is something that terrifies me because it reminds me of the beauty of the race. You can easily go to Sparta instead of Athens, where if a child was born with a fault they would kill it, or Germany, closer to our time. To me beauty means being unique, to be different. And this beauty I like is a beauty full of ”mistakes” because we are human, perfection is for machines, the design which looks for perfection is the design of my grandfather, it is obsolete, it is gone. The details, the perfect finishes don’t belong in our time, we are not in the Renaissance anymore! The perfection we should talk about today is the imperfection. So, I do ugly objects and the fact that they are ugly becomes a new kind of beauty. Our times are very deformed, so whatever expresses malformation is closer to them. Historically speaking, beauty does not represent our time, or at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, this moment is beautiful because of all the problems we have, the mistakes we make, all the contradictions we have, this is what makes it beautiful, and that is why I do design with mistakes, which allows me to explore a new concept for beauty. Ugliness comes out in my work because I don't usually ask workers to execute my work with perfection, I don't care about it. Our mistakes are positive because they make us different.
Pesce not only allows people to express themselves, materials are also welcome to surprise him with unexpected turns: “The very material is able to suggest processes or forms that we cannot imagine, materials in themselves can be so rich that we only need to observe what happens.” For him, new materials and technologies are core to his designs and are what allow him to develop new contemporary languages: “We have to express ourselves in an original way, if possible with a new technique and using current materials. The materials I use are from this precise historical moment.” Forget wood, bricks, glass, marble, iron or bronze, all materials which belong to the past and that Pesce usually describe as banal. Silicons, resins, foam, these are the materials he likes to work with, to explore, experiment, research, and again, they are connected to his idea of the world and which he associates with elasticity, sensuality, presence of colour in life, and most importantly with multidisciplinarity: “Each one of these materials has its own qualities and are good for certain processes or solutions. Resins have the capacity to be rigid and soft, transparent, opaque… they are very rich and flexible…I am convinced that our time is liquid. The instability of our times, with values which are up and down, which move all the time…This is the rich aspect of it: to be in contradiction, to have more values in the same moment, all this makes a kind of landscape that is liquid. My materials are liquid, and so, in relation with the nature of our elastic time.” The presence of colour is also a potent tool in the hands of Gaetano Pesce which he thinks represents life and its dynamics well: “Colour is an element which helps to think positively, it is able to transmit feelings that are related to joy and pleasure, happiness and energy, sensuality… an interior without colour is depressing, but if you have a dialogue with different colours you have a dynamic space.” In the same way, colour is a way of conveying humour and there is always a tongue-in-cheek kind of irony to Pesce’s work which has to do with one important fact for him, to never take himself too seriously.
Ana Dominguez Siemens