If asked to suggest a figure capable of summarizing, synthetically and paradigmatically, the work of Gaetano Pesce, I would not hesitate: I would say the oxymoron. The coexistence of opposites. All the design activities of Gaetano Pesce – whether on the scale of architecture or of design – are at the same time democratic and aristocratic, and they present themselves to the gaze as if suspended between a tangible physicality and an equally evident conceptuality. It is in this that the peculiarity and – in some aspects – also the uniqueness of Pesce’s work lies: his being a creature that is totally physical, corporeal and material, but at the same time also metaphysical, theoretical and conceptual. Pesce works with his hands. He gets them dirty, he uses them to create and to correct. There is always a surprising corporeality in everything he does. There is flesh and blood, skin and hairs in everything he creates. But then there is also thought. There is, above all, thought. There is meaning. His work is an activity that goes through the body, but it is aimed at meaning rather than sensations. Gaetano Pesce is neither a functionalist nor a decorativist. He is
a philosopher of forms. His single works are not always likeable, they may even be irritating. And yet, also in this case, they force us to think and to feel. They make us think better and feel more. And to clarify with ourselves the relationship we have, not just with things, with signs and objects, but also – more ambitiously – with the world. To deal with him, with the visions underlying his work, means to take into consideration some of the most problematic nodes of design culture in the contemporary society. And to venture into an intentionally nomadic expressive universe (just as nomadic as his biography, always on the move between La Spezia, Padua, Venice, Helsinki, Paris, New York, London, Bahia, Milan…), which is not afraid of contradictions, but that indeed makes it the distinctive trait of his own style. We will therefore try to dwell on some of the problematic nodes that occur most frequently in his theoretic recollection and empiric practice, in the hope of succeeding, by these paths, to analyse every aspect of a rich and complex personality that thwarts every attempt at easy and schematic classification.
“Personalization of industrial products/the series“.
One of the most innovative and original peculiarities of Pesce’s work lies in his attempt to combine two theoretically opposite and irreconcilable categories as the one-off and the mass produced item. In other words, Pesce accepts the logic of industrial mass production as the manufacturing method that makes it possible to make products for everyone, but he also denunciates the limit of mass production, i.e. the inevitable standardization it produces. Industrially produced objects are, in other words, doomed to be identical, they are slaves of an equality that makes it impossible to distinguish them from one another. As a provoking reaction to this state of affairs, Pesce theorizes and practices what he himself calls the “personalization of the industrial series”: whether it is a matter of furniture that is produced industrially but rendered unique by the fact that the individual craftsmen are allowed to give them a personal touch, (the Nobody’s Perfect series, 2002), or an architectonic structure where all the floors are different from one another (the Tower in Sao Paulo in Brazil, 1987-89), Pesce conducts a systematic attack against the cultures of monolithism and standardization, in the name of the liberation of differences. All this is inspired by a dream of managing to free the industrial objects from the standardizing anonymity that often characterize them, to allow them to enter into a relational regime where they may be – as in the case of human beings – to be similar, but not identical.
“From abstractionism to figurativism“.
One of the dogmas of the architectonic culture consists of articulating every project on a combination of types that are always based on the same figures of solid and flat geometry (the circle, the square, the rectangle, the parallelepiped, the cube, the cone, the pyramid and so on). In extreme cases this tendency has – where rationalism modernism has been followed to the letter – resulted in the anonymous standardization of the so-called “international style”. Gaetano Pesce refuses this design method, with adamant coherence, forcefully vindicating an architecture and design capable of recovering their expressiveness by making the transition from abstractionism to figurativism. Witness the Maison des enfants of La Villette in Paris, whose plan reminds of the contour of the body of a child of ten, or – in the field of design – the Vesuvio coffee pot (1992), that takes the form (as well as the eruptive function) of a volcano. Pesce’s style is neither much neo-expressionistic or postmodern: we are rather dealing with a “feeling” of the form that is never satisfied with abstract and universal schemes, instead seeking to animate things and architectures, to reveal – through leaps in scale and unexpected short-circuits – the hidden and secret meaning.
“The badly done as aesthetic canon“.
Imperfections, defects, errors and deformations have almost always been considered alien to the sphere of beauty, and usually considered as signs of reduced value. Gaetano Pesce, on the contrary, overturns this dogma of classical aesthetics, openly theorizing the “badly done” as fundamental and constitutive element of a new canon of beauty that may be able to free itself from every prescriptive rigidity (symmetry, proportion, regularity) to, on the contrary, open the door to the discovery of the different, the incomplete, the casual. Aware that the cult of perfection, purity and absolute beauty has produced some of the worst totalitarianisms of the Twentieth century, Pesce refuses to trace a rigid and clear border between beauty and ugliness, vindicating a design method capable of including also the unexpected, the formless, the hybrid and the irregular within the aesthetic sphere. Objects as the armchairs of the Senza fine unica series (2010), made in urethane spaghetti, twisted and tangled in a haphazard and unpredictable manner, or the Olo lamp (2001), with its grotesque appearance that reminds of an alien, are examples of a research on forms that is never an end in itself, but that also implies a certain vision of the world, and an attempt to harmonize with the forms the world is taking in this moment in history.
“New materials, new languages“.
Contemporary design and architecture must express themselves with the materials of our time: all Gaetano Pesce’s research is based on a rejection of traditional rigid and heavy materials, and on an awareness that no linguistic or formal innovation can ignore a parallel innovation in the choice and use of materials. Rather than stone, metal and concrete Pesce prefers foam, resin and urethane: materials whose technical, constructive and formal potentials could hardly be imagined some time ago.
Sometimes Pesce makes a surprising use of “poor” materials from popular tradition such as felt (I Feltri, 1986), or gives new value and dignity in terms of design to discards such as rags (Rag Chair 1972), in other cases he creates forms by exploiting the technical peculiarities of new materials in pioneering ways (the Up armchair, 1969, made by taking advantage of the performative opportunities of polyurethane foam) always assuming a design attitude willing to let itself be surprised by the unexpected uses suggested by listening and by an attentive and unprejudiced use of such materials. From this point of view, the material ceases to be a simple inert instrument, becoming a co-protagonist in the process of creation and innovation. Pink Pavilion (2008) is a good example of this approach: it is a matter of an innovative and experimental architecture, in polyurethane, that offers alternative solutions and ways to build and live.
“‘Femininity‘ as driving power in design“.
Unleashing the female part of the brain: Gaetano Pesce is convinced that there is a direct link between femininity and creativity, and he therefore pursues it as the driving engine of every design project. Masculinity is rigid, monolithic, dogmatic, normative; femininity, on the contrary, is to Pesce a guarantee of pluralism, flexibility, availability, multilinguality, tolerance, democracy. Many of Pesce’s designs therefore bury their roots in the female, understood not only as way to feel, but also the way the I relates to the world: if the male dominates, orders, prescribes and provides, the female accommodates, accepts, mixes and regenerates. Many of Pesce’s projects can be read from this perspective, from the lamp Alda, 2003 (musical and scented like the mother, to whom Pesce has dedicated it) to the project for the reconstruction of the Twin Towers on Manhattan (the World Trade Center, 2002), recreated with all their virile presumption, but linked by a hyper-popular symbol, dear to the feminine imagery: a gigantic heart. Pesce links, through femininity, the world of objects and design culture to the sphere of affectivity, emotionality and sensuality.
“Design as political expression“.
Once it has been freed from functionalist rules, design lends itself to new and many-sided uses, first of all the possibility to transform it into an explicitly and deliberately political language. Gaetano Pesce is aware of the fact that every object, once it leaves the crafts industry or workshop where it has been made, immediately becomes public and thus political in the etymological sense of the term (that is to say, linked to the polis, to ways and forms of community life). But the political nature of Pesce’s design goes further; indeed, he experiments with much more advanced forms of radicality: in short, it becomes a testimonial of time, taking its conflicts upon itself, expressing dissent with its consolidated myths, absorbing and exposing dominant atmospheres, provoking irreverent short-circuits, denunciating the hierarchies of taste and the standardizing dogmas of the majorities in power.
A sofa like Sunset in New York (1980), for instance, has prophesized the decline of the West (and its city-symbol) already in the Eighties, with a formal play that – transferring the city’s skyline at sunset to a furniture item for a middle-class parlour – oscillates between disenchanted irony and affectionate nostalgia, while the 16 January chair echoes, on a furniture item for interiors, the forms and signs of the First Gulf War, opened by Bush in 1991, precisely on the day the item is named after. But Pesce is not always content with creating objects cum manifestos that carry traces and marks of epochs impressed on their bodies: sometimes, almost as if to accentuate the political aims of his design vision, he also resorts to words, using the surface of an object – as in the case of the La Smorfia or grimace armchair (2003) or in the Goto vase (1995) – to add the force of the word and the logos to the figurative, metaphoric and allusive evidence of the object itself, in a perspective that gives his work an extraordinary conceptual power. Pesce has in recent years further radicalized the political and provocative use of his design projects, which are more and more contaminated by the coeval research in contemporary art, something which is evident for instance in works as Italia in croce or Italy crucified (2011).
“Design as religious dimension“.
Gaetano Pesce’s production teems with objects and projects that evoke the dimension of sacredness and religion: the Manodidio or God’s hand ashtray (1969-70), marked by the blood of the stigmata, the Golgotha table (1972-73), resounding of echoes that evoke the Calvary and the passion of Christ, the San Sebastiano Cabinet (1991), pierced and dripping like the body of a martyr. Pesce justifies this component of his work with a desire to make contemporary design the last heir of the great tradition of Western art, with its ability to express all spheres of existence, including the one that centres on the relationship with the religious dimension. In fact, all Pesce’s works are dominated by the hovering presence of the sacred in the dual meaning implicit in the etymology of the term: something that fascinates and at the same time terrifies, that attracts and scares. There is, in his work, a hovering presence of blood that seeps, oozes and coagulates more or less everywhere, as sign of a physicality and corporeality that is so strong and violent as to take on almost metaphysical connotations. It is never a confessional religiosity, the one that shines through in Pesce’s works: rather, it is a hybrid combining mysticism and paganism, carnality and spirituality, swearing and prayer, where the sacred emerges as the epiphany of everything that proves to be “unexplainable” in the experience of life.
“The participation of the senses“.
Gaetano Pesce’s desire to realize projects capable of communicating with all the senses cannot be dismissed as the umpteenth synaesthetic operation of Twentieth-century art. It is true that Pesce is not content with exciting the eyes, but aspires to interact with hearing and touch, with taste and smell. And yet his synaesthesias never fall into the accepted and shared canons of taste: on the contrary, they often represent a challenge to “good taste”, they are inspired by a refusal of that sensorial anaesthesia that, in the present-day society, cancels smells and flavours, standardizes tastes, dampens sounds and in any case tends to guide every perceptive experience back within the tracks of reassuring pleasantness. Pesce often works in the opposite direction: he is not afraid of the smells and stenches produced by organic materials that inevitably decompose, he does not shy strong and unusual flavours, he loves the harshness of the sounds of life, and he aspires to expand the range of tactile experiences we may enjoy when handling his objects.
He therefore creates thermosensitive chairs that change colour when they come into contact with the body heat (Broadway, 1993), and builds a house made of soft, rubbery bricks that smell of juniper (Bahia House, 1999), but goes so far as to present, in an exhibition of Italian lifestyles, typical foods and dishes that are altered with the passing of time, offering the visitor an unusual and unforgettable olfactory experience.
In 1980, invited to a convention on postmodernism at the Salpêtrière in Paris, Pesce appeared provocatively wearing a gas mask. He wanted to be annoying, unpleasant, to make a nuisance of himself. To break with the ritual liturgy of traditional conventions with a conspicuous gesture capable of overturning the protocol and to challenge the rules. That’s how Pesce acts. Every attempt to stably pigeonhole him in any discipline, school or area of expression would be reductive. Pesce does not build borders, he blurs them. He does not facilitate any mapping of the design territory. Rather, he complicates it. That is to say, he enriches it. He forces his users to make a continuous slalom between the disciplinary areas, the linguistic feuds, the academic Disneylands. Between architecture, design and the figurative arts. But also the art of staging: it is no coincidence that the exhibition design always plays a very important role in his shows. In the exhibition “Italy: the new domestic landscape“ curated by Emilio Ambasz at the MoMA in New York in 1972 Pesce presented an unsettling post-apocalyptic habitat for two persons in which, among steps reminding of Escher, in the darkness of a cavernous space, anthropomorphic figures telling a story of drama, energy crisis and unsustainability emerged here and there. Or consider the exhibition presented in Tokyo in 1992 (where he built a large bed for watching movies), the Pavillon des Souvenirs of Avignon in 1999, his reinterpretation of the city of Fedora within the context of the exhibition titled “Le città in/visibili“ at the Triennale of Milan in 2002, his decision to use supermarket trolleys as bases for the objects in his retrospective “Il rumore del tempo“ (the noise of time), also presented at the Triennale in 2005. Pesce also introduces a new concept of time for the enjoyment of an exhibition, experimenting with shows that change with time: from the decision to appoint several curators who replace one another in the period the exhibition remains open, presenting new exhibits or removing some of the objects on show, to the introduction of works the visitors may interact with by modifying them, so they are never the same. All this cannot be hastily dismissed with the facile formula of eclecticism. Rather, it is an authentic and sincere interest in any practice that deals – etymologically speaking – with confusion, contamination, superimposition. Something that means to transfer, into other languages, conquests and experiences made in a given expressive context. Or to channel contents elaborated in a given context and on a certain scale to different contexts and scales: from architecture to design, from design to figurative art, from the latter to a material, scenic and gestural performance. The transition make the materials change, literally re-mediating them. In other words, it makes them live in another media, at the same time protecting them from any mediocre, minimalistic or depressing uses with which they have been treated in the past.
His approach cannot even be defined as post-modernism. If for no other reason, because of the consistency with which Pesce never ceases to remind designers of the social effects of their work. To Pesce, the concept of utility means experimentation: on materials, on typologies, on the formation of flavours, even on the choral nature of the design activity.
As an architect, in addition to professional activities, Silvana Annicchiarico is involved in the fields of research, criticism and teaching. Since 2007 she is the Director of Triennale Design Museum. From 1998 to 2007 she was Custodian of the Permanent Italian Design Collection of La Triennale di Milano, since 2002 she has been a member of the Scientific Committee of the design sector, from 1998 to 2004 she held a temporary post as a Professor within the Degree in industrial design of the Politecnico di Milano. From 1998 to 2001, she was assistant editor of the monthly design magazine “Modo”, and currently collaborates with several newspapers and radio stations and is the editor of exhibitions and books both in Italy and abroad.