DIY-furniture as secret weapon

Proposal for an Autoprogettazione, 1973 1:5 scale models © Enzo Mari Associati

Enzo Mari has been around the block a few times. Literally, and figuratively – the statement also including a wry reference to his landmark DIY furniture series. Alas, DAMn° thought it prudent to engage this renowned designer in a meaningful Q&A session, wholeheartedly wishing to hear his thoughts on the evolution of the seminal Autoprogettazione project of four decades ago, and thereby make some deft comparisons between the then and the now. As it is, the advance of years has not quelled this man’s passion one iota. Fasten your seatbelt – much of what the master has to say is less than pretty.

Tavolo ad altezza variabile (model G), 1974 (1) © Enzo Mari Associati

A private audience with grand master Enzo Mari at the kick-off of the Salone del Mobile di Milano, that annual furniture-industry heyday, offers a dark insight into his thoughts about the future. Intended as a review of Autoprogettazione – 40 years on –and its relevance to current DIY culture, the life-long provocateur talks in plain Italian about design, business, and politics. Please pardon his enthusiasm…

DAMN°: The on-going popularity with exhibitions, publications, and blogs about DIY-culture that refer to Autoprogettazione and other projects of that ilk, seem to have transformed a once counter-cultural phenomenon into something mainstream. Was that your intention?

Enzo Mari: I wanted to engage the public in an exercise, so that they would at least understand enough about… (struggles for words)

DAMN°: ...the quality of objects?

EM: No, that is impossible. You cannot instruct somebody to understand quality. It would take years for a person to complete a single exercise through which he or she could learn about quality. I am talking about the hypothesis that a project is carried-out in practice and in theory. Theory is the description of something that is only understood through the course of doing it. I am saying that, because I know which of today’s young designers and young architects (getting angry) … I would kill! They don’t learn anything at school, they don’t do any practical exercises. I tell all young people to forget everything that was taught to them at school.

DAMN°: What should be understood from Autoprogettazione and what were the reactions to your ‘exercise’ 40 years ago?

EM: Based on the exhibition at Galleria Milano, we held a conference, which was attended by many of my colleagues as well as some journalists. I was abused and called a Fascist because instead of enabling people to lead a comfortable life through design, I was obliging them to work and making them build their own furniture. However, the Roman daily newspaper, Paese Sera, published a full two-page article in which I offered free blueprints in exchange for postage stamps for the dispatch. The only ones who would have to pay me were industrialists interested in producing the furniture. A month later, another big article followed in the New York Times. And within a year I received thousands of letters from people requesting blueprints of Autoprogettazione – but none of them was an industrialist!

DAMN°: Who were the people interested in Auto-progettazione? And did they understand the theoretical background, and your motivation?

EM: Most requests came from ordinary people who read about it in the papers. Some letters were as short as two lines. Others praised me as a genius for the cleverness of the idea. Some people sent me clippings of other designed objects they liked and asked me for blueprints – to those I did not reply. I encouraged the others to also try to make different objects based on the principles of Autoprogettazione, or to modify my designs. But in those first years, nobody did so. Some misconceived the designs, liking them for their ‘rustic’ style, and using them to refurbish their chalets in the Alps or the Rocky Mountains. Over the subsequent 40 years, I received many letters from schoolteachers who had given Autoprogettazione to their students as an exercise. Only those who reproduced my blueprints accurately achieved the right results, those who did not make exact copies of my blueprints produced awful results, creative pieces of wood (getting angry) … constructed fucking haphazardly! Monsters! I am talking about those who studied design and haven’t understood anything.

DAMN°: Where did you learn how to do this in the first place, before you started with the project?

EM: I looked at how wooden bridges and scaffolding are built, and used the principles of carpentry. All Autoprogettazione furniture was designed from a carpenter’s point of view. Hence, it was all ergonomically correct in terms of height, width, and solidity.

As a student of set-design at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan, I wrote a (unassigned) thesis with the title: 25 ways to drive a nail. Because, depending on the kind of wood, its grain and knots, there are many different problems to be aware of. But I must say that, today, not even carpenters know how to drive nails.

DAMN°:  In the 1960s and 70s, quite a few publications on DIY-furniture emerged. Did you draw inspiration from other projects – or from earlier examples, such as Gerrit Rietveld’s crate furniture of the 1930s?

EM: I was focused on my project. Back then, when I made the Autoprogettazione models, I didn’t know Rietveld or look at the work of other designers or architects. Because I had other intentions. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against Rietveld, who, incidentally, built poor things out of wood as well.

DAMN°:  Your Sedia 1 chair is now in production at Artek – essentially, as an educational DIY-kit on an industrial scale. It seems to prove that Autoprogettazione has broken into the market. Do you see this as a success?

EM: Do you know how many students must have experienced Autoprogettazione? In Italy alone, there must be 300,000. That is an industrial scale. And now they are all without a job! Today the subject is being raised because it meets people’s interest. Back then I did it because I was mad at how industry functioned and how little the broader public understood. I really believe that at the end of this century, people will be doing what I have suggested in Autoprogettazione. We have to train workers, thus, the industry and society. With industrial production, workers only need to know how to do one single thing – to drill or cut a hole, etc. They do not need to think, must not think (getting angry) … must stay ignorant! Thinking is a waste of time, so workers must remain total idiots. The same thinking applies to consumers. However, they are better treated by the industry because they still have to buy goods and cannot be scared away.

The birth of the industry is a consequence of the French Revolution: Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité (getting angry) … but look at what is happening in Rome. Who are the most influential people in politics? It’s not the politicians, the bank directors, and so on – it’s the voters! Because those who vote appoint ministers, and these people are (getting angry) … fucking nonsensically free! It’s incomprehensible why they behave like this. Still, it is the public who, in practice, determines the makeup of governments. We are not talking about a minor problem like design, which is a trifle. Design as we know it, never translates to the real world, it is a dreamland of objects that show off. Designers are scoundrels, allied with capital. If we talk about Autoprogettazione today, these are my arguments.

DAMN°: Speaking of politics today, what are the new politics of design and how are they related to the current DIY culture?

EM: Do you know what young designers do all over the world? They work in reference to the people surrounding them, looking up at those people, who, according to their position, might be useful to their careers. Designers in Italy have almost no choice, because there is no fucking company offering them a job. In terms of production, therefore, the only option is for a young designer to say: ‘OK, then I’ll build it by myself.’ Maybe 10% of them are intelligent enough to express their passion and make something of it. However, news is that the crisis has just started and that it will go on until the end of the century, and that terrible things are going to happen. Don’t you agree that it would be good if small Italian enterprises would strive to produce things that can be sold? I am not talking about silly pornographic objects. Nobody speaks of mitigating the effects of the crisis, which will keep on worsening, and will get more worse still when unemployed people in Italy are in the tens of millions (getting angry) … havoc will happen! The crux of the matter is that the small shit-eaters who own the firms are unable to export anything. We need to get some money from abroad.

DAMN°: You advocate for an industry with a strong social impact and healthy export rates. How does this relate to Autoprogettazione and the role of design?

EM: The objective of Autoprogettazione has been: production without workers. Some of the current DIY developments do something very serious: they train workers to work as designers and thus train them to be workers, to be worse than slaves. It’s very serious (getting angry) … it’s worse than Nazism!

DAMn°: How do you mean? Maybe an alternative would be to establish an appropriate behaviour with those who produce, rather than just enslaving them?

EM: But do you know what the solving of such a relationship would imply? (getting angry) … Only machineguns could do it! The problem is that there are two social groups: those who earn by sucking the blood of the workers and those whose blood gets sucked. It is not acceptable to have a society where the conditions of workers are worse than those of the slaves 3000 years ago. When suggesting production without workers – as Autoprogettazione does – I am speaking of a utopia, which is complex. However, we need to start step-by-step and move in that direction, because I cannot accept living in a society that wants people to be ignorant.

DAMn°: Can design – or let’s say, furniture we build ourselves – solve such a complex societal problem?

EM: I am not a naive utopian. I say what I have to say because I have been talking with entrepreneurs for years and I know how they think.

When I say that we have to do without workers, I am talking about a process that will take 100 years, one step at a time. It is necessary to talk with the Unions, with Confindustria (the Italian Industrialist Association), with everybody. This is the problem! I could give the right information to small Italian enterprises, if they would just agree to talk with each other, but they do not accept that (getting angry) … this is the crux!

DAMn°: It does not sound like you have retired. You are 81 years old and have already left a massive footprint in design history. Do you still want to instigate a revolution in the design business? Why should this generation listen to you?

EM: The fact that people say that I am skilful, very skilful, is due to the fact that my reference group has grown to seven billion since I started as a youngster. I have made objects that sell well in all parts of the world. I am not referring to minor shitty design cultures or exhibitions that serve the design mafia. ‹

Tavolo rettangolare (model D), 1974 (1/4) © Enzo Mari Associati
Enzo Mari. Photo: Cesare Colombo
Illustration from il25 WAYS TO DRiVE A NAIL © Enzo Mari Associati