A 1974 Furniture Experiment

table4_photo

When you think of people who have poked the furniture manufacturing establishment, Enzo Mari should be near the top of the list. His 1974 “autoprogettazione?” exhibit, plans and book proposed that ordinary people could make their own furniture using dimensional lumber, a crosscut saw and a hammer.

No ripping. No angle cuts other than 90°. No joinery other than nails.

Mari, a noted furniture designer, offered his plans for tables, chairs, beds and shelves free to anyone who asked for them. They were later compiled into a book, “autoprogettazione?” (Edizioni Corraini, 2002), you can now buy.

A couple friends who are familiar with Mari have asked if “The Anarchist’s Design Book” was inspired by Mari’s important book. The answer is: Not really. “autoprogettazione?” is, by Mari’s admission, almost entirely about the process and not the result.

When the book was released, lots of people built the designs to save money, to “get back to nature” or finish out a cottage in a rustic style. Mari says that those people missed his point.

“Obviously (my) proposal was only intended as a practical critical exercise,” Mari writes. “Obviously objects have to be produced using machinery and the most advanced technology and only in this way is it possible to have items that are good quality and economical.”

So what was his point? Mari was trying to engage the everyday person in an exercise that would show them how things are designed and “to teach anyone to look at present production with a critical eye.”

table4_drawing

After completing “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” I took a fresh look at “autoprogettazione?” And I also started reading a few novels like drinking from a firehose. (I try to avoid others’ writing while I’m writing for a variety of complex and stupid reasons.)

Some of Mari’s designs are actually quite successful, particularly the tables, shelves and armoire. I’m not wild about the chairs or beds, however. They do not shake off their pallet DNA enough to inspire me to pick up the tools.

And in the end, I think the act and the result are of equal importance, not only for myself but for the future of our material culture.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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7 Responses to A 1974 Furniture Experiment

  1. occasionalww says:

    Teaching by doing is reminiscent of the Sloyd method; except that in Sloyd, the items were to be of practical value.

  2. Wow! “Obviously objects have to be produced using machinery and the most advanced technology and only in this way is it possible to have items that are good quality and economical.” What an antithesis to the hand tool (movement? revival? back hole?) today. Apparently we are all Luddites and losers of no value.
    Or could it be that Ikea has lost its way and missed his lessons?

  3. Daniel Clay says:

    Awesome! I’ve been wondering if Mari would eventually pop up on this blog for a while now.

    • jenohdit says:

      A couple of months ago, I tried to throw Max Bill and Mari into the mix in response to Chris’s post “The Opposite of Ornate is Not a Crate.”

      Stylistically and conceptually, I don’t see the slightest resemblance between Chris’s designs and most of Mari’s, it was the combination of the words “crate” “puro”, and how I wish “furniture of necessity” to be defined.

      I purposefully paired Bill’s Ulmer Hocker and some Mari tables to add some nuance to the knee jerk reaction that says Bauhaus = bad, which seemed to be the gist of an earlier post on Walter Gropius’s F51 chair.

      I don’t know of any association between Mari and Global Tools, but they are similarly radical in their embrace of “tecnica povera,” meaning poor or humble technology. Anyone interested in the confluence of anarchy and craft should at least take a look at this history of the group’s work. http://saltonline.org/media/files/globaltools_scrd-1.pdf

  4. KampWood says:

    In reading and looking at his art and furniture all day it brought me back to looking at midcenturey modern furniture, is my mind just being weird or does there seem to be a similar pattern of line and simplicity in the pieces?

    • jenohdit says:

      Stylistically, the pieces the projects in the book most remind me of are a sideboard by Edward William Godwin, and another by Gerrit Reitveld for the Elling house. Both are easy to find online.

      Not that I think either had anything to do with Mari’s work.

      By the early 70’s the influence of the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm (the successor to the Bauhaus) was unavoidable and Mari’s autoprogettazione? project is among other things a commentary of sorts on that influence. It’s part of a dialog meant to take place among insiders to a large degree.

      Simplicity is very much the thing, but it’s a different simplicity than the clean, precise Swiss/German type (Max Bill, Dieter Rams) or the historicist, romantic type advocated by his very influential fellow Italian, Aldo Rossi.

      Mari put structure front and center, eliminated expensive materials (a la the Arte Povera movement) and complex joinery as well as any historical references, and more or less gave his designs away. That was a pretty radical thing to do but in keeping with the spirit of the times.

      Americans seem to read anarchy as individualism, but the more collectivist sort that created places like Christiania in Copenhagen was very much alive in Europe at that time. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freetown_Christiania Of course in the imaginary, ideal, collective society everyone would have access to the collective shop or it would make them all they needed. Worked for the Shakers, the New Harmonists, the Amana Colonies, and so on after all.

      The irony is the prices Mari’s originals bring now.

  5. WarrenP says:

    I think Mari’s comment makes perfect sense in context; Production furniture probably has to be done by machine. That has no bearing on what a person who is not doing production work but rather choosing to build something by hand, for reasons known to him or her alone. What would Mari think of the hand tool woodworking movement? If it got people thinking about design, he’d probably like it a lot.

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