Life as a Romantic Rebel


Mendini's Nuremberg Birthday Party

Alessandro Mendini considers his work to be like a pendulum that swings back and forth, allowing him to continue re-interpreting previous thought combinations and redesigning objects. Being somewhat disappointed in the approach taken by young designers today, his focus is on visions and romantic notions. He remains positive, though never loses sight of the tragic aspect that lurks close behind. Self criticism is a trait he deems crucial and one that he rigorously applies to his own work. For Mendini, technology is a terrible thing, leading to an “inhuman perfectionism”. The trick, he says, is to maintain a far-off desire...

On 16 August, Alessandro Mendini turned 80 years old. The Italian maestro’s objects cover four decades and often tell of memories in a humoristic way. As a critic facing today’s world, Mendini does not leave aside his ironic attitude. Instead, he smilingly reveals consumerism and technology as misanthropic characteristics that are far removed from his conviction of objects having a soul. The retrospective ‘Wunderkammer Design’ in Nuremberg pays homage to the artist in celebration of his birthday. The exhibition reassembles works from several periods to achieve a dazzling cabinet full of curiosities. Some of the showcased pieces date back to the radical spirit of the 1970s and mock their own use; others display the poetic language of kitsch. There are also massive pieces of furniture that
come directly from Mendini’s private home in Milan. In fact, it must be quite empty there at present...

DAM: Do you have a particular birthday wish?
Alessandro Mendini: I will just continue doing what I have always done: I work on my ideas and I try to stay updated on today’s world instead of concentrating on my past. You know, being old is quite normal in my eyes. It is not strange for me at all to feel the burden of the years. Even when I was young, I always considered my work as a pendulum that goes back and forth. For that reason I continue re-interpreting previous thought combinations and redesigning objects, just as I always did.

DAM: You are also a testimony to design history. What are the most valuable moments you remember?
AM: I live design in decades. There are years that are more introverted, where only a few things happen. And in other years a lot of things happen at the same time. In this respect, the student revolution of 1968 was an important period for me, of course. It coincides with the period of Radical Design and Anti Design that I experienced as an editor through the ideologies of Casabella.

DAM: That was before the much-vaunted era of Bel Design Italiano...
AM: Yes, it was before the 1970s. Anti Design was the strict antithesis of Bel Design, and a movement that paralleled the Arte Povera of Michelangelo Pistoletto and other artists. Back then, we criticised Bel Design as a consumerist ideology that used those plastic pollutants. In that sense, the strength of Anti Design was a kind of the pre-ecological movement that refers to the value of craftsmanship. The second important experience I had as a designer was with Alchimia ten years
later. We contradicted the institutional design happening in Italy and Germany, instead suggesting a kind of linguistic freedom, creating alphabets that recur in the world of design within decoration, and we worked together with the neo-vanguard artists of the time — Clemente, Chia and Cucci.

DAM: In today’s design world, there are neither movements nor groups of designers who band together for the same goal. Where has the sense of politics in design gone?
AM: Nowadays designers are isolated. They do not join any groups. That’s sad in a certain way, but obviously the ideologies are weak. Therefore, everybody is introverted and shuts himself away to make his own path. Unfortunately, designers are very practice-oriented and pragmatic. Many of them are superficial stylists who have bid farewell to people’s needs. As they are connected
to the industry these days, they are in crisis together with their partners. It’s a kind of vicious circle.
To form a group, people need to share a common utopia, a strong and far-off desire they want to concentrate on. This does not exist any more.

DAM: Do you think designers are too intensively connected to marketing?
AM: Today, design and marketing coincide. It is not a wide perspective but a particular view of design that drives technology. Design now is elegant, but technological. In my opinion, technology is a terrible thing. It leads to an inhuman perfectionism. For me, the future is a humanistic and literary utopia. I prefer to focus on this utopia, on visions and Romanticism.

DAM: What do you suggest to a young designer starting his career?
AM: Poor devil! Nowadays young designers remain young until they turn 50 years old, and they still do not succeed to earn enough to live from their profession. I’m not a professor, I don’t like to be the person who explains; rather, I prefer listening to the others. Therefore, it’s very difficult for me to give any particular advice. The only thing I know is that you have to work with ethics and consciousness as a designer.

DAM: You are considered a design legend, one of the grandi maestri. What about your experience of
living with this weight on your shoulders?
AM: (laughs…) It is important to have one’s own limits, to be conscious of what you are doing, without mouthing rhetoric about yourself, and to keep a sense of self-criticism. I am very critical about my own work, I always doubt myself. If I had to make a suggestion to young designers, I would tell them to look for resolutions in their own life and for projects that come from themselves and not from the outside world. The real difficulty is to know oneself and not to copy others, for example. Back in the age of the grand masters, back in my day, we saw ourselves as the opposition to the former generation. Today we need a similarly radical force, and I mean that politically, too — one that opposes industry, perhaps me (laughs), or whoever or whatever.

DAM: You have been highly influenced by art and literature. What about design by others, in your opinion?
AM: Within all the different approaches to design, mine is only a very small fragment. I do it my way because that’s the only way I know how to manage. But the world asks for many different types of design. It would be completely mad to say that every design has to be like mine. When it comes to others, I deeply admire Dieter Rams.

DAM: His work seems to be the opposite of yours.
AM: Yes, but in his best moments at Braun, Dieter Rams was a great poet who created objects that were not too functional in the end. He has this obsession with functionality that changes into poetry. Another designer that always triggered my fantasy was Luigi Colani, who actually lives in Milan.

DAM: He has a very different approach as well.
AM: I am on the side of those who know their profession and who are very different from myself. You know, I sometimes even identify with them. I believe very much in potential enemies. For me, they open a strong dialectic.

DAM: But this does not mean you could imagine living with Colani furniture in your everyday life…
AM: Okay, but actually, a Colani car wouldn’t be so bad!

DAM: You work together with your younger brother who has remained quite invisible all these years. What is the secret of your collaboration?
AM: He is particularly interested in architecture and in the management of our studio in Milan. I could not do architecture without him. Whereas design is more my field, and perhaps it is also more popular than architecture. I never had an argument with my brother in all the years of our collaboration. We always agree instinctively. But with my twin sister, I fight a lot. She has a very strong character.

DAM: You were born in Milan, your studio is in Milan and you have always lived in Milan. How have you experienced the change in the city?
AM: For me, as a child, the fascist period was a very quiet phase. There was no traffic at all, everything was elegant, the streets were full of sun. I remember a very nice city, completely different from today. Then I call to mind my parents listening to Radio London in
When the war began, we all fled to the countryside. I was very frightened about the American bombardments and the German occupation. Dramatic things happened very near to us. Since then, I am generally frightened by violence and death. I try to think positive, in a certain way, but I always discover the tragedy behind the scenes. I am a tragicomic.

DAM: Is that the basis of the humanistic view you suggest for design as well?
AM: I consider not only myself, but even objects, as protagonists in their own life. The Lassù chair, for example, which we set on fire during a performance in the early 1970s, is a good example of that. Every object has to have a life. It is born one day because somebody designed it. Then it lives, it passes through life, and in the end it has to die. Those are the stories of life, of objects, and of persons that move me a lot.

Interview: Sandra Hofmeister

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