Critical understandings through practice: 47 years after Enzo Mari's 'Autoprogettazione'
Updated: Mar 3
In 2020, we lost one of the greatest designers of the 20th century to Covid-19, but we did not lose his teachings. Enzo Mari was one of the first internationally acclaimed designers to promote critical thinking about design and the machine of capitalism. Sure, we have had Baudrillard and Bourdieu speak to issues of inequality and the production of hierarchical values in taste-making, but never before have we learned from a designer about how design in and of itself is a tool to loosen oppression. Mari believed that through the process of designing and building, the illusion of design-magic is dissipated because the engager sees process from an educational perspective. Not only this, it a tool that helps one project outward instead of being projected onto.
What does Mari mean by projecting outward rather than onto? Everyday brands are motivated to mold consumers into manufactured worlds of tastes, encouraging purchasing habits that provide consumers an identity in exchange for a purchase. By removing the transaction [and all that comes with it...] a consumer becomes a student learning how wood joins, seams form, and walls stand upward like a tree with good roots. The mystery lifts how an object is made, and humans become just that again--human-- rather than consumers. In other words, a voice is developed instead of artificially made through the psychic-molding habits of capitalism.
Design knowledge ought to be made accessible, and not just in the handicraft sense. For Mari, the understanding of how to build and design simple furniture not only concerned alienation from everyday objects, but also discerning the value of goods in the marketplace. Therefore, not only does building a table provoke an individual's intrinsic creativity, but also her ability to distinguish the quality of products widely available over their curated psychic appeal. This is a rather important skill to have in an era of surplus goods of low quality (with regards to both design and craftsmanship), yet high emotional appeal.
[Table F from Autoprogettazione]
It's not just that design focuses on the form of an object, and how it may become more perfect with attention to details and materiality. Rather, design allows the everyday to integrate knowledge from the objects surround. Clothing is very similar to building a table in the sense that most people may preemptively imagine the end result as less satisfying before they even begin the project. It is this fear that also lends itself to a concrete internalization of some kind of foolishness in their physical representation. We have come to identify far too painstakingly to design objects, which is why we must engage in the process of designing in order to remove the elusive veil of untouchable perfection. Perhaps it is this veil that contributes to the compulsion to buy more, yet feel less. This 'foolishness of physical representation' then becomes a part of the foundation for representing brands and objects of perceived hierarchical value. Does one honestly want to be victim to such a negative machine?
We are inspired by Mari's take on democratizing design processes for education value. We recently built another F table from Autoprogettazione. The process of building a functional object was rewarding while it also provided a sense of grounded connection to the timeless tradition of design/build. Perhaps design can be remembered as one of our most primitive abilities rather than a language to express knowledge of and preference for aesthetics?
We will continue to discuss Mari in future posts. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.