Culture /

Enzo & Lea: A Creative Power Couple

“Know, discover, let yourself be intrigued and never stop looking and wanting to change – for the better – what surrounds us.”

Hoarse voice wrapped in the clouds of his endless cigarettes for her, calm tone and velvet jackets for him. Lea and Enzo. Fire and air, passion and intelligence. Two cornerstones of Italian critical thought that, just one day apart this October past, left this world after having written, told, invented, designed and promoted some of the deepest and most radical moments of Italian and international culture. As many have written, Enzo Mari and Lea Vergine were not career characters but of curriculum: him, designer, craftsman and professor, while she was a writer and art critic; they fell in love in the second part of their life, recognizing in each other the love of their life, a mature real love. For Lea Vergine, love was a rock, and whoever asked her about her relationship with Enzo Mari, she replied with that sure and faint smile that he was her “indispensable rock”. Indispensable to their love and to themselves, both were also essential for the evolution of design – even when design did not yet exist – and of the history of art, when it was terribly and exclusively aimed at men.

Enzo Mari has designed and implemented more than 2000 projects, has won five Compassi d’Oro – the most prestigious award in the world of industrial design. He was an experimenter but also a great theorist, so much so that he was nicknamed the ‘designer’s conscience’ by Alessandro Mendini, another exceptional name in Italian design. For Mari, design was human, it had to be, because it was conceived and aimed at people, it had an important ethical note, “objects should not be liked by everyone, they must be useful to everyone” he said. As Fulvio Irace recently wrote, “Mari preached design as a class struggle to overcome what he called the culture of karaoke, mimicking by repetition: he was not looking for the trendy object, but aspired to the perfect object”.

In doing so, he has left traces of his thinking on many books, often centered on design and published to inspire the minds of young designers or illuminate those of curious adults. Two titles among all could be chosen for this purpose:“25 Ways to Drive a Nail: Sixty Years of Ideas and Projects to Defend a Dream” in which Mari talk about himself using the first person, with a concrete spirit, from the beginning of the self training period, childhood and early youth, to his studies at the Brera Academy, up to the phase of his most intense artistic activity. It is in these pages that he writes “I’ve spent my life making projects, more than two thousand, but I still don’t think I know what design is. I know I don’t know (as Socrates said), and I continue to want to know, to be passionate about research.”  And a few lines further on, using the metaphor of a bridge, he insists by writing “I am fully convinced that equality of knowledge is within everyone’s reach, just like the ability to plan a future. Or to change the world, if it doesn’t work as it is “.

Here in a nutshell, the invitation that Enzo Mari has always addressed to everyone, to know, discover, let yourself be intrigued and never stop looking and wanting to change – for the better – what surrounds us. The second important book is “Self-design?”, a provocation that invites us to combine creativity with the practical ability of each one, following (or modifying) the trace of his own drawings for a chair, a table, a wardrobe and a bed. Equally rich is his production of texts dedicated to children, such as the series of game books “A train full of … drawing cards”, or “The game of fairy tales” in which fairy tales and legends take (literally) life leaving the child the freedom to design them as he chooses, or even “The swing” which teaches us to observe life in search of a possible balance. Without words, Mari has often managed to create dialogue with children, showing them concepts from the adult world with extreme visual clarity, such as quantities, weights, shapes and, indeed, the balance between all the parts.

For those looking for balance in art, then it is the writings of Lea Vergine that they must look for, starting with her “The other half of the avant-garde 1910-1940. Painters and sculptors in the movements of the historical avant-gardes “. This catalog of an exhibition that critics curated in 1980 is a decisive watershed because it turned the spotlight on European, Russian and American female artists long ignored, but who, like the male artists to whom they were often wives and muses , had contributed to the history of art with their talent. Or also, “The body as language” and “Art is not a matter of respectable people”, important books for art and society, from which to draw inspiration and intellectual sustenance to face and continue to improve the world. Because, after all, as Lea Vergine wrote, “It is useless for the viewer to look for something in the vision of a work of art to console him. It will only find something that will tear it apart. It will be up to him to decide how to use it ”.

Picture by Gianluca Di Ioia