The Sad Harlequin of Italian Design: How Alessandro Mendini Made Ordinary Things Extraordinary
The Sad Harlequin of Italian Design: How Alessandro Mendini Made Ordinary Things Extraordinary
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Alessandro Mendini and his famous armchair

"Fu, kitsch!" - we throw disdainfully when we see some lurid, strange, tasteless thing. Alessandro Mendini, a key figure in Italian design, called his creations kitsch with undisguised pride, and called himself the Harlequin, designed to delight people.

Sofa by Alessandro Mendini A table with a reference to the Harlequin costume

He admitted that all his life he was a pessimist, and only in the last years of his life he learned to amuse not only clients, but also himself. Born in Italy in 1931, he lived a long life filled to the brim with … work. All the interesting facts in his biography were associated only with the things he created - as if no Alessandro Mendini existed outside of creativity.

Armchair by Alessandro Mendini A lamp in the style of a radical design

Post-war Italian design was the epitome of "good taste." It was believed that the designer should create minimalistic, harmonious, perfectly adjusted furniture, laconic household items of restrained tones - and nothing more. Mendini, who received his diploma in architecture and worked as a coordinator of design teams, somehow completely spontaneously found himself in the circle of radical young people who were terribly tired of the dryness and simplicity of "good design."

Works by Alessandro Mendini The radical design challenged the respectable public … Works by Alessandro Mendini Works by Alessandro Mendini Expressive chairs Mendini

In 1970, he was invited to the post of editor-in-chief of Casabella magazine, and here Mendini turned to its fullest, turning the magazine into a focus of radical, anarchist ideas - of course, in the field of design and architecture. Mendini had a hand in the creation of the creative associations "Memphis" and "Alchemy", which actually created postmodern design, freshly and freely dealing with form, color, cultural borrowings and references, operating with irony and images of the unconscious, including erotic motives. A little later, Mendini headed the cult magazines for architects and designers Modo and Domus, where he continued to promote the most incredible projects.

Furniture that contradicts so-called good taste in design Shelves and a plate of Mendini Mendini inlaid wardrobes Inlaid furniture Mendini's wardrobe

As a designer, Mednini was often inspired by literature, mainly philosophical - some of his works are a response to Baudrillard, others illustrate the work of Rousseau or Diderot. In 1978 he invented the Proust chair, dedicated, as the name suggests, to Marcel Proust. At the same time, at first glance, no connection with the creative work of Proust can be traced - this is an armchair in the style of the 18th century, in the upholstery of which motifs from the painting "Meadow" by Paul Signac are used. "He would have liked it," Mendini explained the choice of the name. Subsequently, "Proust" was reissued several times, including … carved in marble.

Armchair Proust Armchair Proust Armchair Proust

Among the furniture created by the designer, there are objects with loud names like "Ingres", "Hokusai", "Turner", "Canova" - it is not so easy for an uninitiated viewer to figure out where the designer has hidden a reference to one or another great artist! Mendini did a lot of exhibition, organizational and teaching activities, opening, in fact, laboratories of modern design.

Armchair with a reference to pointillism Vases dedicated to the work of famous artists Mendini table Ornamented table Wardrobe with ornaments and architectural motives

Design is not at all a free flight of imagination, design engineering is always limited by production possibilities and ergonomics of use, but what Mendini did turned engineering into a psychedelic journey. Researchers of his work see in Mendini not a Harlequin amusing the audience, but an almost tragic figure, realizing what a huge amount of strength, mental, intellectual and physical, this man gave to change the usual ideas about design.

Mendini in the background of her drawings

In the early 1980s, against the backdrop of a depressive episode, Alessandro Mendini "went underground", practically ceasing to engage in design for industry. During this period, he designed installations and organized performances, imbued with a spirit of disappointment. But after several years of sadness and loneliness, Mendini suddenly returned to the cultural life of Italy with a new high-profile project - the magazine "Ollo", where there were practically no texts, except for captions to illustrations and photographs.

Installation of Mendini Installation of Mendini

In the late 1980s, Mendini worked actively designing furniture, accessories and office space. Together with his brother, in 1989 he founded his own design studio, which also dealt with architecture and interiors.

Mendini and his creations - small and large Architectural projects of Mendini Hiroshima stop project and Tower of Heaven Fragment of the exterior of the Mendini Museum The interior of the museum

In the 90s, he created a famous collection of kitchen appliances dedicated to his friend Anna Geely. Her image - facial features and outlines of a fashionable haircut - is repeated in the form of salt shakers, corkscrews and forks. These things are available to the general consumer now.

Anthropomorphic corkscrews, among them - Anna Anthropomorphic corkscrews Corkscrews parrots Double glasses Vase and decorative sculpture

Mendini called his work "banal design." In fact, he took on the most ordinary things - cabinets and chairs, dishes, plumbing - and turned them into something extraordinarily complex in semantic content, visually vivid and attractive, understandable on an emotional level for both highly educated critics and ordinary consumers. A smiling corkscrew is both an excuse to philosophize and a great party decoration for your closest friends.

Stools with abstract patterns A set of objects for home decor A watch with a reference to pointillism

As a successful designer, Mendini received his main awards for his activities as a teacher, cultural researcher, critic and design theorist. He was awarded the Compasso d'Oro (Golden Compass) Prize in 1979 and the European Architecture Prize in 2015 for “humanism in the spirit of the Renaissance masters”.

Interiors designed by Mendini Mendini restaurant

The last years of his life were perhaps the most turbulent for him in terms of the number of projects, and he himself often said that the world is too cruel a place, which means that his mission is to give people happiness. After eighty years, he never missed a single design week, experimented with new materials, worked with the youth clothing brand Supreme …

Shirt for Supreme Interior for the Le Corbusier residential unit in Berlin Interior elements for the Le Corbusier residential unit

His projects actually have the status of works of art. Today they can be seen in the permanent exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in the Center Pompidou in Paris. The amount of fresh, bright, unexpected ideas produced by the designer contrasts with the incredibly scarce information about his personal life. The love of his life was design.

Mendini furniture collection Furniture collection

Mendini passed away in 2019 - but shortly before his death, the designer mentioned that he had plans for the next life. He dreamed of being born again … as an artist - and for this it is worth believing in reincarnation.

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