The iconic – and iconoclastic – New York–based Italian designer, architect and artist Gaetano Pesce has died at the age of 84. From his playful furniture to bold experiments in resin, the irreverent innovator was actively creating until the end: In 2022, he made us all fall in love with him all over again when Bottega Veneta displayed his crayon-hued chairs in its Spring/Summer 2023 runway show. For all of us at Azure, Pesce was also part of our history. In 2010, he designed a characteristically playful series of “fishes” to celebrate our 25th anniversary. And six years later, he joined us as the Guest of Honour at the 2016 AZ Awards Gala.

To say goodbye, we are publishing here, for the first time online, Azure’s July/August 1989 cover feature on Gaetano Pesce. At the height of Pesce’s illustrious career, Gerry Bergeron met up with the designer when he was in Montreal for an exhibition on his work — and, with a wink and an unparalleled wit, challenging the capital-M Modernist giants who came before him.

Grazie, Gaetano: Looking Back on Pesce’s Unrivalled Career

Gaetano Pesce, on the cover of Azure’s Jul/Aug 1989 issue

Maverick furniture designer Gaetano Pesce creates furniture that may strike us as bizarre today but that he expects we will like tomorrow. As a natural consequence of his fascination with the individual and idiosyncratic, Pesce rejects manufactured uniformity and exalts the flaw as a thing of beauty.

If Gaetano Pesce had his way, chairs might look like blobs of lava, tables would look like post-nuclear remains and armoires would be, made of felt. The iconoclastic Italian furniture designer is out to smash the complacency of established design. While his work isn’t a big seller in the mass market, it has been exhibited in the Louvre and some of his chairs and tables grace the permanent collection of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. “l don’t care about what people like today,” said Pesce, in Montreal to open an exhibition of his work at the University of Quebec’s Design Centre, “l care what they will like.”

Pesce has devoted most of his professional life to challenging accepted concepts of design. Some of his pieces border on the anatomically criminal, while others are comfortable and visually pleasing. Simple, inexpensive materials and low-tech fabrication are his trademarks. His sometimes amorphous, sometimes anthropomorphic designs deliberately reject the great assumptions of the Modern Movement.

As part of his 1975 one-man exhibit at the Louvre, he placed slabs of meat in four spot-lit glass showcases. He called the piece “Homage to Mies van der Rohe” – “an architect that I liked, not loved,” says Pesce. So why the meat? “In that kind of place … people destroy their minds … every day the same perfect geometry, it’s too minimal. So I put meat in the four boxes … showing that every day the meat was becoming the image of destruction.” This carnal homage lasted eleven unrefrigerated days. Then, the museum staff, incensed by Pesce’s rank treatment of a 20th century icon, demanded the destruction of his “image of destruction.”

Gaetano Pesce

Gaetano Pesce.

Pesce received his formal training as an architect in Venice in the early 60’s. He has gained international standing in avant-garde furniture design, as well as architecture. In 1981, he was invited by the French government to design furniture for President Mitterand’s private entrance suite in the Elysée Palace – although participation was later restricted to French citizens. Responding to another invitation, he competed in 1977 for the design of a new national library in Tehran. The Islamic Revolution curtailed that project and Pesce’s revolutionary zeal for design never got to mix with Khomeini’s revolutionary zeal for just about everything.

Pesce maintains a studio and residence in both Paris and New York. His ongoing collaboration with Cassina, the Milan company that produces most of his designs, takes him regularly to Italy and he is currently working on a building project in Brazil and a bar in Japan.

The Montreal exhibition was entitled Producing the Difference Industrially and was sponsored by Cassina and their Montreal distributor, Chateau d’Aujourdi, the Quebec Association of Furniture Manufacturers and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Montreal. It featured numerous Pesce drawings and some 16 pieces of his furniture. France Vanlaethem, design professor at the University of Quebec and organizer of the show, is writing a book on Pesce that will appear in September.

Gaetano Pesce and B&B Italia celebrated 50 years of Up with a massive and much photographed installation at the Piazza del Duomo, Milan Design Week, Instagram

In 2019, Gaetano Pesce and B&B Italia celebrated 50 years of the iconic Up series (originally released in 1969) with a massive installation at the Piazza del Duomo.

Pesce’s drawings are filled with whimsy and humour. One pen and ink drawing depicts a veritable “design Armageddon,” in which the battered ruins of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe architecture occupy the foreground; beyond the destruction we glimpse the “brave new world” of design’s future represented by Pesce’s Sit Down chair under a gleaming rainbow. And, if you still don’t get the message, large, crumbling, stone letters lying amid the rubble spell it out – they read “END.” The drawing served as a promotional poster for Cassina in launching the Sit Down series. Says Pesce, “Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe were giants … but their language is arriving at its end … that kind of beauty is too abstract… today we need something more personalized, more human, with faults too.”

The technology involved in the Sit Down chair is “simple and inexpensive,” explains Pesce, “ample fabric stapled to a wooden frame is hung upside down. Then, polyurethane foam is poured in and allowed to expand. The shape varies according to temperature, quantity of foam and the worker’s mood on production day. Every chair is unique – a little fatter here, a bit more lopsided there – just like people.” The outcome is a puffy chair with ballooning arms and a a skirt of loosely hanging material. It gives the impression of one of those funky, old grandmother, hand-me-down chairs that we all had in our student days, before we actually started spending real money on furniture. Those chairs were usually morose maroon, but comfortable if the springs didn’t get you. Pesce’s Sit Down chairs, on the other hand, explode with bright primary colours and deliver comfort without springs.

Grazie, Gaetano: Looking Back on Pesce’s Unrivalled Career

Made of resin, the Nobody’s Perfect collection of chairs demonstrates Pesce’s embrace of imperfections, flaws and individuality.

In the post-industrial age, society has recovered from its century-long love affair with manufactured uniformity. We all know that modern technology can produce objects flawlessly. Now, people want things that are different, they want uniqueness, character – flaws are in, mechanical perfection is out. Or as least, so says Pesce, the master of the well-placed flaw: “I hope to show that the kind of image of beauty that prevails today is not absolute … to get people to accept something flawed as beautiful … it’s a concept of beauty that is economical because when people accept objects that are flawed, then everything can be used.”

Grazie, Gaetano: Looking Back on Pesce’s Unrivalled Career

Pesce used resin as the material for his “fishes” for Azure’s 25th anniversary in 2010.

We no longer need to use such specialized labour, we can use cheaper labour.” Ironically, this new, cheaper labour force, unable to afford the high price of the new, flawed elegance, will probably have to settle for the ho-hum perfection of the past. And someday, bargain-hunting antique dealers of a future generation will comb the back-sheds of the countryside, looking for the lost perfection of the “good old days.”

Another series of drawings plots the evolution of the new Cannaregio seating line by Cassina (1987). Cannaregio grew out of Pesce’s designs for Mitterand’s entrance suite in the Elysée Palace. Pesce says, “I thought that this must be the president of many different people … this was the beginning of the idea to have chairs representing different people … various shapes like a nose here or a shoulder there.”

Grazie, Gaetano: Looking Back on Pesce’s Unrivalled Career

Pesce’s Cannaregio in all its polymorphous beauty.

Pesce’s favourite themes are evident in the rambunctious asymmetry of both form and colour. The Cannaregio chairs actually do look like a random collection of people. Odd bulges and curves, different textures and mismatched colours jostle each other like a subway crowd at rush hour – there’s an unruly, almost organic energy. One of Pesce’s drawings shows a naked man with an erection sitting on a Cannaregio chair.

Also represented at the exhibition was Pesce’s 1980 Tramonto a New York (Sunset in New York). This charming and literal divan consists of a sun setting (or rising, depending on your mood) amid a collection of upholstered blocks of varying heights. The fabric of the blocks suggests the windows of high-rises. A large radiating orange sun, resembling a giant, splayed hand is the backrest; the blocks/highrises serve as seat and arms. Pesce comments, “One day in New York, I felt that the energy that had been there was no longer this energy that capitals have… it arrives in a place and then, for no (apparent) reason leaves – ancient Rome, Paris, London and in our time, the 20th century, the capital was New York, but now the energy is leaving.” And where is it going? “Japan.” So Tramonto bids a fond sayonara to New York and wings its way to the land of the rising sun.

Grazie, Gaetano: Looking Back on Pesce’s Unrivalled Career

The original Tramonto a New York, which Pesce would reinterpret in new versions for Cassina throughout the decades that followed its 1980 launch.

Gaetano Pesce divider

In 2023, Cassina produced a partition based on Tramonto a New York.

Unfortunately, Pesce’s delightful anthropomorphic buffet, Les Ateliers, was at the show in maquette form only. There were drawings of his felt-constructed armoire and the harsh Sansone Due (Samson Il) table was there, looking like tea-time in the nuclear winter. This one’s hard to categorize – irregular resin top on a bed of jutting metal rods, all perched on black, cylindrical legs of different diameters, that sit in soft blobs of blood-red plastic (l think). No one’s going to accuse this table of being post-modern; if anything, it’s “post-table.” At a press gathering, surrounded by his Cassina-produced designs, Pesce chatted informally with journalists sitting in several of his chairs. One journalist cooed about the comfort of his I Feltri designs, while caressing its felt sides. Meanwhile, I was stuck on the rigid polyurethane Dalila Il chair (1980), which looked and felt like a tribute to the seminal influence of molten lava on furniture design.

Grazie, Gaetano: Looking Back on Pesce’s Unrivalled Career

Pesce’s I Feltri (1987) is now in many design museum collections around the world.

As much as the Dalila Il chair may assault the senses, the I Feltri (1987) charms and soothes them. This wonderful design combines the major tenets of Pesce’s design philosophy – low-tech fabrication, simple, inexpensive materials and that one-of-a-kind quality in each piece. Thick felt (3/4″) is cut to a pattern and wrapped around a small, padded seat.

Below the seat, the felt is hardened with polyester resin, above it is left soft and fans out dramatically like Count Dracula’s collar. A futon lining is snapped on the inside. The wing-backs can be folded down or left up at whim. These colourful chairs have a fantasy-like quality – the good witch of the west would probably feel at home in one of them. When asked what he was working on next, Pesce was tight-lipped. “Well,” I pressed, “at least tell us what material you’re working with.”

“Membranes,” said Pesce.

Lead Image: Gaetano Pesce at the 2016 AZ Awards Gala.

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