Gaetano Pesce began his career in the sixties, and ever since, it has been an eclectic mélange of styles, techniques and interpretations. It would be hard to define in a chronological manner: an order doesn’t exist. For a New York exhibition titled “Age of Contaminations” which provides a retrospective of Pesce’s work from 1968 – 1995 as the most important decades of his career, critic Glenn Adamson said of the designer:
“For him the whole point is to generate objects and images that insinuate themselves into daily life, while still remaining open to interpretation. His works resist closure, and welcome new association. (…) Like anything liquid, Pesce’s work can best be understood in terms of flow, without origin nor destination: just raw energy, newly configured in each moment.”
In a way, the ambiguity of this definition of Gaetano Pesce as a designer is the whole point. His work is profound and layered in a way that allows for constant definition and redefinition, giving no true answer but opening a whole plethora of possibilities. A deeper meaning lies within all of Pesce’s work – the sole functionality of it was never enough. He continuously merges function with cultural meaning, giving birth to expressive and controversial designs.
Gaetano Pesce was born in La Spezia in 1939. His earliest years were linked to Padua and Florence, before he moved to Venice to study architecture in 1958. During this time, Pesce participated in Gruppo N, a collective of experimental designers whose work has been termed ‘programmed art’. The group focused on visual and kinetic research and the illusory qualities in art. Another important element of their design process was inducing strong feelings in the spectator. For sixty years, Gaetano Pesce has been keeping his audience – for his work verges on performance – on their toes with thought-provoking buildings, furniture, objects and jewelry.
In keeping with the purposefully unpredictable career that was Pesce’s, his most notable, thought provoking works in no particular order:
One of Pesce’s most famous furniture designs, and one that was fairly recently revisited is the Up (Donna) Chair. Paired with a spherical footstool representing a ball and chain, the chair took the form of the female figure. In the midst of second-wave feminism, the chair was armed with a powerful message concerning the oppression of women. However, an installation in the center of Milan celebrating the 50th anniversary of the chair in 2019, sparked the protest of feminist groups claiming it was degrading. It was Pesce’s initial aim to provoke with his design half a century ago, and for it to still be the centerpiece of dialogue today is indicative of his success in that aspect. Yet, the overblown uproar caused by the installation can be considered a gross misinterpretation of the author’s intent in isolating the work from the context it was created in.
Somewhat overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the various interpretations of the Up5 Chair, is the commercial significance of the collection’s assembly. The pieces were created to be flat-packed and, upon reaching their destination, self-inflate. It was a highly innovative concept in which the user became part of an immersive experience in the home. On the surface, the Up5 Chair is a playful design oozing comfort and visual appeal, while deeper down it represented the ills of society at the time.
The Golgotha Table was loosely based on The Piece for an Execution (Piece per una Fucilazione), a 1967 performance staged by Pesce. A scene of a shooting and its bloody aftermath vaguely relate to the design of the Golgotha Table. Drenched with blood and religious symbolism, it remains one of Pesce’s most significant works. Visually, it is in stark contrast with the bright and fun exterior of the Up5. There is no illusion of joy in the Golgotha Table; it portrays tragedy and angst with fervor.
Drawing from his beginnings in programmed art, Pesce continued to incorporate powerful feelings with political and philosophical undertones in his designs. It was – and arguably, still is – a revolutionary idea, as furniture is primarily made to be functional and beautiful. The Golgotha Chair was created by shaping a resin soaked cloth into a chair. A person would then sit on it, leaving a permanent impression on the structure. This meant that each one was a unique specimen, which was a key quality of Pesce’s designs.
In this sense, Gaetano Pesce rejects the essence of modernity which lies in standardization and functionality. His defiance of these principles is founded in his interpretation of Modernism as “less a style than a method for interpreting the present and hinting at the future in which individuality is preserved and celebrated.” This thought translates to all of his work in his embrace of imperfections in the design process and the dominance of feelings, human touch and uniqueness.
Pesce’s work in architecture and interior design is also worth noting. His 1994 collaboration with design agency Chiat/Day brought the world a new kind of office. Adventurous and modern, it was deemed “a workplace designed for the age of the cellular phone and the computer modem”. Without private offices or assigned desks, it allowed its employees full freedom to roam the colorful, eccentric incarnation of Pesce’s imagination. The overall design of the space was very much the result of experimental techniques, such as the resin flooring hand-poured by Pesce himself.
While some have described it as “working inside a migraine”, its significance as an alternative model to the gloomy office cubicle of the seventies shouldn’t be overlooked. It was raw, filled with personality and offered a different kind of experience for its users. Adamson best sums up this provocative sensibility of Pesce’s in that “He posits wholly new ways of living just to see what it might look like.”
The Organic Building in Osaka is one of a handful of Pesce’s buildings from the middle of his career. Built in 1993, it was one of the first examples of green living in Japan. In stark contrast to its high-rise concrete neighbors, the red paneled façade of the Organic Building imposes a relatively new concept of a vertical garden in a densely populated city with little outdoor space. Irregularly shaped plant pots span the entire façade, complementing the striking red exterior and injecting color and life into the grey surroundings. This building, like Pesce’s entire oeuvre, is characterized by a boldness in that it embraces attention without fear of being misunderstood. For Gaetano Pesce, making a statement is more important than pleasing the masses with bland, expressionless designs.
An Ongoing Experiment
Pesce is mostly recognized for his extensive research of plastic and resin which heavily feature in his designs. A recent glimpse into his New York studio exposed an overwhelming collection of his past and ongoing experiments: vases, chairs, drawings, molded resin objects, jewelry. A specific form of his work in resin are his ‘industrial skins’ as he refers to them. The two-dimensional reliefs come in many shapes and represent the more artistic side of Pesce’s oeuvre.
To conclude this overview of Pesce’s life and most significant works, a quote from the designer himself:
“Perfection is very abstract; very neutral; very cold. the mistake, and the fault, are very human.”
Perhaps a perfect description as to why Pesce’s work has been so successful over six prolific decades. In a machine age of perfect, mass produced objects, there is something endearing about the wonderful, quirky creations that come out of Pesce’s studio. Behind the man stands an oeuvre as diverse as they come. Yet, even at the age of seventy nine, Pesce is still hard at work with more stories to tell.