The passing of iconic architect-designer Alessandro Mendini

End of an Era

By Gretta Louw

He was a creator of vibrant, exuberant worlds—and now, sadly, he has departed ours. Legendary Italian architect, designer, publisher, critic, and teacher Alessandro Mendini passed away earlier this week at the age of 87. The legacy that he leaves behind is one of playful color, provocative irony, and a one-of-a-kind dynamism and radical thinking that sparked multiple movements through the postwar era and beyond.

From his contribution to Radical Design and his work with Studio Alchimia to his reinvention of the Alessi brand with  anthropomorphized kitchenware and, of course, his own thriving design practice, Atelier Mendini, in collaboration with his brother Francesco, Alessandro Mendini’s oversized influence has rippled through design history and will forever impact the way we think about design.

An early proponent of blurring the lines between design and art, Mendini once notoriously burned two archetypal chairs, calling for a war on functionalism, before casting the Lassú Chair in bronze, perched atop a bronze pyramid—making the seat impossible to sit on. His Proust Armchair, designed in 1978 and produced by Cappellini, is another masterpiece; an unforgettable collision between Victorian form and 20th-century iconoclasm. Featuring hand-painted upholstery inspired by pointillist painters like Georges Seurat and Paul Signac and informed by Mendini's travels to France to research Proust’s descriptions of place and time, the Proust is a synthesis of literary theory, Duchampian readymades, and painterly expression, perhaps the ultimate exemplar of Mendini’s incredibly astute, intelligent, and utterly unexpected approach to design.

In 2010, Mendini curated Quali Cose Siamo—translating to The Things We Are—at the Design Museum of the Triennale. The widely lauded exhibition consisted of a collection of approximately 800 objects that Mendini believed expressed what it is like to be Italian and, in doing so, creating a poetic gesamtkunstwerk describing a national identity—and, as many visitors exclaimed, a tantalizingly beautiful glimpse into his own mind.

Working across almost the broadest possible range of scopes, Mendini designed buildings around the world—the flamboyant Groninger Museum arguably being the most recognizable—as well as highly imaginative objects all the way down to the intimate scale of lamps, vases, and corkscrews. A figure of contradictions, Mendini was known for his subtle and incisive design critique, theory, and writing on the one hand as well as his unselfconsciously bombastic designs on the other. The legend himself once said, “I relate to objects as I do with human beings, I make them smile.” His wit and humor will most certainly be missed, although his influence lives on in many a contemporary designer. Goodbye, Alessandro, thanks for all the smiles.

  • Text by

    • Gretta Louw

      Gretta Louw

      A South-African born Australian currently based in Germany, Gretta is a globetrotting multi-disciplinary artist and language lover. She holds a degree in Psychology, and has seriously avant garde leanings.

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