- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

The pared-down objects created by Italian designer Enzo Mari are deceptively simple in shape and detail.

A silver blade narrows to become the sinuously curved handle of a knife. A section of a steel I-beam is bent into a tray. Even trash is invited into the most elemental of receptacles, a plastic cylinder leaning forward to receive the user’s toss.

A small exhibit of Mr. Mari’s work at the Embassy of Italy’s cultural center provides only a glimpse of his ingenuity - it doesn’t hold a candle to the 250-piece retrospective of his 50-year career on view at the Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Turin, Italy.

The embassy display is just enough to acquaint viewers with the greatest hits of this designer who is less well known than the more commercially successful Ettore Sottsass, Achille Castiglioni, Mario Bellini and other leaders of postwar Italian design.

On view are furnishings, tableware and wall hangings that border on the generic in their no-frills appearances. “Design is dead,” Mr. Mari is fond of saying in criticizing the self-conscious, ornamented objects of the postmodern age. “Ninety-nine percent of what is designed today has already been designed hundreds of thousands of times.”

Yet for all the recycling, Mr. Mari has managed to refresh everyday household items with new twists. A citrus juicer with a big, practical handle, an elegantly curved pasta pot and a set of stackable utensils reflect just enough design refinements to keep them interesting. Some of his containers are so well thought out and detailed that their lids require no extraneous hinges and hardware.

In the embassy show, smaller designs are arranged on the stacking shelving systems designed by Mr. Mari to reveal his interest in modular, changeable designs. His 1971 Sof Sof chair, shown at the back of the exhibit, combines a removable cushion on a metal wire frame. His 1974 Delfina chair incorporates zippers up the back and seat so the fabric can be taken off for cleaning.

This rational, form-follows-function approach reflects Mr. Mari’s long-held interest in the theoretical side of design. Born in 1932, he studied literature and art in Milan before developing a series of products for the manufacturer Danese.

His first design was a wooden puzzle made of interlocking animal shapes - elephant, hippo, camel and the like - joined together in a box. Launched in 1957, the whimsical “16 Animals” reflected his love of problem-solving and marked the start of a long collaboration with Danese.

During the 1960s, Mr. Mari used the company’s signature material - plastic - to elevate the cheap material into sleek, sculptural designs. An umbrella stand, a calendar and a vase from this period are among the most classic objects in the show.

In the 1980s, when his colleagues shifted into flamboyant, ironic designs, Mr. Mari stuck to his streamlined approach to produce the restrained Tonietta chair. Its cast-aluminum frame, bolted to a round seat, subtly tapers to tiny feet.

The designer’s modernist style became fashionable again in the 1990s, but by then, Mr. Mari had already moved on to eco-conscious designs. Displayed in one corner of the exhibit is “Eccolo,” a box filled with recycled detergent and fabric-softener bottles, their plastic cut and bent by the designer into flower vases.

In the 2000s, Mr. Mari partnered with the Japanese manufacturer Hida Sangyo to create furnishings made from sugi, a type of cedar harvested from sustainable forests in Japan. The chairs from this line are among the most conventional of his designs, but a combination mirror-clothes rack in the wood bears his inventive stamp.

Mr. Mari recently has worked with Thonet, the originator of the bentwood chair, to develop a plywood variation on its rocker with plastic arms. His fascination with inexpensive materials is further reflected in a 2002 design for Magis called Pop. This lightweight children’s chair is carved from brightly colored styrofoam.

Scattered throughout the exhibit are bold posters of a single, streamlined image, including a black panther and an apple, dating from the 1960s. They bear the same child friendliness as the styrofoam chair and animal puzzle.

Mr. Mari’s designs prove that minimalism can be playful as well as practical.

WHEN YOU GO

WHAT: “Enzo Mari”

WHERE: Italian Cultural Institute, Embassy of Italy, 3000 Whitehaven St. NW

WHEN: By appointment 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday through Dec. 10

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/518-0998, ext. 1

WEB SITE: www.iicwashington.esteri.it

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