Gaetano Pesce, the designer of free form

Gaetano Pesce is a major figure in post-war Italian and world design. It is difficult to summarise a work as protean and rich as his. In fact, if you take a look at his biography, you will see that he is an architect, environmental designer, painter, sculptor, stylist, scenographer, teacher and contemporary philosopher! His talent, which is open to disciplines other than design, is a sign of a strong personality, open to the world, which is reflected in the creation of his pieces.


Gaetano Pesce, portrait at his home in New York ©

Born in 1939 in La Spezia, Gaetano Pesce experienced first hand the protest movements of the 1960s. Often associated with the Radical Design movement, Pesce goes far beyond this label… Rather than recounting a series of creations in a career that began in the early 1960s, we will try to approach the man and his work through the militant and social dimension of his work, his taste for innovation, and finally his career as an architect, another unavoidable dimension of the character.

Geatano Pesce, in the twilight of his career, can say that he has shaken up the history of design and more particularly the way it is conceived. He asserted very early on the idea that design should go beyond the notion of utility to become an object of questioning.

Thus, in 1969, the designer conceived perhaps his most emblematic work, the UP5 Donna or Chair Up Dressed. This armchair, with its evocative shapes, is an ode to femininity… imprisoned and under the yoke of male domination. A very comfortable and deep seat to curl up in, completed by a footstool itself held to the armchair by a chain. According to the Italian master: ” This creation allowed me to express my vision of the woman. Always sedentary, she remains a prisoner of herself in spite of herself. The shape of this armchair, evoking the generous forms of a woman, held by a ball and chain, allowed me to refer to the traditional image of the prisoner.

Gaetano Pesce, Fauteuil UP5 & UP6 Donna, 1969 ©
Gaetano Pesce, UP5 & UP6 Donna armchair, 1969 © joyana .fr[/caption]In 1972, the Italian designer tackled another controversial subject: religion. He designed the Golgotha series, a suite of chairs and a desk. The furniture pieces are made from fibreglass and dacron. Plunged into a bath of polyester resin and placed on a form, the material hardens until it forms strange and terribly inventive pieces. According to Pesce, the Golgotha series is an indirect allusion to the Shroud of Turin. It is also proof of his taste for the use of innovative materials for the time and, already, the desire to make pieces that are not industrialised and produced identically. Indeed, depending on the way in which the craftsman projects the resin onto the piece, the “fall” of the material is random.

Chaise Golgotha

Golgotha chair, design Gaetano Pesce, 1972 ©

[caption id="attachment_8223" align="aligncenter" width="332"]184_5_important_design_june_2012_gaetano_pesce_golgotha_chair__wright_auction Golgotha chair, design Gaetano Pesce, 1972 ©


Golgotha chair, design Gaetano Pesce, 1972 ©

If 1972 marks the creation of the Golgotha Chair, it is also an important date in the history of post-war Italian design. Gaetano Pesce was already an established designer at that time. Together with Ettore Sottsass, another major figure in Italian design, and the critic Ugo de la Pietra, he supported the Radical Design movement of the time. Collectives such as Archizoom and Superstudio took part in the now cult exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape at the Moma in New York.

Their purpose: in an Italy plagued by social unrest (unemployment, inflation, housing crisis), creative artists, architects and designers criticized consumer society and the production of what they saw as standardized objects. Design must go beyond a merely useful and aesthetic function, denounce the financial imbalances of the time, and respond to the societal urgency as well as to the challenges of the modern world that are already emerging, such as, for example, the ecological question.

During the famous New York exhibition, Gaetano Pesce tries to answer the question of a large-scale ecological accident that would hit the Earth, and proposes a living space for 12 people that is habitable outside our planet.

Throughout his career, the Italian maestro has sought to convey messages through his works. More recently, in the early 2000s, he designed the Tchador lamp, a manifesto against veiled women. Pesce deserves the label of “radical” designer because his lamp rests on two red resin legs that run through it from the bottom, symbolising bloody knife blades crossing the bodies of veiled women… A terribly lively manifesto published by Circa in 2000.


Gaetano Pesce, Tchador Lamp, 2000 ©

In 1997, organised by Material ConneXion, a company with an international reputation for research into innovative materials, an exhibition with an evocative name celebrating Pesce’s bold choices in the use of materials was dedicated to him. Its title: Is the Future now? Gaetano Pesce: Material Explorations. Pesce is a master in the art of using the most unexpected materials. He has worked extensively with resin, and has worked in original ways with components such as recycled paper or plastic. However technical Gaetano Pesce’s projects may be, they all have a common DNA: that of breaking moulds, both literally and figuratively.

With the creation of the Carenza bookcase in 1972, which means “scarcity” in Italian, Gatenao Pesce wonderfully illustrates his desire to break the mould of standardisation of objects. The designer allowed himself the freedom to create free forms. This is why, if the copies of his famous bookcase are made from the same mould, each copy is unique.

Indeed, Pesce found a way of pouring expanding polyurethane into the mould, which is lying on its back, so that the foam flows randomly. Pesce invented the unique piece created within a series of similar products, because they were made with the same mould! The Italian master rightly calls this process a “diversified” or “pluralist” series. He could be reproached for an unfinished and imperfect design. And this is precisely what Pesce is looking for: the manufacturing defects become the mark of a search for authenticity, in reaction to the uniformity of the models produced at the time.


Gaetano Pesce, Carenza library, 1972 ©


Gaetano Pesce, Carenza library, 1972 ©

Other projects will legitimize this search for an imperfect design, a manifesto of anti standardisation, against mass production. This spirit can be seen in the Sit Down chairs made of fabric and polyurethane foam (1975), the Sansone table made of polyester resin in 1980 and the Dalila chair made of polyurethane and epoxy resin. All of these pieces of furniture were published by Cassina.


Gaetano Pesce, Sansone table, polyester resin, 1980 ©


Dalila Chairs, design Gaetano Pesce, 1980 ©

If Gaetano Pesce conveys an innovative and contentious design, it is because the man reflects on the major societal developments of his time. Consequently, it would be a mistake to reduce his influence solely to the design of interior furniture. He was also an architect with very ambitious projects.

First of all, we should remember that Pesce studied architecture at the University of Venice between 1959 and 1965. In the City of the Doges, he studied under Carlo Scapa, Ernesto Rogers (Compasso d’Oro Prize in 1955 and 1962), and the architectural theorist Bruno Zevi. He has also been a professor at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in Strasbourg, and has given lectures and participated in numerous juries in design and architecture schools around the world.

In 1982, he used rigid polyurethane foam bricks to design a loft – Vertical Loft -. But one of his major works is the design of a building with a green façade in Osaka (Organic building) in 1993, a first at the time, a commonplace attraction today. The so-called “green wall” is now a widespread concept in today’s architecture, with architects who have made it their speciality. The designer’s idea is to create prefabricated “pockets” containing soil that are anchored in the wall, creating a vertical garden. With this concept, Pesce also wanted a living building, which changes colour according to the seasons.


Gaetano Pesce, Organic Building, 1993.

On contemporary architecture, Pesce says: ” Recent architecture has essentially produced results that are uninspiring: cold, anonymous, monolithic, antiseptic, standardised. I have tried to communicate feelings of surprise, discovery, and optimism, of stimulation and originality. A statement that reflects his protest against functional and depersonalised design from the 1960s onwards.

In architecture, Pesce likes to surprise. This he did again in 2007, for the Museum of the Triennale in Milan. He proves that the architect can build with materials other than concrete, metal or glass. He erected a very original pavilion that did not go unnoticed, the Pink Pavilion. The building is made exclusively of rigid polyurethane. This material is an excellent insulator and keeps the temperature inside cool when it is hot outside, and conversely, when it is very cold, the heat is kept inside.


Gaetano Pesce, Pink Pavilion, Milan Triennale 2007. ©


Gaetano Pesce, Pink Pavilion, Milan Triennale 2007. ©

The pink colour of Pesce ‘s experimental pavilion was criticised at the time. This is not surprising, as the architect claims to want to humanise the buildings he designs with colour. This is a criticism he levelled at modern architecture, which, in his opinion, is strangely lacking in colours that are synonymous with life and energy. In 1998, Gaetano Pesce responded precisely to his desire to invent a “sensorial” architecture. In Brazil, in Bahia, he designed and built the Bahia House. An expressive mix of varied materials in the image of the city, an incredible cultural melting pot. He uses local rubber, modern resins or a mixture of glass, recycled parts and concrete.


Bahia House, design and conception Gaetano Pesce, 1998.


Bahia House, interior, design and conception Gaetano Pesce, 1998.

Now settled in New York for some thirty years, Pesce is passionate about the city that never sleeps and that inspires him. The greatest museums have paid tribute to him with retrospectives at the Pompidou Museum in 1996 – Gaetano Pesce. Le temps des questions. – or more recently at the MAXXI in Rome in 2014 – Gaetano Pesce, Il tempo della diversità -. Gaetano Pesce was one of the first to reject a standardised vision of the object and of style in order to innovate towards a poetic, sometimes baroque design. He is the designer par excellence of the free form, who considers the distinctions between design, art and industry to be unclear..

Retrospective of Gaetano Pesce’s career at the MAXXI Museum in Rome, 2014

Written by François Boutard