Gaetano Pesce is one of the most progressive and visionary designers of the 20th century, building a diverse and avant-garde body of work from principles of anti-rationalism, a concern for the individual and the “human touch,” and an experimental approach to materials and means of production.
Pesce was born in 1939 in La Spezia, Italy and grew up between Florence and Padua. His father, a naval officer, died in WWII, leaving his mother to raise him and his brother alone, resulting in a difficult childhood. From a young age, Pesce exhibited a rebellious spirit, joining Gruppo N, a radical artist collective when he was still a teenager. In 1959, Pesce enrolled at the University of Venice to study architecture, because he considered it to be the most complex and challenging of the arts. He found the curriculum tedious and stifling with its insistence on historicism and the hyper-rationalist, mechanical, and abstracted ideals of modernist architecture, which he thought disregarded the individual and attempted to standardize the human spirit. He found his suspicions of modernism confirmed when he visited Dessau, Germany, the birthplace of the Bauhaus, to find that the first Bauhaus building, where Paul Klee and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe taught, had been turned into a coal room.
Outside of his formal studies, Pesce began what would become his lifelong investigation into atypical materials, namely resin. He began auditing classes at the progressive Venice College of Industrial Design, where he met like-minded artists and designers. In 1964 Pesce had a career-changing encounter with Cesare Cassina, founder of the Cassina furniture company. Excited by the young designer’s ideas, Cassina gave Pesce a monthly stipend to travel and research new materials for Cassina designs.
Pesce graduated from University of Venice in 1965, traveled for a bit in Finland, where he considered the most exciting design to be happening and later settled in Paris to open his own studio. In this era, forward-thinking designers were stuck in a bit of a paradox; they were driven to engage with the boundless design opportunities presented by a burgeoning consumerist society, but were also, ideologically, reluctant to fall into the trap of indulging its superficial demands and desires. Designers like Pesce reconciled this impulse by working to bring humanism, feeling and meaning to their designs, rather than mechanized uniformity. Throughout his career, Pesce has been committed to the idea of “mass-produced originals,” that contain the human touch and fall under the designation of “counter-design."
In 1969, Pesce stumbled into his first major line of furniture by way of pondering his sponge while in the shower. His Up series, created from high-density polyurethane foam, with no interior structure, was revolutionary in that it could be vacuum-packed and stored and shipped flat; the pieces were also organic and pliable in form. His most famous work from this series is the La Mamma chair—with its ample proportions, recalling an ancient fertility goddess, the chair is feminine, sensual, tactile and envelopes the sitter. La Mamma also came with an ottoman that was originally attached to the chair, symbolizing the “ball-and-chain” history had put on women. The Up furniture debuted in 1969 and is at the crux of understanding Pesce’s design ethos; with a rather forceful hand and roguish attitude, he was intent on moving away from design and architecture that was decidedly masculine and intellectual and toward forms that were carnal, supple and grounded.
Pesce and Cassina founded Bracciodiffero together in 1970, the first expressly avant-garde furniture company. That same year, the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris gave Pesce his first solo exhibition. For the show, he composed original electronic music to be played throughout the galleries and filled the space with sandalwood incense. Two years later, he was asked to participate in the influential The New Domestic Landscape: Achievements and Problems of Italian Design at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The exhibition included many great designers such as Ettore Sottsass, Gae Aulenti, Archizoom group, Bruno Munari, and Joe Colombo, whose designs were on view, as well as “environments” created explicitly for the show. Pesce’s work was by far the most controversial. He presented a futuristic archeological dig, a re-discovered society from the third millennium, dubbed “Age of the Great Contamination,” that lived in sterile, rigid environments, disconnected from the outside world. A video accompanied the installation, showing the residents of the community eating one another in a ritualistic ceremony, driven mad by their highly rational, disconnected civilization.
During the 1970s, Pesce continued his exploration of plastics and innovative production, creating landmark works such as the Golgotha suite (1972-3) and the Sit Down suite (1975) as well as devoted energies to conceptual and avant-garde architectural projects and re-imaginations. Pesce also began a twenty-eight-year teaching tenure at the Institut National des Sciences Appliquées in Strasborg, France in the late 1970s.
After an appointment as a lecturer at the Pratt Institute in 1980, Pesce and his family relocated to New York, where he let the cityscape inform his work, creating iconic works such as the Tramonto a New York sofa (1980) and his Pratt chairs (1983). His focus also turned toward lighting and private residential commissions, where he was able to create total environs. In the 1990s Pesce again returned to his idea of “mass-produced originals,” working with the Italian company Zerodisegno to create some of his most accessible but still unconventional designs such as the Nobody’s Perfect series, the Umbrella Chair (1995) and his Open Sky series with Fish Design. Pesce also began constructing what is perhaps his most ambitious work, a vacation home complex in Bahia, Brazil where he has experimented with a myriad of innovative forms and materials on a large-scale.
Despite his fervent anti-establishment values, Pesce has been recognized by the design community as an influential visionary. He was awarded the Chrysler Design Award for Innovation and Design in 1993 and the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles in 2010. His designs are held in the collections of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, Washington D.C., The Victoria and Albert Museum, London and The Museum of Modern Art, New York, among others. Pesce continues to live and work in New York.