“We could award the Nobel Prize to any child over the age of two.” This provocative statement was the starting point for the lecture entitled “Theory and ethics of design” given yesterday morning at Cersaie by acclaimed designer Enzo Mari to an audience of architecture students. It was a lesson in reverse given that much of the meeting consisted of questions put to the teacher by the students. As requested by Mari himself, these were simple questions that at the same time are essential for young people starting out in the profession today. How can an idea be translated into a “perfect” project? And above all, how can one remain a designer, an artist, in a world dominated by profit, industry and the need for standardisation?
“A two-year-old child is perfectly capable on his own of gradually learning about time, space and light,” Mari answered. “Starting out from a blank slate, from a situation in which even the awareness of one’s own self, of one’s body, is quite vague. It is an astonishing phenomenon. The child’s creativity, if we really want to use this obscene word, is far greater than that of a Bach or an Einstein. Unfortunately, over time, he loses this ability. This is due to the world that surrounds us, that imposes its rules, paradigms that have no relationship with practice or experience.”
This is the first secret to becoming a good designer. “Think for yourselves.” Starting out from the assumption that a theory is – or at least should be – nothing other than the critical description of a practice, while knowledge itself is no more than a collection of historically stratified “lists”, underlying which there is always practical experience, a direct relationship with matter.
“When drawing up his first lists, gaining his first practical experiences, a child begins to theorise. But he does this by adding new experiences to the description, creating a more complex description which in turn is enhanced by experience. If you want to become a good designer, don’t rely on theories but on the things that have not yet been described,” advises Mari. “Education has a big responsibility in this. Unfortunately, we have to accept that there are good designers not because of education but in spite of education. This applies in particular to universities.”
The point, Mari observed, is that art cannot be driven by paradigms. They are fine for science.
“But art feeds on dreams, ideas and ideologies. Don’t fool yourselves that a three-year course will give you the tools you need to become a great artist. Greatness is achieved by practising eight hours a day, like famous composers or conductors. For those who achieve greatness, education finishes the day they die. I myself don’t believe that I have gone any further than the second astonishing act performed by a two-year-old child, that of describing a practical experience, which in principle is totally random.”
And from the idea through to the sketch and the model, the secret for achieving good results – if not a perfect project – is to disregard the idea of earning, of producing something useful in a short space of time. You have to ignore this structural characteristic of industry, the need to mass produce elements and to invest only the time strictly necessary to design them at the beginning.
“In my work, I make a hypothesis, then I look at it and criticise it ferociously,” explained Mari. “I eliminate everything that appears to me to be a defect, in order of severity. In very rare cases I have the feeling that the first idea is the right one, but then I begin to feel suspicious so I consider another idea. Then I model both of them, I actually construct them. In the end I make a third model. These are the principles of dialectics: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.”
It is difficult to ask Mari to compromise with the market. Nonetheless, the students taking part in the meeting in Palazzo dei Congressi this morning asked him to take into account a world in which market economics, production times and standardisation have a certain influence even for designers, especially those at the beginning of their careers.
“I didn’t choose to be an artist. I came from a very poor family and was forced to break off my classical studies to maintain five people for many years. By working hard, I managed to save up just enough to enrol at university, given that my one and only passion has always been a thirst for knowledge and understanding. Then I discovered that in order to enrol at university you have to have a high school diploma. So I chose the academy of fine arts where you can enrol even without a diploma. And so I ended up as an artist. The only thing that really counts is to focus on the founding values of western culture. Not those that have led to robbery but those of Plato and then Aristotle, who unlike his teacher believed that ideas, although perfect, were not sufficient. He considered it essential to investigate matter, to look into details. These men were the real teachers.”
So the ethics of design is the only possible antidote to conditioning imposed by the market, perhaps the only antidote for truly excelling in the profession and ultimately in the market. But what about quality?
“Quality is an objective fact that stems from debate. If we asked the hundred best designers in the world to make a list of the hundred best works in the world, we would end up with very similar if not identical lists. There is no convincing explanation for this phenomenon other than that quality is an objective fact. And these are the works that anyone who wishes to excel in this profession must measure himself against. It doesn’t matter much if you don’t reach the top. What really counts is at least being on the right path.”