Alessandro Mendini helped to define radical Italian design, first through his collaborations with Alchimia and Archizoom then with his iconic pieces – from the Proust armchair to the Anna corkscrew – and finally with his enduring vision of a soulful approach to design.
This past weekend, Alessandro Mendini died at the age of 87. The Italian architect and designer was an icon and his legacy lives on through his works, which include the Proust armchair – a pseudo-historic throne fit for the French author that Mendini clad in a pointillist pattern – and his Family Follows Fiction tools for Alessi, including the cartoonish, anthropomorphic Anna corkscrew.
But Mendini, who graduated from the Politecnico di Milano in 1959 with a degree in architecture, was much more than a designer. He was a thinker and a provocateur. In 1998, when Azure featured him on our cover, we described him as a man apart even in the company of the legendary friends, including Ettore Sottsass and Andrea Branzi, with whom he was “reacting against the stultifying conventions of architecture.”
“Mendini was the provocateur and iconoclast, generating strong images that sent up ‘good design’ and using his position as editor of design magazines to challenge industry’s inflexible stance based on a rational and pseudo-scientific approach to design,” we wrote back then.
In fact, Mendini rewrote those narratives through both his words and his work. As a young, radical designer, he flirted with Archizoom and Alchimia (the Proust armchair was part of an Alchimia exhibition in 1978). As a thinker, he took on the role of editor for magazines including Domus (he also co-founded Domus Academy). As a designer, he set the scene ablaze: his first chair was Lassù, which he unveiled in 1974 by setting fire to it in a field (this was long before Maarten Baas was even a twinkle in his mother’s eye).
After establishing Atelier Mendini with his brother, Francesco, he became more prolific and established in the creation of architecture and production pieces. He designed totemic buildings like the gold-laminate-clad tower of the Groninger Museum (a collaboration with Michele De Lucchi, Philippe Starck and Coop Himmelb(l)au) and the shimmering, conical Torre del Paradiso in Hiroshima. He designed stores for Swatch and Bisazza, while creating new products for their brands. His designs for Alessi alone will keep his sensibility alive for years to come.
He did all this in the spirit of connecting design to art, and to our primordial and enduring need for meaning. In the October 1996 issue of Domus, speaking of what the new millennium promised, he wrote:
“The arid, brief and swift path so far pursued by our objects of the industrial age has failed to measure up to the poetic beauty of ancient things, of instruments for anthropological rites, to that slow epochal transformation completed in all its length by mankind. Design must be the soul expressed through material, a good and not aggressive soul, a soul that respects the poverty of so many men and peoples. And the gradient of poverty, the ethical specific sight present in an object, are the elements that guide its selection, that accredit certain objects and not others to enter with dignity into the forthcoming millennium.”
Alessandro Mendini was also a great friend of Azure’s. In 2017, in fact, he was part of a show that Azure curated in Milan called Breaking Bread. Nelda Rodger, Editorial Director, recalls, “Alessandro Mendini was a revolutionary force who pushed design past the limits of rationalism. He loved colour and the obscure linkages between art and product design.”