In late 1999 Gaetano Pesce was called one of “the most celebrated and influential designers” of the past two decades by Herbert Muschamp, Architecture Critic for the New York Times. Muschamp referred to the group, which included Ettore Sottsass, Shiro Kuramata, and Philippe Starck, as “the only four figures of major artistic stature [that] will be left standing…when the dust has settled from this maniacally industrious chapter in the field of industrial design… This quartet has led us into the epoch of postindustrial design.” As the new millennium begins and a new design epoch gains momentum, we see Pesce stake his claim to a place in a second pantheon – the greatest designers of the first decades of the 21st century. With his Nobody’s Perfect collection for ZeroDisegno, the first stake has been driven into that fallow ground.

Genesis of the Exhibition After first seeing the Nobody’s Perfect collection last year, I reflected on the fact that the breadth of Pesce’s recent achievements in resin only became apparent to me after I had visited his studio. This first visit occurred during the heyday of Fish Design Ltd. (“Fish Design”) production, and seeing the works en masse was a revelation to me. A wall of prototype vases from the Fish Design collection mingled with prototypes from the Open Sky group, and with pieces from the rest of his career. I eventually realized that examples of the Fish Design and Open Sky pieces had come and gone quickly in a retail setting, and that it would have been almost impossible for the public to see a large number of examples in one place at one time. I believed that seeing them together with the new Nobody’s Perfect collection could be instructive in many ways, and so I decided to try and organize this small retrospective exhibition.

My hopes for this exhibition are twofold. The first is the deep and simple pleasure I hope you experience from seeing these many pieces together in one place at one time. The second is that the Nobody’s Perfect collection appears as a logical progression of the designs in resin begun with Fish Design, and the continuity of a decades-old process of manufacturing techniques developed by Pesce. And while I am aware that other important work was done in resin during the decade (such as the “Some of Us” collection of resin-painted portraits from 2000, or the Olo lamp of 2001), I will limit my review to the three major collections produced.

Fish Design Ltd. In 1994 Pesce organized a company called Fish Design Ltd. to create and distribute a series of resin-based vases, lamps, bowls, mirrors, jewelry, serving trays, clocks and belts. But his experiments had begun two years earlier, his usual working method in devising a collection. During 1996 Pesce’s Fish Design efforts were reported on in depth in the design press, having been well received at that April’s Milan Mobile. Eventually over 50 items would be produced commercially, with additional experimental prototypes adding to this total. Some designs were produced in the many hundreds of examples, while some others exist in fewer than 40 examples.

The Fish Design work’s critical success was followed by acceptance by the design cognoscenti, and the objects were sold in selected stores throughout the world. The variety of the forms remains striking, especially when experimental pieces are identified and studied. Pieces from this seminal collection are included in the American Craft Museum’s Permanent Collection.

Open Sky Conceived in 1997, the Open Sky – IT’S PRODUCTS collection was introduced to the world in Milan in 1999. The collection signaled a further refinement of the production methods Pesce had developed for Fish Design. The new twist was the pouring of the resin into an open half-mold on the floor, leaving one surface open to the sky. (The poetic sense of the name was also carefully chosen to communicate the serenity embodied in the line.) This innovation was intended to eliminate the need for expensive production infrastructure, and 18 designs were produced commercially in this manner.

The use of rigid (cast) resins almost exclusively in this collection marked a change from the soft fluidity that was the core of the Fish Design collection. While the Moss Vase and Moss Lamps in silicone show their debt to the earlier Fish Design aesthetic and production process most closely, the other hard resin pieces demonstrate these further developments by Pesce’s.

Pesce had hoped to be able to mass produce and ship these items at a very low cost (at the time the vogue was for designers crafting inexpensive chairs), but this dream could not be fully realized. Within the tight confines of the economic envelope he set for himself, Pesce found that devising the appropriate structures to support the chairs, lamps and tables he imagined was not a simple task. He has admitted being challenged by structural issues throughout the development of the series, and in some cases we must fairly say the prototypical structures were not always fully up to the task given them. But in relation to almost any of Pesce’s other modest production or limited edition works, the expense for such unique handmade objects appeared (and continues to appear) quite low.

Nobody’s Perfect
I believe it is fair to say that the structural issues encountered in the Open Sky experiments have been more fully resolved in Pesce’s Nobody’s Perfect collection, which was introduced to the world in Milan in April 2002. The chairs have a structural solidity that is reassuring, while retaining the luscious feel of their Open Sky predecessors. Here, Pesce’s innovative use of plastic “pins” to secure (or model) the designs assures strength without overwhelming the visual space. The effect is almost that of a tailor “pinning” a garment under construction, which without the multiple pin pricks would collapse upon itself onto the floor. (The concept of degrees of support and rigidity was central to Pesce’s Pratt chair series of 1983). And while the world of furniture has precedents in the use of this joinery technique, here it feels less like woodworking and more like clothing design to me.

In the enormous Nobody’s Sideboard, Pesce demonstrates the scalability of the material and the methods that he employs. Its monumental nature cannot be ignored, and for me it is the collection’s signal presence. The further scalability and suitability of this material is being further demonstrated in a house that Pesce is constructing for himself in the Bahia region of Brazil. Many external elements are crafted of this same rigid resin due its strength and its imperviousness to the elements.

But it is perhaps the Nobody’s Perfect dining Table, legs that shows the two sides of Pesce’s genius most fully: the Rationalist and the emotionally-charged artist. The table has a rigid rationalist grid placed atop a series of flamboyant legs. It is sometimes said that Janusian thinking (the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind simultaneously, consider their relationship to each other, and then create something new and useful from the exercise) is the most difficult of all intellectual efforts. If so, eating dinner at such a table will almost certainly require highly evolved guests.

The grid tabletop clearly follows an idea pursued in the Sansone and Sansone II series of tables, but with multiple tabletop surfaces, the table is now able to be used in a less static way. The tabletop’s almost limitless optionality lets the user make it his own, with Pesce willingly granting this autonomy.

Production methods The Fish Design, Open Sky and Nobody’s Perfect pieces were produced serially, that is, they were made on a sort of assembly line. I would use the phrase “custom serial production” to describe the way the objects were made. Given this unique manufacturing methodology, instigated in 1972 with Pesce’s Golgotha chairs, no piece was exactly like the piece that preceded it off the line. The variations within each series are apparent when a number of ostensibly “identical” vessels are displayed together, where the differences become as noticeable as the similarities. Much like a hand blown glass vase, or the faces of a brother and sister, each is closely related to, but not identical to its kin. The hand of the craftsman is evident in each case, as is the hand of fate.

Pesce’s method of working closely with his craftsmen reminds one of the method employed by the great Italian architect Carlo Scarpa, whose intimate knowledge of glassmaking techniques was forged in the Murano glassworks and among the glassblowers themselves. Perhaps the most important and most frequently overlooked part of Pesce’s life was the time he spent working at the glassworks in Murano during his early architectural training. To see Pesce’s work through this lens can help one appreciate the historical continuity of the work.

I will go so far as to say that not since the young Scarpa began his innovative work designing vessels for the MvM Cappellin and Venini glass factories beginning in 1926 has such an important and varied body of decorative artwork been produced by a great architect in such a brief span. And perhaps it is not so surprising that Pesce values this intimacy with craft; he was once taught by the great master Scarpa.

But the precision in execution sought by Venini, who routinely required pieces to be destroyed if they were even modestly “imperfect” is an absent tenet in Pesce’s model of beauty and production. The makers of his pieces are given far more freedom to determine the object’s composition than in almost any other industrial process I am aware of. We see willingness to embrace possible human errors with affection and with understanding. “Mistakes become an example of the human being” he reminded me recently.

I now see that it is a mistake to pass judgement on the differences between the objects. Imposing a hierarchy of traits is not encouraged, which is often how collectors spend their intellectual efforts. Much as one person prefers a companion with red hair, another may prefer someone with black hair. Perhaps neither one can accurately describe how or why that affection developed, but it is nonetheless a real thing to him.

The modern view of ideal beauty has changed, Pesce argues. He chooses to recognize and celebrate human imperfections and faults as well as those characteristics traditionally thought beautiful. And while I find myself quite often crafting subtle distinctions between such objects, Pesce asks us to be less judgemental

Here is where the story of advances in Pesce’s manufacturing methods takes a final turn. The distance between Pesce and the object craftsman is wider in the Nobody’s Perfect collection than it ever has been ever before. While the framework for the object remains, Pesce does not really seem to care if an experienced craftsman makes the objects, or if an inexperienced hand guides the process - they can be made well enough by almost any skilled adult. In fact, customers are on occasion permitted to craft their own objects at the new ZeroDisegno factory (with a bit of technical assistance from the ZeroDisegno staff), making the resulting object even more intimately personal to them.

Conclusion I believe that architects remain that rare group of artists who are not destined to see their groundbreaking youthful efforts demonstrate how conservative, dim, and irrelevant the later work has become. In the years since Fish Design was launched on an unsuspecting world, many imitators of Pesce’s production method have emerged, aping some of the methods and ideas that he most completely shows to best advantage in his own work.. With the presentation of these new pieces, we are reminded that Pesce remains a youthful genius at heart, and that his unmistakably unique vision of the world is one we are all better for his having chosen to share.

To borrow a phrase from the poet Charles Bukowski, all of the work on display here “Catches my Heart in its Hands”. These are the hands of another human being whose efforts to communicate with us his love of the world is embodied fully in his work, if we take the time to look for it.

Originally published for:

A Retrospective Exhibition
Sunset Settings
Houston, Texas USA
February – March 2003

© John Geresi