Arkitektura Assembly:  Bringing together the world of Design

DESIGN IN MIND: Gaetano Pesce

Gaetano Pesce is one of the most important designers of the 20th and 21st century. His designs are unparalleled in their exploration of color, material and form. His mind is innovative and iconoclastic and his work falls into a multitude of categories: Architecture, urban planning, industrial design, furniture design and art. Stepping into his stimulating studio on Broadway in New York City, one is struck by the vibrancy of color, the variety of shape, the prototypes that represent a relentless curiosity and bravery in thought and process. His work is unmistakeable because of how truly innovative it is and he, as a person, is such a delight, true to himself, full of life and eternally curious. We spoke with Gaetano in his studio in NY. This is part one of a two part interview.

Pesce:
Design is one expression of the realities, super important, because when you do an object is a communication you do because the object goes very fast to touch a lot of people in the world, because the production is a series. And then, it’s touching the advertising, and then technology, and then innovation. So, some more values that other work I know are not so complex like design. 

Arkitektura:
Because of the production, it gives you this great opportunity to really say something. 

Pesce:
Oh, yes, absolutely. If you do an object today as a sculpture, that object, if it’s lucky, it goes in a museum. But, when you do an object that is successful in design, you touch millions of people, and that is very important, something to consider. It’s like a book, when a book is well accepted, it touch a lot of people. And, that is something that can change the brain of people. When I start to think design have to be more than what they told me in the school, I thought that it was innovation, very important, because an object, a chair, will tell you something about insecurity of our time is a strong innovation. 

And so, the chair, have to be a leather or elastic in the way when you see it, you feel like you’ve collapse but you don’t. But, that is a relation with our time. Our time is a little bit like that, no? Just an example. But, I can tell you a lot of other example. 

Arkitektura:
Well, I mean, it’s really exciting to think of how material can represent a conceptual idea. I think you’re so incredible at that. 

Pesce:
Look, my teacher was … The main teacher I had was my curiosity. My curiosity was pushing me to understand why this is like this and why that is like that, and trying to have an answer. And when the day I was with my partner, let’s say, we were together, it was a fantastic woman who one day during experiments in the company in a factory, she had a brain problem, she died. But, she was very intelligent. Milena was called, Milena Vettro. One day she was studying at that time sculpture in BOZAR Fine Arts school, and one day she told me, “Look, are you sure that art is what it is and design is different?” That question to me was very important, because I immediately react saying, why, why there is this different. An object allowed us to sit very well, to be comfortable, but it’s also art can help us to think. 

And so, that is my story with art. I can tell you another thing that art was always very practical in the past, because if portrayed by a painter was not representing well the person, that practical aspect was refused. And in the history there are a lot of famous people who ask about portraits and when they saw that they were not reassembling well to themself, they refused. So, that is the very aspect, very clear aspect of something practical in art. Or, rich people who were not able to be excited sexually they were asking to a painter or a sculpture to represent nude figure in certain position, that is also practical.

Arkitektura:
It was like a stimuli…

Pesce:
The way to stimulate. And, in reality that representation usually was asking the room, bedroom where you can have act of sex, et cetera. Another example is the Catholic church, asking to Michelangelo to make the Sistine Chapel, and they asked to make the universal judgment just to show to people if you do not respect the rule of the church, you go to hell. That is a very practical question. So, art was like that. Then, art changed when the photography came in the scene. But, in the old time art was always very practical. So 

Arkitektura:
I remember someone, I was … One of the ways I prepare for interviews is by reading other interviews, and so I read a lot of interviews that were done with you. Some had great questions, but one of the questions that came up was why you do so many different things. You do jewelry, you do furniture, you do art, and you said, in the roots of Italian creativity, let’s say Michelangelo, this is what they did at the time. This is in my blood. 

Pesce:
Creativity has no barrier. You have curiosity space between, architecture, interior, object, painting, drawings, and the poetry, and the renaissance in Italy can tell us that is true, creativity has no barrier. Michelangelo was making poetry. He was a great architect, he was a great painter, he was a great sculpture and writer. Leonardo, it’s not necessarily to talk about him. And Raphael was a fantastic painter, but there’s something we don’t know about him, he was also a human designer, because the city of Vatican today is the result of the project of Raphael. And, the uniform of the guard in Vatican are designed by him. So, he was also a fashion designer. So, that is something that today is difficult for us to understand, but in my opinion is very important to tell to young designers or to young creative people that they have the freedom to express themselves without barrier. That is very important. 

Arkitektura:
Well, freedom is probably the foundation of your thinking.

Pesce:
And the curiosity. Freedom and curiosity push you to be curious about different things, and you have the right to express yourself in the way you want. This is what I always thought, and I continue to express. When industry, a company in Brazil asked me to design their shoes, I immediately said yes. And, I did a very good, I think a very good pair of shoes. And, when someone asks me a sweater in Paris, a company, I did it. So, that is a way to be creative, without saying, no, I cannot do this because this is not my field is banal.

Arkitektura:
It’s a way of using your thinking, and not … It’s agnostic to medium. It’s not about the medium, it’s about the approach. 

Pesce:
Oh absolutely. So, is a way you said it is a freedom. We talk about that we look for freedom. Okay, let’s be free in saying if I have subject to express that is good for architecture, so then I do a project, but if the subject is good for writing, then I do writing, et cetera.

Arkitektura:
So, let’s take a step back and look back. This belief in the strength of women makes me think about what your mother must have been like. Was she a strong woman?

Pesce:
No, she was not. She was a very simple, very delicate person. She was a pianist. And, I lost my father when I was very young, a few months. And, I lost my father in the war. And so, we were very poor in the family, and my mother was supporting the family with concert. And me, I was the guy who was turning the page when she was exercising. And so, I had a very strong relation with my mother who was talking to me about why certain composer were important and why other were not important. And then, I understood that also from my future work, because I understood that my work have to be a witness of my time, and not like certain composer when she was talking about certain people who were expressing themself with the music of this 18th century and they were living in the 19th century. So, that was a fake. So, I understood that since the time my mother was explaining to me these.

Arkitektura:
And, was she a witness to your success that we see you?

Pesce:
At the beginning, yes. Look, I’ll tell you a story that is very particular. Up when I was in the fourth grade, I was six or seven years old, and I did enjoy a teacher. And, the teacher was not enjoying me. He was a little man, very unhappy in general. One day he wanted to give me a shot, and me I was faster than him, and I did it to him as well. They said, “out of all the public school”.

Arkitektura:
All of them.

Pesce:
All. So, my mother found a religious school for girls. And so, I went to school with them. I was the only boy in a school of girls.

Arkitektura:
Amazing.

Pesce:
And there, I start to understand certain values, certain mentality, the elasticity of the mind. And, that was very important for me. And so, that time came back to me later when I did that object. So, that is something very important to say, to understand how is my mind.

Arkitektura:
I mean, it must have been hugely influential the only boy to be around all these girls. I mean, at this particular state of transition as they’re entering into …

Pesce:
Yes, yes. So, I understood that the mind of a woman is not rigid like the men that is as a line. The way a man is acting is represented by a line, straight. And women are more done by curve. In a certain way in the morning, different in the afternoon, because they have a job in the morning, a job in the afternoon, being a mother, being wife, being work, so you change. 

And, that is very interesting to put in connection with our time. Our time is not rigid. Is a time where values goes up and down, and so they disappear, they reappear. A little bit like the mentality of women, the feminine mentality. And so, there is a relation between the characteristic of our time and the way the women think. This is what I believe. And, when I see the future will be better when women will take responsibility in the public administration, politics, et cetera. I think this is why I’d say that, because they have a capacity of generosity more than men et cetera. But you know that better than me. 

Arkitektura:
I mean, here I am a strong woman. 

Pesce:
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So, you know better than me what I am talking about. 

Arkitektura:
Well, I mean, I don’t think I know better than you. I think actually when it’s coming from a male perspective, it has a different sensibility and a different power to it in a way. 

Pesce:
Women don’t like war. Women don’t like violence, that is also important. 

Arkitektura:
Extremely important. So, you went in this all girls school, and then eventually you decided to study architecture. Why architecture? 

Pesce:
Why architecture? Talking with my mother and talking about art, one day she said, the king, the queen of art is architecture, and then I understood why. In architecture, you have the space, the movement, so the cinema is in architecture. The sound you do in the space is music. The [inaudible 00:15:10] is a painting, the three dimension of object is a sculpture. So, everything is the … And so, I understood that the way for me was to go to a school of architecture. It was in Venice. At that time it was a very small school, public school done by the best architects in Italy at that time. 

But, I had problem with them because me, I was saying, I cannot accept that you teach to me what you learn when you was younger. Meaning, what you are teaching today is old, and so I always had problem except with one history of architecture teacher was very good, called Bruno Zav he was very open mind. He led me to understand first certain things. But, that is the school I made. 

Arkitektura:
I mean now in retrospect, do you find value in having learned those old things now that you look back? At the time you felt, why are you just teaching me things that aren’t contemporary, and I’m living in a contemporary world, but now that you look back, do you find value in what they were teaching? 

Pesce:
Yes and no, because I think what they were teaching … One thing is important to understand, me I was going to that school very close when the time, horrible time in Italy was fascism. And Italy was very provincial. And so, I had a teacher that were a little provincial except one. And, that didn’t guide me a lot, I must say. 

Arkitektura:
I mean, there’s this story that you shared about Cassina, the Cassina not the company Cassina, but Senora Cassina, approaching you and saying let’s do something together. And you saying, no I can’t, there’s nothing to do yet. How old were you when that happened? 

Pesce:
Okay. Cassina came to visit me in this, Milena, I told you, because we were doing some drawings at the time. And, someone told to chairs at Cassina, go to see these two young people because they can be interesting to buy drawings. So, he came to buy our drawings, then he enjoyed us. And then, he said you can come to work in my factory making experience, you are free to do whatever you want, and it’s not important that you do object for us, do your research. We did four years, and then is where Milena was having this accident and she died in the Cassina factory. 

Arkitektura:
She died in the factory?

Pesce:
Yes. Yes. 

Arkitektura:
I’m sorry.

Pesce:
Yeah. And then, me, I left Italy before I was traveling also with Milena. And one day Cassina came to me and he said something exceptional. He said, “Look, I know that you have not a lot of money. We can give you the equivalent to $3,000 per month, and you can do whatever you want. And for us, you are not obliged to do anything.” Me, I was like, it’s a lotto. I’ve won a lotto. And, I became friends with this old man full of experience, and when I was traveling around the world from time to time, I was going to visit him in north of Milan. He was living in an area north of Milan. 

And, I remember that he was talking to me about problem of the factory, problem of the workers, the union, all this kind of value that I around the fabrication of objects. And me, slowly I just began to be familiar with that. Years later, I was taking a shower. I don’t know where I was, maybe in Paris, and I had this sponge. You know this story because everybody knows. And then I saw that this material, when I was compressing the sponge, my hand was reducing the volume. And when I was releasing it, then the sponge came back to the original volume and shape. So, I said, why I don’t do a chair with this process?

And so, I went to Cassina and then I understood that I was returning to him what he had given to me, a fantastic idea. So, there was at that time a new material called polyurethane foam and we did this chair that it became very famous. We know structure inside. When the chair was done, we compress the chair on the vacuum and we fix the vacuum with the envelope, and people were buying these chair design. And that was a miracle. That was like a … Nobody believed when they were seeing these opening envelope and the chair coming up like bread, you know the bread? And so, it was incredible success. 

Arkitektura:
I mean like magic. You’d get the package …

Pesce:
It was.

Arkitektura:
Incredible.

Pesce:
It was extraordinary. And so, they sold a lot of chairs. Not only, but what happened is that people were talking about Cassina and B&B because that was the company that Cassina owned at that time. They were so much talking about that company that all the products of the company were sold super world [crosstalk 00:21:53].

Arkitektura:
You mean that one … Yeah. So, that one chair helped the whole collection of B&B and Cassina? 

Pesce:
Yes. And so, just to say that the innovation can help also something that is not innovative at all, and so they were very happy with this. And so, the Cassina was telling me why you don’t put your name on product that we do for you, our technical office can make. And me, I was saying, look, I am not interested to this. I’m interested to do my work, not the work of someone else. And so, he was telling me other very important designer accepting that also. Sometimes technical office prepare object for others, and me I said, no, no, that is not my system. 

Arkitektura:
Unlike Mario, he started as an architect too. So, that chair was the first chair you made for Cassina?

Pesce:
Yes. And, a few years later we did something super important. I don’t want to say more important than this chair because this chair I am talking about under vacuum was carrying these political meaning and that is super important. But, with Cassina five years later, we are now on 1975, with the Cassina company I made the first object in production where each piece is different. That was very important because is we were saying, Mr. Cassina, our time is not the time of copies, is the time of originals. And we are able to give to people, to the market something more valuable, because it’s unique. You don’t give a copy, you give a piece and they accept. They accepted.

And I made a chair called sit down where a chair to another arm chair to another was similar but not equal. And that was also very important. The human being are similar one to another but not equal like communists will want to say … Until today there are people who push that value that is absolutely wrong in my opinion. We are different and because different we have value. 

Arkitektura:
Of course. What’s beautiful about it is that life is always in flux. It’s always changing. It’s ideally culture is shifting, and the shifts are not great shifts that happen very quickly. They’re subtle, but they’re important. And so, when you have an object that has these subtle differences, it mirrors that. 

Pesce:
Absolutely. So, that was a very important time for me. When I did an exhibition in Paris, in a museum in 1975 at the Louvre, they attacked me because I was saying we are not equal, equality doesn’t exist, but there exist difference. And they attacked me like someone that is very bad, et cetera, et cetera. So, just to say that sometime we have to have the courage to say things that are not popular and it’s very important to do that also. 

Arkitektura:
And ultimately, those people are the ones that make a mark in history.

Pesce:
Absolutely. 

Arkitektura:
Do you remember when you first saw that moment where it came into production, and you saw that it rises like that? Do you remember that moment? 

Pesce:
I remember the moment, because me, I did it in my little workshop. I did with a piece of foam, I made the envelope with the … You call that tool to dry.

Arkitektura:
A blow dry. 

Pesce:
Yes. It was blowing at the air, and I made this envelope, and I saw the day after that when I open, they all came up. And so then I went to the place at the Cassina where they were developing ideas, so we started to study seriously that the idea was possible. And, we start, maybe in January in 1968, and we finish in September ’69. And so, in September ’69, there was a Milano Salone at that time it was not in April, but in September they present and it was a miracle. Everybody was talking about that. 

Arkitektura:
That must have been an incredible experience for you?

Pesce:
Yeah, because the presentation was indeed in the space where Cassina was showing B&B. Every hour there was one chair open in front of the public and people, young, the young people, children they were looking to something that they never saw. It was really …

Arkitektura:
I mean, it’s like a performance especially because-

Pesce:
It was like performance.

Arkitektura:
Especially because furniture seems static, it’s not supposed to move. 

Pesce:
It was like something alive. 

Arkitektura:
There’s another chair that you made called Feltri, which is a really interesting … I mean it’s incredible. Can we talk about it? I mean, I’m looking at it right now.

Pesce:
One day I was teaching in Hong Kong at the polytechnic, and one day I was walking on the street, one street under a very thin rain, and I saw walking on the floor a piece of felt. And I looked to it and I thought, look at the felt absorb water, liquid. Immediately, I had the idea to make a chair in felt making the base of the chair sprayed with the boxy resin, which resin is liquid and absorbed by the felt. And then, it cure and it makes the felt rigid like metal. And then I said, look, I do that in the lower part of the chair and the rest is felt that is very soft, because I have to be comfortable. 

And then when I came back, I went to Cassina, and I said to Cassina I have a new idea. And they said, you can do whatever you want I remember, you can do whatever you want. I took three months in my workshop at that time I had a very simple workshop in Venice, and in the summer of … I think it was 1980, or 86, 86 I think, I invited the director of Cassina to see what I did. And there was a sofa with a chair, and a person sit on that and he said its fantastic. And they did it. To me that chair I present they were one in a museum in [inaudible 00:30:08] and the other is a private collection in New York. 

Arkitektura:
I mean, this whole space, it’s just incredible. I mean, this whole studio, there’s so much in here. I mean, look at this piece. 

Pesce:
Yes.

Arkitektura:
It’s beautiful. Can you describe this for me? 

Pesce:
So, this is one or what I call skins. Industrial skins or architectural skins. And this is something I do since a long time, because I think that drawing can be done with material from our time, synthetic material. So, I do drawing of resin, and then at the end the resin is flexible, I can roll piece of paper and I can represent better to have the three dimension in certain case, and so people can understand my drawing better. And this you see is about a leg of a table if I remember. I did a long time ago. 

Arkitektura:
I mean, it’s like a beautiful painting. That’s what’s so special about it.

Pesce:
At the end, yes it’s a drawing, a painting or whatever you want to call. But, for me it was a way to say, look, we must use material from my time, for our time. Most of the creative people they use metal, they use marble, they use concrete, but it’s important to express ourself with our time material, because their quality is much better than the quality of the traditional material. 

Arkitektura:
And this shelving system here with all these glass pieces, first of all, it’s incredibly colorful. I mean, I would say that your favorite color is not that you have a favorite color, because there’s no such thing. 

Pesce:
Color it’s very important to say that we are not dead. Color is to say we are alive, is a way to say we have energy. Because, if you go in a cemetery where everything is black, means that there is no energy and is a place for dying. So, while we are alive, we have to use color to express vitality, to express energy, to express joy, also to be optimistic, to express hope in the future. So, that is also very important. 

Arkitektura:
And, are you a joyful, optimistic, hopeful person? 

Pesce:
Absolutely. And also, you see that my work is enjoyed by children. They like to touch because it’s a positive expression. 

Arkitektura:
I mean, it’s not rigid. That’s what I think what’s one of the great appeals it has. 

Pesce:
But our time is elastic. Our time is not rigid, so my work is not rigid, it is elastic, it’s soft.

Arkitektura:
It’s experimental, you’re experimenting with all these materials. 

Pesce:
Yeah, yeah. That shelf is a papier-mache. It’s papier recycle. Recycled papier. 

Arkitektura:
But, it’s not in production this shelf, is it? No, no, no. 

Pesce:
It’s it unique piece I did because we needed, and so we did using a very poor material, papier-mache is very, very poor, but its very strong, resistant in time. Papier-mache is the invention of the Venetian artisans. An invention of humidity, you have the presence of the salt in there. Some furniture done in Venice with paier-mache, they are perfect until today. 

Arkitektura:
Yeah. Well this is just … I mean, in the whole, the structure of it and the fact that … I mean, the shelf itself and it has all these various boxes of different sizes is gray, but all the objects in it are-

Pesce:
Giving the vitality to the object. 

Arkitektura:
Yeah, they’re incredible. I mean, I’m sure people use this term with you, organic, humanist, conceptual. I mean, it’s all true? 

Pesce:
Yes. No, but there’s also the organic is easy to say, but it’s very important because we are organic, so why do we have to be … Sometime I criticize the very rigid lines of certain production I see around. I believe that to be organic, to be soft, elastic is very important. 

Arkitektura:
Well, a lot of the … When you go into great design, I’m sure, I mean I haven’t been to Salone del Mobile, but a lot of the well known designers are very fine lines, very clean and slick grays, whites.

Pesce:
Yes. That is the expression in my opinion is very dead. There is a name they call … I don’t remember. Well, certain furniture are so reduce that there is no value and this is my opinion. 

Arkitektura:
Yeah. I mean, it’s such a different way of creating and thinking. I mean, I just think about Cassina having this vision of understanding that there’s some great value here that okay, he said, Gaetano you have something special about you and you may not have the money to support that specialness. So, I’m going to support you while you think of things. I mean it’s incredible that he came into your life. 

Pesce:
But you know, there are some human being men or women that are extraordinary. And, as I said before, to make a real innovation in architecture, you need a real special client. When I did the office here in downtown Wanatah, the client was a man, it was office for advertising. The man, the owner of that office was a very questioning person, very intelligent mind. And, he was trying to understand the future. And so, when I have the client like this, then I have the possibility to make a very innovative office. And, he was called in the article in the New York time, it was called the first virtual office, because it was done like a free space where employees can go wherever they want to work with a computer near the window, not near the window, on the sofas sleeping, in the toilet, over that … Yeah. And, it was a fantastic office where people enjoy to work. Yeah. 

Arkitektura:
So he had faith. I mean he just … 

Pesce:
This man had the curiosity, how is the future office? He was unsatisfied by the, what we call the rigidity of the landscape. He was unsatisfied by the closed office with the little spaces, and he was asking for something new, and because the technology allowed me to do a new one, I suggest that an employee, employee coming in the morning, he was taking a computer, a portable computer and going where he wanted to be without fixing places. 

Arkitektura:
Are you married? 

Pesce:
I was with Milena, before she died. And, with the mother of my children that she died in Venice. Because, Milena was the first, we didn’t have children with her. And then the second wife was the one of the two living in Paris and we married in … We married in a very strange situation. We were in New York, we cross near the City Hall, and we saw a line of people, we said, what do you do here in line? And, they said we are going to be married. And so, we went in line and we follow, and then we arrive in front of the judge, and we marry.

Arkitektura:
I mean, did you know that you were going to get married ever?

Pesce:
No, because it was something that we discovered on the street. 

Arkitektura:
Amazing. 

Pesce:
And so, we decided to do it like a new experience. 

Arkitektura:
And, you had two children? 

Pesce:
Yes. 

Arkitektura:
And, Milena-

Pesce:
By the time the children were already 13 and 15 I think.

Arkitektura:
Oh, you had children already. Wow, I love that. So, in a way you were married. And Milena, in a way it was your collaborative work that brought Cassina’s attention, and I mean you may not have had physical children, but you had other kinds of children together. 

Pesce:
Yes. By the presence of this work, a man was very important to me. Then there was another man very important in my life who was very important art collector in United States from Virginia. He was the first collector, Sydney Lewis was the name. He was the first collector of Andy Warhol.

Arkitektura:
Wow.

Pesce:
And there is a beautiful story he told me, one day in the ’50s, he was in New York with the mother, he was already at the end of the company chain of shops where you say you buy leather or correspondence of telephone. And, he spending the weekend with his mother in New York, and he was reading the New York time. And then, he saw a little line saying a painter is ready to exchange three paintings with a color TV, so he called the guy, and he said, look, I’m ready to give you the color TV, where I have to come? And they did it. They went and exchanged this.

And the painter was Andy Warhol. So, he got three paints for the cost of the color TV. And then, he started to be a collector, and he became collector of my work. And so, he was coming during the summer I was at that time spending time in Venice, and he was visiting me with the wife in Venice, and he was buying my work. And then, when I was in New York, because I started to be living in New York, he was sending his private plane to pick up friends in the afternoon to go to Richmond for dinner and come back in the evening. And, we were like Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg, Aldenburg, Sega, Leo Castelli, I mean, a group of people we were going there and then coming back around 11 o’clock. 

Arkitektura:
You were going with them? 

Pesce:
With them, yeah, because the invitation was go to Laguardia Airport at five, there is a pilot waiting for you, airplane. And, it was fantastic because he had a cook Italian from south of Italy. It was fantastic and we had incredible dinner then. So, this is what my life gave it to me, fantastic things. And, I am very grateful to my work because through my work I had incredible experience meeting fantastic people, incredible situation, showing my work in very prestigious places, having client very interesting. So, this is my work. I am very happy with it.