Marco Zanuso and Alessandro Mendini, the Good Design

Two greats – Marco Zanuso and Alessandro Mendini – were brought together for a discussion on architecture and design and to understand the links between these two forms of artistic expression

by Francesca Ciancio

The exhibition dedicated to Marco Zanuso and Alessandro Mendini, conceived by the ADI Design Museum in Milan and curated by Pierluigi Nicolin, Gaia Piccarolo, Nina Bassoli and Maite García Sanchis, compared two great exponents of design and architecture in a completely original way. The central space of the museum was divided into 12 chapters, with six on each side: Comfort, New Aesthetics, Large Scale, Modular Construction, Innovation and Stone Walls dedicated to Marco Zanuso; and Alchemies, Global Toys, Decorations, Museums, Homes and Text and Image dedicated to Alessandro Mendini. Observing their creations in a symmetrical layout helped to reinforce the game of cross-references, juxtapositions and influences, displaying two very different yet complete visions.

Methacrylate and varnished wood model of the Groninger Museum, with the Frank Stella Ancient Art pavilion not realized. Atelier Mendini Archive. Photo Roberto Gennari Feslikenian.


Alex, rotational plastic chaise longue, Ecopixel, 2017. Project Alessandro and Francesco Mendini, with Alex Mocika. Wet/Ecopixel archive.

Iconic armchairs featuring Cord ribbon
Marco Zanuso made use of materials borrowed from the military and automotive sectors. One example of this is the Cord ribbon, an elastic fabric he saw at Pirelli, developed and later patented by Carlo Barassi, which the Milanese designer used successfully in a series of padded chairs (Lady, Senior, Martingala).

Groninger Museum, Groningen, The Netherlands, 1989-1994. Photo Erik and Petra Hesmerg.

Proposed for the “Underground Naples International Laboratory”, 1988, perspective view of the flower factory.
Marco Zanuso Fund.

Armchair by Proust, 2009. Alessandro Mendini Collection – Triennale Milano Permanent Collection.

Zanuso and Mendini undoubtedly had different formal and aesthetic aims in the pathways they followed: the former took on ‘strong’ modernist themes, while the latter embraced ‘weak’ post-modernist ideas, yet both seemed to use their work to say that there are no limits to experiences. This supports the classic idea that opposites attract, and in some ways, this is what this exhibition was all about.

Futuristic underground gardens
One of the designs on display in the exhibition was a solar-powered underground greenhouse developed by Marco Zanuso in the late 1980s for the International Underground Naples Workshop. This garden/factory, which was never built, would have allowed plants and flowers to be planted in the tunnels excavated beneath the city ‘to repair, at least in part, the damage we have caused to the environment’

These two major figures in Italian design never shied away from the challenges and themes their field presented, and they were among the best at forging relationships between objects, people and living spaces. All of these reflections came to the fore at the exhibition, due in large part to the biographies of the two men: Mendini was more focused on working independently, while Zanuso was also open to working in groups; the former was happy to explain his creations, the latter more inclined to let the work itself do the talking. Both were attentive – indeed devoted – to technical aspects, but without suppressing the role of emotions and feelings.

Casa Press, Lydenburg, South Africa, 1970-1972, view of the open spaces between the walls. Photo Dewald van Helsdingen.

Marco Zanuso was one of the very first people to investigate the issues surrounding the industrialisation of products and the application of new materials and technologies to everyday objects. Despite his faith in technology, he never neglected emotional intelligence, as proven by the empathy he showed towards everything: take, for instance, his children’s seats and the primitivist technique he applied to stone walls. As someone who played an active role in the group of designers experimenting with the concept of ‘Good Design’, the designer and academic’s main interests included making industrial design accessible, not only financially, but also in terms of usage, ensuring objects played an active role in people’s lives. This also fed his interest in environmental concerns. Listing all the objects he designed would be an impossible task, but some particularly modern and innovative pieces became true style icons. Two in particular are the Lady armchair (containing foam rubber) created with Arflex in 1951 and Algol, the 1964 Brionvega television designed with Richard Sapper. ‘Through my projects, I want to give form to what I call complexity’, the architect from Milan once said, and each of his works certainly aimed to combine experimentation, innovation and opportunity, all bound up in a creative process with acute awareness of the social and cultural context.

Studies for Swatch watches, 1990. Alessandro Mendini Collection – Triennale Milano Permanent Collection. Courtesy Archivio Alessandro Mendini.


The Brinel factory, Brionvega, Casella d’Asolo, 1963-1967, detail of the facade. Photo Marco Zanta.

Alessandro Mendini’s work went beyond the ‘system of objects’, seeking to give new meaning to industrial products, branding them with new form of decoration. He was aware of objects’ dominant role in everyday life and wanted to take things further by highlighting their craftsmanship and contemplative dimensions. His aim was not to rebel, but to provide an emotional take on existing things. In 1979 he co-founded the Alchimia studio, which designed objects inspired by popular culture and kitsch, away from industrial production’s usual focus on functionality. He was undoubtedly more interested in the relationship and narrative value of an object, which he saw above all as a signifier, a visible and tangible sign recalling an idea. Not for nothing did Mendini describe how he ‘romanticised the object’. His Proust armchair, designed in 1978, is iconic – a chair in eighteenth-century French style that pokes fun at low-value kitsch furniture. Instead of painting it gold, the designer took things even further and employed a technique recalling pointillist paintings, including the upholstery. His aim was to overlay kitsch with something even more over-the-top, and therefore more sophisticated. 40 years on, this armchair sits proudly in many living rooms, like the throne of a king who does not take himself too seriously. Indeed, many of his objects and designs are like that, influenced both by the metaphysical – with references to Giorgio de Chirico – and by futurist ideas, like Fortunato Depero at his most playful.

Mendini and Naples
Naples is the Italian city where the hand of the Milanese-through-and-through Alessandro Mendini is most evident. Here, more than anywhere else, his concept of an ‘open-air museum’ was realised in a series of projects that went beyond mere window-dressing, profoundly altering the public space. Between 1997 and 1999, Mendini was involved in restyling the Villa Comunale, and the Stazioni dell’Arte project began on Naples’ underground railway at the same time, with Mendini as coordinator. He designed two stations himself, Salvator Rosa and Materdei.

And always underpinned by references to the major themes of our lives, since everything we do is about usOne plus point of the exhibition at the ADI Museum Design was the way it shuffled the deck, inviting visitors to not necessarily follow a particular sequence, but instead offering the chance to move around as if in a hypertext, grasping the similarities and differences between these two domineering figures in Italian design, whose faces concluded the show in two extraordinary portraits by Roberto Sambonet.

(Marco Zanuso and Alessandro Mendini, the Good Design – – Luglio 2022)