Obituary Alessandro Mendini
It isn’t just one product that makes you think of Alessandro Mendini, but there’s still no escaping the attribution “typical Mendini”. Take the chests of drawers from the 1930s and 1940s, painted in the style of various abstract artists, produced by the Alchimia group he founded, or his most famous and popular product, the Alessi bottle opener Anna G. (1994), and then there’s the Proust armchair (1978), available in many variations – an object that unites Baroque, Fin de Siècle and Impressionism, and which nonetheless cancels it all out by becoming something new derived from something old.
Proust is about fragility and ornamentation, dandy refinement and cultural traditions. But from looking back at all of this, out pops the present, with a resistance to rationalism, an emphasis on the sensual qualities that functionalism ignored in its banality, and with it the right of people to satisfy supposedly false needs. Such thinking included decorative design such as his Swatch watches (1992) as well as the irony and perhaps even sarcasm embodied in the door handle he designed for FSB (1986), based on Adolf Meyer’s design for the Fagus works.
But the focus on surfaces, which is obvious in the Proust chair and which ultimately laid the groundwork for the use of laminates at Memphis, is just one aspect of Mendini’s work. In fact, he regarded his work as research preceded by the collection and viewing of archaic devices. Rethinking something was just as important to him as going ahead, and many of his ostensibly banal conversions and usages were also representations of intense historical reflection.
He began his career as a painter, and yet his later work included a large construction such as the new building of the Groninger Museum (1987). Much overdue, in 2017, the magazine Architektur und Wohnen finally named him Designer of the Year. In the last quarter of the 20th century, together with Ettore Sottsass, he was probably the most influential designer in Italy and made a significant contribution to the worldwide understanding of design as analogous to clothing fashion in lifestyle. You don’t have to agree with this view, but his theoretical and practical reflections are still worth discussing.