How to Make It

Open Book

Jordan Hruska

How Enzo Mari's Autoprogettazione furniture sought to impart design literacy

With great sadness over the passing of Enzo Mari—a design hero to so many around the world—we celebrate the Italian maestro's unique genius with Jordan Hruska's profile on Mari's visionary Autoprogettazione furniture, originally printed in Gratuitous Type magazine in 2016.


Language, like design, is open-ended. Comprising evolving semantics, it is subjectively influenced by any one speaker, but coded in an objective structure intended for a larger public to receive. For octogenarian designer Enzo Mari, language addresses “collective and social acknowledgement of needs, requirements and requests.” Throughout his decades of practice as head of his own Milan-based studio, and as an outspoken firebrand of a highly personal design philosophy, he has developed furniture and objects for Driade, Danese, and numerous other brands, with the intent to provoke critical inquiry of design among users. Like the reciprocity and collectivity implied by the tool of language, Mari imparts the metaphysical open-endedness of the design process into his creations, exposing their functional systems to facilitate appreciation of each work’s aesthetic value.

One of Mari’s most celebrated projects, Proposta per Un’Autoprogettazione, a book of simple furniture blueprints that can be executed using widely accessible lumber and nails, is expressly intended to educate users in the design process. Through exposure to elemental constructions, amateur builders gain insight into how sums of parts operate in concert to create functional products. Published in 1974, Mari would send a copy of the manual to anyone who wrote to his studio requesting it and asked builders of his furniture to reply in kind with photographs of their finished pieces. In a second edition, released in 2002, the editor explains how the name Autoprogettazione is itself difficult to translate into English (auto means “self,” and progettazione translates to “design”). Noting that the word “design” is problematic because the general public understands it to be representative of decorative objects, the editor ventures a more active definition: “an exercise to be carried out individually to improve one’s personal understanding of the sincerity behind the project.” In the second edition’s introduction, Mari outlines design’s ability to communicate more than decorative value. With his “quality–quantity ratio,” he describes how the success of manufactured design is “determined when the shape of a product does not ‘seem’ but merely ‘is.’” The communication of the design’s value is assured by the design’s aesthetics.

Autoprogettazione Sedia by Enzo Mari (1973). Photo © Triennale Milano

Like language, aesthetics conveys information to an audience through a process of coding, according to Umberto Eco. In The Open Work (1989), the Italian philosopher and cultural critic asserts that the message one attempts to communicate must be “wrapped” in conventions that will increase the probability of its reception. Using the structural conventions of language, one can convey information via ideas coded in pronouns, participles, verbs, or even tonal inflections. Through such transmissions, language possesses probability or intent. Although The Open Work does not discuss architecture or design, its definition of aesthetic communication helps one understand how Mari exposes the integrated engineering systems of his designs to transmit his own intent, as an additive value to the user. Here, intent functions in the same way as Mari’s notion of existentialism in good design—it merely “is.”

With Autoprogettazione, Mari offers the ability to generate an object with legible functions through transformative work and articulates this information in designs otherwise stripped of it through industrialized manufacturing. In a 1995 interview with David Ryan, a former studio worker, Mari spoke of the current condition of industrial design: “(O)ur system of production is finalized to make sure that people don’t think. So, in this respect, when it is close to the design being produced, it is not the object that is important, but that through the process, I have realized what some real needs for society are.”

Through Autoprogettazione, Mari asks users to “think” outside the typical channels of conspicuous consumption, which many in Italy had come to associate with the formation of their own language. Italy unified relatively late—in the late 19th century—compared with other European nation states, and was forced to forge common cultural and economic tools, including language, to modernize at a rapid rate. This task proved difficult for a country that, still a little less than half agrarian in 1951, remained composed of entrenched regional dialects, compounded by disconnected physical and media infrastructure. David Forgacs looked at Italy during this transformation and reported an illiteracy rate of almost 75% in 1861, which improved to 14% by 1951. In 1931, the year before Mari’s birth, a little over a quarter of the country’s population was illiterate.

Enzo Mari at work on an Autoprogettazione Chair. Photo © Jouko Lehtola for Artek

Access to formal education was scarce in Italy’s poorer areas, and Forgacs mentions how a unified Italian language (derived from an “old Florentine-based literary language” or the corollary dialects of Tuscany and Rome) was increasingly learned not through books but via post-war labor migrations and army conscription. Italians also relied on more expressive means of communication, like radio and television. The post-war reliance on mass media—especially visual media delivered through television, cinema, and its supportive consumer-targeted advertising—became a device through which Italy generated common cultural referents and thus its language. Concurrent to this development was the country’s “economic miracle,” a post-war rebuilding that fueled a newly emergent middle class of consumers.

The handicap of illiteracy that plagued Italy during Mari’s upbringing also provided one of his most provocative and productive constraints as a designer and foregrounded Autoprogettazione. Along with his wife Iela, Mari illustrated and co-authored The Chicken and the Egg (1969), a book without words, through which the couple sought to impart less prescriptive and more reciprocal means of language development to early readers. The illustrations and ordering of pages communicate the process of a chicken laying an egg, the egg’s gestation and eventual hatching, and the chick’s growth into an adult. The uncaptioned art gives young readers the agency to evaluate the narrative in their own terms to develop an empathetic connection to the story and knowledge of the device of illustration.

 16 Animali by Enzo Mari for Danese (1957). Photo © Danese Milano

Some of Mari’s toy designs, which were also created for children not yet of reading age, anticipated the haptic experimentation of Autoprogettazione. In 1957, he created 16 Animali (16 Animals), a wood toy puzzle for Danese. Comprising a set of stylized animal shapes that fit together seamlessly in a carrying tray, users make use of the woodcuts’ formal qualities to balance and integrate the animal shapes, while reconciling (or subverting) their place within the food chain or larger animal kingdom to generate their own storyline and pecking order. Mari called it an “open story.” In a photograph advertising 16 Animali, a child smiles at his totem in progress. It includes an elephant at its base with a crocodile sitting atop—his open mouth supporting (or eating!) the tail-end of a snake who, in turn, slithers around to rest on the crocodile’s back, acting as a fulcrum of structural support. The snake’s open mouth is pinched by the open beak of an upside-down woodpecker, whose tail is being consumed by a fox that the child is in the midst of placing. The upper parts of this totem are of dubious stability, but the child has created a legible sequence of interlocking parts that plays off the animals’ stylized anatomical features.

This notion of design as an “open story” carries through to Autoprogettazione, for which there is arguably more at stake. Here, users develop their own sequential working method with which to build a piece of functional furniture. The book includes plans for eight tables, one desk, three chairs, one bench, four bed frames, one armoire, and one bookcase. Like his wordless children’s books, Autoprogettazione functions as a sort of ur-text to the IKEA instruction manual, including a minimum of written communication and instead relying on illustrated plans, photographs of finished designs, and an inventory of needed lumber, accompanied by a tabulation of quantity and dimensions. However, unlike an IKEA catalog, Mari encourages builders to intuit their own process with which to assemble these materials. Through this “open story,” builders come to terms with how elements “wrapped” in functional cues cohere to support a finished design and communicate their ultimate use through engineering and typology.

Autoprogettazione Chairs, designed by Mari, produced by CUCULA. Photo © Verena Bruening for CUCULA

The builder’s intuition mirrors how Mari initially devised his manual’s designs, which he generated conditionally with no prior drafts, unaware of the final outcome and resistant to any perfection of ratio, symmetry, or form outside of adjusting them to basic engineering standards. One can observe this iterative process in an Autoprogettazione twin bed created entirely from 2x10 lumber. Its head is formed from a base support integrating the bed’s rear legs with a headboard that rises in a tapered ziggurat-like shape comprising horizontal wood cuts stacked lengthwise. At first glance, the shape seems purely decorative, but viewed from the back, the wood cuts reveal themselves to be sized specifically to serve as a surface area for cross braces that support and integrate the headboard and feet.

The engineering of each design is contained in its aesthetic form, and therein lies its power to communicate its function to the user. Through this program of reciprocity, Mari stimulates critical thinking and debate with design—a politically charged mission. At the time when Mari devised Autoprogettazione, Italy had endured the “Hot Autumn” riots of 1969 and 1970, when unions protested poor conditions in Northern Italian factories brimming with migrant workers. Regional oversight of living conditions in corporate housing also stoked these protests, fueling distrust in design, which was further compounded by the informal, oftentimes unregulated abuvisimo development of housing and commercial projects—a result of rampant corruption during the booming “economic miracle.” This distrust deepened at the academic level—between 1963 and 1969, only 36% of architecture graduates at Milan’s major design school, Politecnico di Milano, actually began practicing in the field. Design firms like Superstudio and Archizoom surfaced during this time, putting forth speculative, agitprop architectural illustrations and grandiose master plans to articulate outlandish, socialist-inspired collective utopias, almost as a form of protest.

Autoprogettazione Table, designed by Mari, produced by CUCULA. Photo © CUCULA

Mari’s strategy was less bombastic and more covert. With Autoprogettazione, he wrote that he intended to “smuggle in moments of research and ways of creating the stimulus to free oneself from ideological conditioning, standard norms, behavior and taste.” Decades later, in the book’s 2002 reissue, he asserted in his introduction that, given the rise of disposable design in the twenty-first century, the imperative for developing a critical awareness of how we consume is even more pressing than when the book was first issued: “When making the object, the user becomes aware of the structural reasoning behind the object itself; therefore, subsequently he improves his own ability to assess the objects on the market with a more critical eye.”

One hopes that today, consumers are becoming aware of their responsibility toward less sentient stakeholders— like those within the natural environment—affected by the industrial processes used to produce and dispose of disposable goods. Autoprogettazione’s mission to instill critical thinking by elucidating the design process has endured in the interest generated by the book’s 2002 reissue, and also in the emergent “open-source” movement that it foregrounded. New fabrication technologies aligned with this movement, however, risk neutering the empathetic understanding of design that Mari sought to impart through semantics.

In the open-source universe, countless online resources offer plans for everything from tableware to entire homes, free of charge. In 2012, Domus launched Autoprogettazione 2.0, a competition to merge Mari’s creative philosophy with the movement for open-sourced design. Entries were required to be compatible with the software and technology at the Torino branch of FabLab, a global network of digital fabrication centers devised by MIT to serve as a kind of public, same-day print shop for high-end fabrication. Yet, while the democratic mission of fabrication is aligned with a portion of Mari’s intent for Autoprogettazione, the making of the objects in Domus’s competition is relegated to automated systems, such as digital printers and computer- programmed CNC fabrication, which produce the same alienation Mari intended to combat. Autoprogettazione 2.0 offers no opportunity for users to generate their own understanding or functional language around the design they “make.” Conspicuous consumption is reinforced when conversation only takes place between the designer and the robot.

Autoprogettazione Armoire, designed by Mari, produced by CUCULA. Photo © CUCULA

What happens in a speculative future when consumers can afford digital fabrication technology in their own homes? It is possible that the language will be lost—the “coding” or “wrapping” that language and aesthetics have the power to impart will be left solely to digital technologies. Design plans compliant with in-home fabrication technology would become commodities. When appearing in the depoliticized realm of the domestic, with less mediation or input from other users and without the agency imbued in the transformative power of work, design becomes less responsible to collective needs and highly rarefied, serving increasingly niche interests in a closed circuit without a common reciprocity of language.

A more reciprocal iteration of Autoprogettazione surfaced several years later. In 2015, Mari granted CUCULA, a Berlin-based non-profit, the rights to produce and sell his Autoprogettazione designs. CUCULA (which means “to do something together” and “to take care of each other” in the Central African Hausa language) seeks to develop a productive workshop for refugees in Europe looking to learn a trade. Working side by side to create furniture with fellow refugees and designers, proceeds from sales directly benefit these participants. The workshop also provides them with a platform to question Autoprogettazione and offer their own interpretations of the work, furthering Mari’s pedagogical mission. Through an understanding of the design process, they have crafted several Autoprogettazione pieces, including a chair that incorporates pieces of scrap wood from refugee boats. In this way, the open-source nature of Autoprogettazione has become a forum for people with different perspectives and cultural backgrounds to build a valuable skill set, regardless of whether they share the common language of their host country.

Architect and designer Andrés Jaque uses open-source design to advocate for a new paradigm of domestic design generated through communicating confrontation. In 2011 and 2012, Jaque and his Office for Political Innovation staged performances of IKEA Disobedients in Madrid and New York to demonstrate this paradigm firsthand. For the project’s MoMA PS1 installation, they recruited a cross section of New York City residents, who each led much more complex domestic lives than those represented in the homogenized narratives of aspirational IKEA catalogs—one participant worked out of her home as a hairstylist, another experimented with aquaponic engineering, and somebody else lived transiently between multiple spaces and considered his home wherever he could practice playing music. These were just some of the people brought together at the museum.

Together with Jaque’s team, they mixed together pieces of unassembled IKEA products to create their own Frankenstein furniture and a towering, multifunctional structure that accommodated individual and collective activities—such as hairdressing, cooking, aquaponics, and strumming stringed instruments—among places for lounging or working on computers. Visitors to the installation were invited to join and make suggestions on how to engineer the space. The results represented the output of an urban condition that sought a design of mediation and balance through sustained dialogue.

If Mari’s Autoprogettazione instills collective terms of use and activity in the user/builder throughout their exploration of typology and the expressive power of exposed functional systems, Jaque eschews this proxy to actively introduce third parties into the design process to determine success together with the builder. Thus, learning about design becomes not about how objects communicate their function to users but, rather, about how multiple users may integrate their collective needs into design responses. In this way, Jaque’s idea of “self-design” evolves the knowledge put forth from creating an Autoprogettazione object into a larger, more systemic program founded on participation between people. Perhaps, then, the most successful results come not from a deeper reciprocation between the user and design object, but, like language, from a deeper reciprocation between each other. ◆


Enzo Mari curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist with Francesca Giacomelli just opened at Triennale Milano and is on view through April 18, 2021.

Other photographs courtesy of Artek, Danese, and CUCULA