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Gaetano Pesce

Italian, born 1939

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"We're different, and also objects have to be different and have a personality: be unique, have a mood, have a character."

Of all the designers Italy has produced in the last half-century, none has pushed material and technological experimentation further than Gaetano Pesce. Known for his innovative work in design, visual art, architecture, and planning, Pesce has expanded the boundaries of design with new forms, new processes, new materials, and innovative ways to conceive industrial production. His philosophy is one of imbuing personality into his designs through unconventional materials.

Born in 1939 in the Italian town of La Spezia, Pesce studied at the School of Architecture and the Institute of Industrial Design, both in Venice. He received his first important critical notice at the 1969 international furniture exhibition in Milan, where he presented his now famous Up series of polyurethane foam chairs. The Up chairs were compressed and packed flat, and expanded to full size when removed from their packaging and exposed to the air. The whole piece literally "grows" into form when unwrapped from its tight vacuum seal, evoking a mother's womb and an event similar to birth. Pesce cleverly applied polyurethane, a highly synthetic material, as a metaphor for one of the most precious moments in humanity. He later explored the use of polyurethane in architecture in his scale model for a Vertical Loft building (1982), constructed of foam blocks in a steel frame.

With his Sit Down chair (1975), Pesce introduced a hands-on production method that has reemerged in the manufacture of many of his subsequent designs: the Dacron-quilted cover acted as a mold for the foam that was poured into it, creating slight variations in each chair. In his more recent Nobody's Perfect polyester resin furniture, vases with three feet, and Alda lamps, which he named for his mother, Pesce again produced unpredictable designs that vary according to the choices of the artisan and the chance flow of pigmented materials within the same molds. Of the Alda lamps he said, "Its vividness reminds one of the sea and its creatures, specifically the jellyfish. It has the great quality of not having any particular shape and it can change volume according to the surrounding conditions." With Nobody's Perfect, the artist came to terms with what he sees as the impossibility of truly perfect design. Because each chair or table is different, the person who physically produces it becomes part of the design process, signing a "birth" certificate that is issued with each piece. As such, a finished piece reveals the shortcomings of its maker as proof that nobody's perfect.

Particularly active as a furniture and interior designer, Pesce has also found time for teaching, most notably since 1975 at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in Strasbourg, France, at the Domus Academy in Milan, and at the Cooper Union School of Architecture in New York. A resident of New York since 1980, he founded Fish Design in Manhattan in the mid-1990s and later opened offices in Milan. Pesce has been the subject of major exhibitions at the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1996 and the Milan Triennale and the Vitra Museum in 2004-2005, as well as here at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Gaetano Pesce: Pushing the Limits, 2005

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