Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Enzo Mari's playful simplicity

The shapes of toys must be based on archetypal images, and these images must be realized
 with the highest possible quality and not in the style of “children’s drawings.”

Mari is one of the most respected and influential Italian product designers, and also 
a thoughtful visual artist, teacher and writer. At 22, while working at my first 
graphic design job in the milanese studio of Andrea Rovatti, a former student of Mari, 
I had the privilege of meeting the great man. Alas! at the time I knew that he was famous,
 but was unaware of his rationalist design philosophy and body of work. 
But I was familiar with at least one of his creations, the Sedici Animali puzzle, 
since it had been given to me as a child.

This wooden toy was designed in 1957 for the Italian company Danese, and has gone
 through a number of re-editions in different materials since. At first, I was a bit surprised
 when I saw the hefty price tag (341 euros) of the contemporary limited edition reissue 
of this modernist classic. But then again, these lovely oak animals are a children’s toy, 
a vintage design icon and a piece of modern sculpture all-in-one! And putting 
the puzzle back together is always a fun challenge, at least for me...

Mari also designed the Sedici Pesci variation.

Using the same 16 animals, Mari went on to create the limited edition children’s book
 L’Altalena in 1961. This wordless accordion book, exploring the concepts of shape,
 quantity, weight and balance, has recently been reprinted by the excellent 
Italian publisher Corraini (pet peeve: on their website they translated the title in english
 “The Swing”, while it’s clearly a see-saw.) Also, it's fun to see that Mari's choice of 
cover colors breaks a well established graphic design taboo: the infamous red text 
on green combination. He was a famous provocateur, so maybe he did it on purpose!

Photos courtesy of Helena Zália at
Mari’s love of simple, archetypal natural shapes also espresses itself 
in his large 1965 serigraphs:

Quattro, la pantera.

Otto, l’oca. Both are on sale at Danese's online shop.

1965 was also the year of The Fable Game, an inventive children’s book-game consisting 
of 46 simple animal and natural figures represented on both sides of six separate boards.
 These can be pieced together in an endless variety of combinations, stimulating 
creativity, storytelling and imaginative play. The Fable Game has also been reissued 
by Corraini. In 2007 the publisher organized a nice exhibition at lCasina di Raffaello 
in Rome, where the game was enlarged child-size, becoming a small labyrinth 
or theatre stage that children could rearrange and reinvent at will.


  1. Laura, what a fabulous post! Mari's designs are exquisite. And such great *backstory*/*color* you have provided. Thrilled you had opportunity to meet him in person.

  2. Brilliant post Laura, thanks for so much info. I love Mari's work too, it's certainly very 'in' at the moment, in France anyway.

  3. Laura, wow what a richly informative, wonderful post, I have the book L’Altalena in my collection, the puzzles are fantastic though.


  5. I had the Sedici Pesci as a child, around 68. My favorite toy, ever. You could balance the fishes in fantastic shapes, like construction blocks, hooking them by details. And the octopus! nice to see them again.



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