Conceived as a printed exhibition including both well-known and never-before-seen works, Out in the World with Gaetano Pesce, published by Museum Books, is a new book about the legendary Italian radical designer and architect.
The 50th anniversary of the release of the Up5 armchair was shaping up to be Gaetano Pesce’s event of his career. The chair—in its marketable form—was an expandable polyurethane form that rose into a feminine torso when filled with Freon gas, a product that was later banned due to the adverse effects it had on the ozone layer .In 1969, Pesce described Up5 and its chained ottoman as a symbolic representation of his view on women: “despite herself, the woman has always been her own prisoner.” Fifty years later in a post-MeToo world, Pesce and B&B Italia have created a larger-than-life replica of the chair and installed it in Milan’s Piazza Duomo for the last Salone del Mobile before its viral hiatus. Only, in this iteration, the torso isn’t just chained, but also pierced with hundreds of arrows. Suffering Majesty, as the piece is called, was supposed to be the crowning moment for this polyglot’s studio. But the public quest for a Bilbao Effect backfired, as some headlines reflect: “Gaetano Pesce’s anti-patriarchy sculpture outrages feminists in Milan.” “A woman is for the umpteenth time represented as an inert body and victim, without ever calling into question the actor of the violence.” Pesce, a self-proclaimed prince of disruption, maintained that the chair was a feminist piece—a banal raising of awareness through symbolic means that are as toxic as the gas that originally gave the chair its form.
This fall, Museum has released its first book, Out in the World with Gaetano Pesce. The book is a portrait that focuses heavily on Pesce’s work in fashion, so much so that if it weren’t balanced by content of his practice, it would be swallowed by clothes. It opens with an essay and interview by Sophie Haigney, introducing us to the architect’s multifaceted work; from buildings with plastic facades and vertical garden walls, to synthetic vases and malleable jewelry. But the book’s main section, “Chairs,” is all about his best-known products and features eighteen photographers from around the world who document his chairs and their prototypes. It’s here where you see the power of Pesce, through his plastic furniture that dismantles the very notion of what a chair can be.
Each photo captures the chair in a way that activates both their amorphous quality and drive towards punk domesticity. Most pieces are shown in abstract situations, floating around backdrops or inside a white studio. But the most successful in displaying Pesce’s ability to distort the built world are taken in situ, in collector’s homes, like Heather Sten’s image of the Rag Chair, which was shot inside Ruth Land Shuman’s apartment on the Upper East Side of New York, which was also designed by Pesce. The apartment is one of Pesce’s few domestic interior projects, and the chair sits at odds with the private space. The tension between Pesce’s interior and the stack of found rags that make up the chair is illustrative of the designer’s self-sacrificing of the chair to its fate as a condominium trophy piece. There’s something about this image that leaves you wanting an entire series of books just like it. You realize it’s a shame that the other chairs weren’t shown in their natural habitats, a fact that could have helped inform the state of value that Pesce’s career relies on.
Other pieces are shown while traveling to their final destinations, leading to their decontextualization. Sarah Panell’s documentation of the Shadow armchair shows it on the street, atop protective plastic sheeting, or Pat Martin’s image of the Feltri armchair, which was photographed in the garden of the Flamingo Estate—a house turned wellness brand in LA. The chair was originally manufactured by Cassina in 1986 from a singular piece of wool felt, the base of which is dipped in resin and stiffened while the upper parts of the chair are malleable. In the photograph, the flexible parts are folding in on themselves, the chair shying away from its function.
It’s a wonder that Golgotha, perhaps Pesce’s most important chair, isn’t photographed. Produced in the seventies by Bracciodiferro, a small firm that Pesce formed with Cesare Cassina and art director Francesco Binfaré, the chair is a Dacron-filled fiberglass cloth, placed atop an armature of rods, and then stiffened with resin. The work is shaped by hand and in many ways sets up Pesce’s further experiments with the liquidity of plastic. This is when Pesce is at his best—when he’s objectifying the seductive emptiness of the symbolic.
The chair portfolio is followed by two fashion stories about Pesce’s plastic vessels, photographed by Steve Harris. The vases were sold under his company Fish Design and are the most widely available Pesce objects one can find, being sold in museum gift shops worldwide. The fashion story by Tina Tyrell and Andrew Sauceda is a contrived and fun studio shoot: free-floating pieces are interacted with as disjointed props, as if the models don’t understand what the pieces are or why they are there. Another fashion shoot by Leonardo Scotti closes the book. Here, the focal point is the chair: its abjectness reduced.