The lost art of designing for pleasure

The Italian designer Alessandro Mendini died last week at the age of 87. His work reminds us that everyday objects can be a source of joy.


In 1994, the Italian housewares manufacturer Alessi released Anna, a corkscrew topped with a woman’s smiling face. It was created by Italian architect, artist, and designer Alessandro Mendini and inspired by Mendini’s friend, the designer Anna Gili. As you stab the screw into a cork and twist, Anna’s arms rise up over her head in a silent hallelujah to the wine-fueled revelry that awaits. Today you can buy all manner of wine openers: electric ones, air pressure pumps, one-handed varieties. But how many corkscrews can make you laugh out loud?

[Photos: courtesy Alessi]

Exuberant design was Mendini’s specialty. Mendini died last week, age 87, and his death leaves a void in the school of thought that favored emotion and surprise over the cold efficiency that has come to dominate much of design, calibrated as it is to the precise and bottomless needs of the technology industry.

Mendini was trained as an architect, but he had deep roots in the art world. A postmodernist, he was a central figure in Italy’s Radical Design movement, which sought to imbue art in design, and which served as a precursor to the influential Memphis style that today’s young designers (and many a corporate copycat) have revived and remixed for mainstream consumers. Mendini’s Proust chair, designed in 1978, was a feverish bricolage: an upholstered Baroque armchair splattered in a pointillist painting by the neo-Impressionist Paul Signac, with a name lifted from French literature. An icon of postmodernism, it is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art and the V&A in London.

Mendini also worked as a journalist and was editor of the prestigious Italian architecture magazine Domus from 1979 to 1985. But his popular legacy will be most pronounced in the dozens of kitchen products and home decor he developed for Alessi and others. Each is a testament to the idea that design is not merely a vehicle for solving problems; it can be a source of simple pleasure.

Anna, for instance, was so beloved, Mendini reprised her likeness in a champagne cap, a pepper mill, a tea set, a kitchen timer, and a bottle cap. You could give your kitchen’s entire top drawer over to Anna’s goofy grin if you were so inclined. Consider how unusual it was to portray a literal face in industrial design in the 20th century, at a time when Mies van der Rohe’s ubiquitous catchphrase “less is more” represented the peak of taste and sophistication. The tyranny of minimalism continues today. Take the many smartphones and smart speakers that are designed to be so invisible, they’re easy to forget altogether–to the detriment of consumers. Mendini’s work offers a refreshing antidote. His design was never quiet. He didn’t shy away from figurative representation. Another one of his kitchen designs is a parrot-shaped corkscrew, the feathers of which have the same frenzied print of the Proust chair. Open a bottle of wine, and watch the bird flap its dazzling wing.

Alessandro Mendini [Photo: Carlo Lavatori/courtesy Alessi]
Even Mendini’s subtler designs felt revelatory. For Kartell, the Italian manufacturer of high-end plastic furniture, he created Roy, a series of side tables that resemble colorful stools from afar. Up close, the resonant patterns of Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art appear on the surface. Another kitchen item for Alessi, the Tegamino pan, looks like any other pan. But it has undulating handles that conjure up the gooey textures of a scrambled egg and revel in the pot’s reason for being: to put warm food in your mouth.

It seems like kismet that some of Mendini’s last Alessi designs were for children. The Alessini collection, a set of whimsical plates, bowls, cups, and cutlery, was designed to capture the imagination of the most naturally curious among us. There’s a radical dignity to them, and to all Mendini’s works. They suggest that consumers are worthy of joy and pleasure, that the mundane but crucial rituals in our lives–cooking, drinking, spending time with children–are not merely chores to slog through, but moments to celebrate. We are what we eat, and what we eat it in.

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D