Design "provocateur and rule-breaker" Gaetano Pesce dies aged 84


Italian designer and architect Gaetano Pesce, a pioneer of the Radical Design movement who blurred the boundaries between art and design, has passed away at age 84.

Pesce’s death in his adopted home of New York was announced this morning by his studio in a post on Instagram.

“Over the course of six decades Gaetano revolutionized the worlds of art, design, architecture and the liminal spaces between these categories,” Pesce’s studio wrote. “His originality and nerve are matched by none.”

Up5 chair and Up6 ottoman by Gaetano PesceUp5 chair and Up6 ottoman by Gaetano Pesce
Gaetano Pesce (top) created icons of Italian design such as the Up5 chair (above)

Moving against the stream of rational, functional modernism in the 1960s and early 70s, Pesce experimented with materials and production methods to create furniture pieces imbued with political or religious meaning for brands from Cassina to B&B Italia.

Many would go on to become icons of Italian design including the Up5 chair – an innovative vacuum-packed chair designed to resemble a female prisoner – which he designed for B&B Italia precursor C&B.

Pesce moved to New York in 1983 and began to move away from mass production to create “standardised series” in everyday materials like resin, adapting conventional production techniques to create varied and imperfect outcomes.

The result are pieces such as the 1884 Pratt Chair, which toe the line between functional design and decorative art, helping to create a new category that would later become collectible design.

“Despite dealing with health-related setbacks, especially in the last year, Gaetano remained positive, playful and ever curious,” his studio said.

Pesce was “reliably provocative”

Tributes have started pouring in from industry figures including Egyptian designer Karim Rashid, who described Pesce as “a mentor, a friendly teacher, an intellect, a passionate creative artist who I will always have in my heart”.

Curator Glenn Adamson payed homage to the most widely influential and “the most reliably provocative of the Italian radical designers” on Instagram.

“I always called him maestro,” he wrote. “You see these tendencies everywhere in the design avant garde today, but when Gaetano originated them beginning in the late 1960s he was really out on his own.”

Golgotha table and chairs by Gaetano PesceGolgotha table and chairs by Gaetano Pesce
His Golgotha table resembles a crucifix

A number of solo exhibitions have reappraised Pesce’s legacy in recent years including the Age of Contaminations, which Adamson curated for New York gallery Friedman Benda in 2019.

“Pesce’s cross-contamination between genres consequentially altered the landscape of design and was a catalyst for the establishment of the contemporary studio practice,” the gallery said at the time, describing him as a “provocateur, rule-breaker, and an essential influence on the evolution of contemporary design”.

A pioneer of Radical Design

Pesce was born in the Italian city of La Spezia in November 1939, only two months after the start of world war two.

As was common at the time, he trained in both architecture and design, studying first at the University of Venice and later at the Venice Institute of Industrial Design.

Among his architecture projects is the Organic Building in Osaka from 1993, with its plant-covered facade made of orange fibreglass that served as a “precursor to today’s vegetation-covered green walls”.

Gaetano Pesce e Pierre Cardin - 1969 c_o Gaetano Pesce_s OfficeGaetano Pesce e Pierre Cardin - 1969 c_o Gaetano Pesce_s Office
Pesce (pictured seated with Pierre Cardin) designed the Up5 chair in 1960

But Pesce’s most pioneering and well-known work happened in the world of design. In the late 1960s, he became one of the leaders of Italy’s Radical Design movement, rejecting modernism’s rigid focus on forms dictated by function.

Instead, Pesce focused on the idea that functional objects, much like art, could carry a deeper message.

One of the most famous examples is the controversial Up5 chair from 1969, which manufacturer B&B Italia describes as “the first product of Italian design with a political meaning”.

The pioneering design is made from polyurethane foam that is vacuum-packed flat at 10 per cent of the final size.

Once opened, it expands to take its final shape, designed to resemble female body attached to a ball and chain in the form of an ottoman.

“It was, for me, one of my first figurative expressions,” Pesce said in an interview during Dezeen’s Virtual Design Festival. “For me, what is most important is the representation of the woman without freedom, which is very visible unfortunately in a lot of countries in the world.” 

Experiments with resin

In 1972, Pesce founded Cassina’s experimental subdivision Bracciodiferro with Alessandro Mendini, for which he created designs including the Golgatha table, shaped like a crucifix and bonded together with red resin to resemble blood.

“In my opinion, this is one of the strongest objects I have made,” he said during the VDF interview. “I made this story because I believe design, as an artistic expression, can talk about different concepts and also about religion.”

Pesce continued to work until his passing and was set to be a judge at this year’s Dezeen Awards.

His most recent work continued his experiments with resin, creating an epoxy-covered set and 400 custom-made chairs for Bottega Veneta’s Spring Summer 2023 fashion show.

gaetano pesce bottega veneta runway set design milan fashion week dezeen 2364 col 4gaetano pesce bottega veneta runway set design milan fashion week dezeen 2364 col 4
Pesce created 400 resin chairs for a Bottega Veneta fashion show. Photo by Matteo Canestraro

It was the designer’s first new chair design in years and formed part of an ongoing collaboration with the brand’s creative Matthieu Blazy.

Pesce’s first-ever bag design followed last year, created for Bottega Veneta at the age of 83. In his final years, the designer moved away from his earlier idea of the “standardised series”.

“As a designer I make originals, not standardised series’, that’s the old way – this is the new way,” said Pesce. “It is food for the brain – not for pay. If we see the same thing each day, then we die.”

The top photo is by Mark O’Flaherty.





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