Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Real Mendini

I got acquainted with Alessandro Mendini years before I actually met him. In the early 1980s, the Italian architect was at the helm of trendy and sophisticated Domus magazine, which in the world of publications stood out much like Apple stands in the computer industry today. Mendini’s perfect Milanese face looked straight on from the front page of every issue, where he interviewed his famous subjects. Those peculiar enigmatic interviews felt even more alluring because of my sketchy understanding of both Italian and English.

Domus Academy, where I came to Milan to study, was not directly linked to the magazine, yet Mendini’s reputation loomed larger than life over the entire school. Soon I met the man himself, who turned out to be only five-foot-four, but had an irresistible charisma. I learned also that many in Milan were unsure about his work: his message was too complex, too personal, and not too optimistic. Who else would dare to title his own monograph The Unhappy Design?

A good example of Mendini’s attitudes was a one-time performance, sometime in 1984, of which I kept an unusual souvenir: a fake Louis Vuitton purse. The counterfeits’ market was flourishing in Milan twenty-five years ago, as it probably continues to this day. The business was conducted on the street, mostly by vendors from Africa, known as “the Senegalese”. For the event, the architect had invited several of the men into an art gallery, along with their illegitimate wares. There was music and vine. Guests could buy a counterfeit bag, quite cheaply, and Mendini would then validate their purchase by attaching a new checkerboard tag and placing his initials over the old label. A fake Vuitton would become an original Mendini.

Many of design preoccupations of the time had found reflection in this simple gesture of the architect: the theme of banal object and originality, the politics of design, the redeeming quality of decoration. Above all, it had a fleeting lightness of a game. Soon the event was forgotten; I do not know how many redesigned bags, if any, remain today.

Around 1985, Alessandro Mendini joined forces with his architect-brother, Francesco, starting a second, “happy” phase of his career, which ultimately brought him much commercial success. By stroke of good fortune, I landed my first job after graduation in Mendini Brothers’ new architectural studio. Their first and only project was an unusual house on the lake Orta, entrusted to them by Alessandro’s old-time friend Alberto Alessi. Mendini’s concept was to extend his ideas of collaborative design to the scale of a villa. Different parts, designed by the likes of Michael Graves, Robert Venturi, Sottsass, even Frank Gehry, were to be merged into one coherent, decorative composition.

On my first day at work, Alessandro said with his characteristic smile: “Let’s play this game together.” Compared to my experience at American architectural offices, his work process did resemble playing. The architect would through around some outlandish ideas, which somehow would make a perfect answer to a problem at hand. Once, after we struggled in vain to line up the parapets of two joined roofs, he finally offered: “Let us just build the roofs first; then we’ll go up there, and figure it out.” Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to climb that roof. My calling soon brought me back to New York. Alessandro Mendini moved on to become a creative director at Swatch, and the brothers had built a host of Swatch stores around the world. We even managed to collaborate again – but that’s another story.

Blogger rwordplay said...

A lovely story and one we should compile with others and annotate and bind it.

The story about the counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags brought to mind a story of my own. It was the Spring or summer of 1979, and I had begun career at a small advertising agency in Los Angeles called Hall & Levine. One of the first things I noticed when I went to work was that everyone carried Louis Vuitton accessories—wallets, handbags, soft attaches and hard briefcases.

I suspect the interest in branded items had its origins in TV shows such as "Dallas," or its imitators, but since I had never seen an episode, I had no idea of what these logos signified. I knew Gucci, because some of the pre-preppy girls in my Junior High School had Gucci bags, and Gucci played a big part in branding Rodeo Drive and defining the new Beverly Hills.

My grandmother had an old Gucci wallet she had bought in Italy in the 60, but it was just an elegant black woman's leather. It was not marked by a logo but its flap closed with a gold clasp in the shape of a woman's hand. (When she took it into the store, no one had ever seen the wallet before and the manager offered to buy it.)

Anyway, back to Louis Vuitton. I don't know if the accessories worn and used by my bosses and colleagues were real or counterfeit and it didn't occur to me to inquire. (There were not, to my knowledge, any Senegalese in Los Angeles in 1979, and where would they have gathered if there were?)

My protest against the uniformity of dress at the agency manifested itself in my carrying with me a plain manila envelope. When the envelope decayed, I picked up another. This lasted for a few months, when one day I was called into the creative director's/art director's office. He was a pleasant, happy man and very helpful to me. When I sat down he asked what was the deal with the manila envelopes, and then went on to say that it didn't seem to him very professional. I didn't see the point of saying I was engaged in subversive activity because such an activity would have been beside the point, so I merely said, I haven't found a bag that suited me.
At that point the man, I think his name was Joel, said, "I have something for you." He opened a draw and pulled out a manila envelope covered front and back, top and bottom, with the Louis Vuitton VL logos. It was a beautiful job of hand-lettering. An excellent match of size and color—these were pre-Mac days. He said, use this until you can afford to buy one of your own. It was a lovely gesture and it also confirmed that at least some of those who adopted the brand were not unconscious of its meaning and/or lack of meaning.

January 24, 2010 at 9:11 PM  

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