THE POPE OF GLOOP
New York magazine|September 13 - 26, 2021
For 60 years, Gaetano Pesce has been preaching the gospel of uncertainty in design. Finally, the world has caught up.
Matthew Schneier
THE WORLD OF TIDILY ORDERED forms is a convenient fantasy. The real world gloops and glops. Here and there, it bulges. It sags. It was once considered modern to architect this chaos into order, to machine the wet muck of existence into clean lines and hard edges. That is not the modern of Gaetano Pesce, the Italian-born industrial designer–artist-architect– prophet, who has been plying his alternate vision in resin, foam, fabric, and polyurethane for more than half a century. These days, he does his conjuring out of a pungent, hard-candy-colored studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. On a day this past July, just before the monthlong annual summer holiday that is an Italian nonnegotiable even for an Italian who has spent four decades in New York (somehow never losing his gravelly Italianglish), Pesce was holding court there for a procession of gallery swans, museum factotums, and press attachés who had come to discuss the various Pesce retrospectives and shows around the globe.

Court is a comfortable posture for Pesce, who is imperial in his bearing and imperious in his pronouncements. An audience with the man is an opportunity for oratory, as he makes his argument against the rigid, linear world the rest of us live in unquestioningly. “Horrible,” says Pesce, gesturing vaguely at the concrete-and-glass buildings outside his window. “International Style”—the reigning aesthetic of design since the 1930s, meant to mimic the efficiency of machines, and what most of us most often associate with the word modern—“is a horrible way to make architecture. Architects don’t know that they do something that is an image of non-freedom.”

In here, freedom (according to Pesce) reigns. Your path may be blocked by a lipstick-red polyurethane foot the size of a motorbike or a resin bookcase in the shape of its creator’s face. In an upstairs archive, rows and rows of vases in lollipop-like resin stand sentry, the accessible souvenirs and satellites of Pesceworld. Major pieces, like that face bookcase or that foot, will run you $180,000 and up. Presiding above it all is Pesce himself, an imp in Issey Miyake, delighting in his creations, wonky and Wonka. Which makes him sound a bit more benign than he is. He’s a bomb thrower, a “prince of disorder,” in the words of Glenn Adamson, a prominent Pesce scholar. “Gaetano goes toward trouble,” says his friend and champion Murray Moss, who helped popularize Pesce’s work in the U.S. at his influential Soho design store, Moss.

Who else would propose to an Italian company that it make ashtrays in the shape of Christ’s crucified hand so you could tap your ashes directly into His bloody stigmata? (It was 1969; the company declined.) Or make models out of raw meat for an exhibition at the Louvre, then let them putrefy until the museum was overwhelmed by the smell? “There are lots of my colleagues who do decoration or nice things,” he says. “I don’t care about that.”

In the world of design—not to say decoration—not many names breakthrough to broad public consciousness. You may know Charles and Ray Eames, Mies van der Rohe, Gehry, Noguchi. No rapper has yet name-checked their Pesce in a verse, though if you know what to look for, you’ll have noticed that KAWS has a Pesce, as does Urs Fischer, as does Selling Sunset’s Christine Quinn, and that one of his armchairs recently made a cameo on the new Gossip Girl. And then there are the retrospectives: one coming to Shenzhen, China; another in Genoa; an exhibition in Aspen. Here in New York, a show of new pieces opens this week at the Salon 94 gallery, which has represented him, and directed Pesces into important apartments and collections, for several years.

At 82, Pesce has lived long enough to see his work lauded as the harbinger of the “new domestic landscape” and derided as dated and sexist; even as it has been welcomed into every major design museum collection, to his acolytes, it is underappreciated and undervalued. The pendulum swings, swings, swings. But if Donald Judd and Pesce represent two extremes of contemporary design—monasticism and mishegoss—we are very much in the throes of a Pesce moment. His fervid energy, his experimental daring, and his celebrations of error and uncertainty all make him look more and more like a visionary of our chaotic, cheerfully toxic present. “You would have to call him pre-digital,” says Kathryn Hiesinger, a senior design curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art who curated a show of Pesce’s work there in 2005, emphasizing his love of handwork and craft over internet-age perfection—which has come back around. The taffy colors, organic forms, and plasticky materiality of so much contemporary design, crafted by creators decades younger than Pesce and disseminated everywhere on Instagram, owe much to his influence as our éminence gloop. “It is so right now,” says designer Katie Stout, whose squidgy organic forms suggest Pesce’s and who calls him an inspiration. “The internet is obsessed with slime and anything adjacent to slime.”

For those who follow in Pesce’s bright shadow, his cheerful sacrilege is an invitation to go wild. “I feel like there’s a moment when everyone discovers that work in art school. It’s permission to make something really messy and then say that it’s done,” says Misha Kahn, another young Brooklyn designer whose furniture is sometimes compared to Pesce’s. “When you’re first trying to bust out of a bubble of rigidity, it’s a magical world to stumble upon.”

PESCE WAS BORN in 1939 in La Spezia on the Ligurian coast. His father, an officer in the Italian navy, was killed in World War II, and his mother raised Gaetano and his two siblings with the help of her extended family in Padua and Este and her husband’s in Florence. As a student, he was drawn to the arts— “Conversations about music and art,” he told Marisa Bartolucci, one of his biographers, “helped us to survive.” He revered Dalí and Duchamp and was drawn early and enduringly to experimentation, co-founding in 1958 the artists’ collective Gruppo N in Padua, one of a number of coteries devoted to artistic “research.”

After deciding “architecture was the most complex of all the arts,” he enrolled in architecture school in Venice but bridled at its rigidity and traditionalism. It wasn’t the right kind of modern for him, nor did he want to be constrained by just one métier. “When I finished the school of architecture, I realized that nobody taught me materials from my own time,” he says. “So I sent a letter to chemical companies to ask if it was possible to visit them. And two answered. I went and I saw incredible things.” It inaugurated an ongoing investigation into new materials like polyurethane foam and resin—gooey, pliable, light refracting, but indestructible. “Resin is better than glass,” he tells me. “You work today; tomorrow, it’s ready.” (He eventually did extend his experiments to glass, but he tweaked the technique; he demanded the development of a gun with which to shoot molten glass into a roaring furnace.)

Italy in the 1960s was the crucible of innovation in industrial design, the ferment that produced Gae Aulenti and Joe Colombo. Pesce and another designer, Milena Vettore, set up a small studio in Padua and got to work. A meeting with Cesare Cassina, the furniture manufacturer, led to an ongoing collaboration, which allowed Pesce the freedom to experiment and produce, in small editions, some of his most influential works. (Vettore died in 1967.)

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