A Half Century Designing of Mario
How did your career start with furniture design?
I was asked to design a piece of furniture, the first in my life, for an exhibition.
So I made a simple dining table of plywood. I showed it to Cesare Cassina after it won the Compasso d’Oro and asked him what I should do with it. He said, “Tomorrow, you come work for us.”
Hearing about my award, the son of the founder of Olivetti called and asked me to work for his company, too. My first machine, a check encoder, also won a Compasso d’Oro.
Those two pieces rocketed my career. I was supposed to be an architect, but I didn’t get around to designing a building for another 20 years.
Any other watershed moments?
In 1972, architect and curator Emilio Ambasz asked me to design something for “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. So I collaborated with Citroen and Pirelli on a mobile home, the Kar-a-Sutra, which changed the evolution of automotive design. MoMA then gave me a solo show in 1987.
When the retrospective was over, I felt as if the first stage of my life was accomplished. I was now free to do architecture.
How are you celebrating a half century with Cassina?
Managing director Gianluca Armento asked me to do a worldwide tour. I agreed, provided we do it in a cultural way.
Where have you been, and what have you been doing?
Last year, I went to Asia–Singapore, Shanghai, and Taiwan. Then came a coast-to-coast U.S. journey, stopping in New York, Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Then up to Canada and back to Milan. I’ve been giving a series of talks on my history with the company and my international projects.
Are there any new furniture you designed?
Cassina asked me to design a lounge chair. That was the first time they asked me for a specific product. Normally, I’m the one who brings the product ideas to them.
What was your reaction?
I said, “There’s already an untouchable lounge chair, the one by Charles and Ray Eames.” To do something that stayed away from that, I returned to the Cab, using the same smart skeleton of metal bars dressed with saddle leather that opens with zippers. We actually had an Eames chair in the studio to look at the whole time during development.
How did the chair and recliner turn out?
Cab Lounge is very comfortable, even though it’s not as stuffed as the Eames chair. Then we designed Cab Night, the bed.
What’s your favorite architecture project?
In 2012, Rudy Ricciotti and I completed the Islamic galleries at the Louvre. They’re mostly underground, topped by a glass pavilion with a roof like a golden veil.
What are you working on now?
For an eco-conscious city along the Yellow River between Shanghai and Nanjing, we’re developing a happy landscape of islands surrounded by canals, ponds, and greenery. Back in Italy, we’re converting a courtyard at the Tempio Venere e Roma into an antiquities museum showing the origins of Rome. I’m also expecting to do a huge sports and culture structure in Qatar in conjunction with the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
What’s your office like?
I used to have 60 people working, but now it’s just 10 to 12. For bigger projects, we team up with an international engineering firm if necessary. It’s more flexible, and I don’t have to support a system.
If you hadn’t been an architect, what would you have been?
A poet. I like what you can do with words.