It was 3 pm when I met Gaetano Pesce at his New York office in January, but the moon was already rising, courtesy of the Notturno a New York sofa which he designed and where he sat.
As a designer and architect, Pesce’s long career is distinguished by his creative use of modern materials to fabricate utilitarian objects that communicate socially and politically conscious messages. His most famous design is probably UP5 and UP6, a chair and ottoman combination designed in 1969 and widely known as “The Mamma” or “La Donna”.
These pieces were originally sold in flat, vacuum sealed packages. Once the package was opened, the compressed polyurethane foam expanded into a fully formed chair. Watch it grow! But this playful design is also meant to convey a darker message about the condition of women as victims of prejudice and oppression, where the ottoman forms a prisoner’s ball and chain attached to a shape that recalls a prehistoric fertility figure.
As the Project Conservator for the contemporary Design Arts gallery installation, I wanted to speak with Pesce about his works, to learn more about how they are produced, and to have a conversation about their long-term care. In preparation for opening one of the largest–and first–comprehensive surveys of the history of contemporary design in an American museum, the Objects and Variable Art Conservation lab is busy with a variety of activities related to preparing the recently-acquired collection to go on display for the first time.
I was thrilled to discover that in addition to getting to speak with a contemporary master, for the first time, I would actually get to sit in one of his designs! Though I handle, clean and repair Pesce’s works as part of my job, I do not get to experience them as functional pieces. Furniture in the museum’s collections is no longer expected to support a person’s weight, and may not be capable of doing so. Using the object could also easily damage its surface and change its appearance in a number of undesirable ways.
The IMA’s contemporary Design Arts collection includes many examples of Pesce’s work, including UP5 and UP6, a Greene Street armchair, and an I Feltri chair, among others. However, I was most interested in learning more about his Sansone I tables, designed in 1980 and produced by Cassina, the renowned Italian design firm.
Each of these tables was made to order as a unique object. At Cassina, factory employees hand-poured different mixtures of colored industrial polyester resins into a fixed mold for the legs and each table top was custom-formed into a different irregular shape.
In the coming months, the IMA’s Sansone I table will undergo a thorough examination and conservation treatment that will prepare it for the spotlight on one of the risers in the new galleries. Interviewing Pesce helped me to learn more about the production process and the designer’s intentions for the work—in other words, much of the information needed to determine how to move forward with the treatment.
Equally valuable, though, was the opportunity to closely inspect another Sansone I table in his office, where it has been used for years as a work space.
Seeing another example from the same series brought to life the true range of the design in a way that wasn’t possible from photos or conversations. The biblical name of the table deliberately casts the unconventional, angled legs as a reference to the Philistine pillars that Samson toppled. While every published example I had come across used white, green and red resins like the IMA’s table, this piece uses blue and orange! The resin was clearly poured in distinct stripes, not amorphous blocks of color.
Despite knowing that each table is unique, nothing I had seen previously indicated that the design could allow the top of one leg to stick out from the side of the piece, completely uncovered by the underside of the table top. Even in the age of photography with reference information available anywhere at your fingertips, there’s still no substitute for seeing and experiencing the actual art, directly and in person.
As a final side note, I found his proposal for the memorial at the World Trade Center site–now there’s a design I would have loved to experience!