In 1969 the design world was rocked by UP, a series of chairs made from air-sensitive foam that ‘grew’ before your very eyes. Today Gaetano Pesce is a living treasure. Here he chats with Leo Ryan about designers as the new artists and why the world, now more than ever, needs leaders who can dream.  

LR: Are you pleased or surprised in the level of interest in the UP collection you designed in the 1960s?

GP: There is an explosion of this kind of market that is interested in objects – so prices are quite high and it is interesting.

LR: Why do you think there is this interest in objects?

GP: Slowly the people in the institutions understand that there is a real culture around the object – not only a superficial knowledge like there was 10 years ago. We understand that an object is a witness of our times and so it is like a piece of art.

LR: When you design do you think about the ramifications of the ubiquity of an object?

GP: No. I think I work following a curiosity in technique, in technology, in understanding a new material, in an issue that I have in my mind about questioning a political or religious point of view. What is the power of the object today? I think an object has to satisfy a function, that is for sure. It must be comfortable – a chair or a bed – you have to sleep well on it, but the new thing is that an object can express feelings. So in that moment there is no difference between an artist and a designer of an object.

LR: What is the difference between an artist and a designer?

GP: I am convinced that the artist is slowly going out of the circle of necessity. Society always needs a certain kind of contribution from creativity but I think that the so-called artist is outside of this circle. And who is inside is someone doing a job that is helpful to the needs of the people. I think artists have gone out of this limit and that they only play games that are appropriate to the museum. And museums are places where old and dead things usually go.

There is a very beautiful statement by Baudrillard, a French sociologist, who said that most of the people who go to the Museum of Contemporary Art agree without knowing why – they don’t understand what they see, but they say that what they see is very interesting. He said that maybe the artists don’t know why either. Art is there for a very few members of the elite to go to a museum and agree without knowing. The opposite is objects. Objects are universal, still the function is recognisable. A table for everybody is a table, a stool for everybody is a stool. The object today is becoming a media that is much more complex than a media that is talking only about function. Objects can now have caring, existential and philosophical points of view. And in that moment behind the function or the functionality there is also a message of this sort and this makes the object a very actual form of culture.

LR: When you talk about this in the context of a piece such as ‘Big Mama’ then it is certainly possible to see how there is a message beyond the immediate functionality. But surely this is not the case with a lot of furniture.

GP: No and this is always the case. When there is a new movement only a few things are showing the new direction. Time goes on and more and more people will follow. If I take an example from the area of architecture – there are very few examples of architecture but there are many examples of construction or buildings. I am talking about objects that are full of meaning and represent this new direction where furniture or lighting design is going today.

LR: One of the things you pursue in your work is an exploration of new materials. Do you think that the materiality, not just the form, can be imbued with a political message?

GP: Yes I do, but that is for another reason. I believe that the innovation usually goes through three factors. One is the new language of the author, the other is the new technology used to represent the new language and the third is the use of new material. When the three are together you have a very full act of creativity. I am a little bit polemic against people who are using material from the past. If we want to be sincere with our time we have to use ways and techniques, metals and materials from this time. Otherwise we make a fake.

LR: What about the inherent qualities of materials such as stone and wood that provide people with a certain meaning. Are these meanings no longer relevant?

GP: I feel that they are no longer relevant. You know, you cannot build an aeroplane from wood. You have to use material that is more related to the function of what the aeroplane is. I believe that the old materials are done. They did a lot of important things in the past but they are not relevant anymore. I think our time is better represented by elastic material, able to change colour, able to change the form. So immediately we eliminate the traditional form because they are rigid, uniform, always the same.

LR: Yes this is a fractured period of history – but don’t you think that one of the things people are looking for is simplicity?

GP: Yes, simplicity is very important, first of all. Second, I would say that we understand an object better when we are able to touch it, when we are able to discover qualities that are close to our body, like elasticity of the material. When we touch an object and the object makes a sound we have another way to communicate. I am saying that simplicity goes through different ways to touch the senses. The more senses are touched easily by an object the more easily it can be understood. So for that reason I am dedicating myself to making objects that have sound, smell and can be touched – not only the visual part.

LR: What sorts of things are you experimenting with at the moment?

GP: A retrospective of my work at The Triennale in Milan (January – April 2005). I am investing my energy in researching a new material for the invitation.

LR: Last time we spoke we talked about some of George Monbiot’s ideas.

GP: Yes – it was a discussion about globalisation.

LR: What is the responsibility of a designer to respond to the issues raised by globalisation and what kind of response can be made to the results of the recent US election?

GP: That is quite a complex question. The first thing I know is that we are not going through a very positive moment. Over the world there is a cloud, it is covering all of us a little bit with a certain depression. When I was following the debate, neither of the candidates used the word culture – not once. That means they are not visionary. We need the Democratic Party to have more people who dream and who have a vision. The position of this country is super important for the world.

The United States was a country where creativity was always present. This is a country where people realise their dreams. It was, at least. And not to have creativity at a moment like this was very sad. Today it is not exactly what it was. But I think they will be coming back. Before I was talking about the cloud, for sure, around the world there is a cloud, but it is going – because that’s what clouds do – they come and they go. Well, that’s what I believe.

LR: That’s a pretty optimistic note to finish on. Looking forward, what’s coming up in the New Year for you?

GP: I am designing a discotheque in St Petersburg!

LR: Fantastic!