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Gaetano Pesce, Designer Who Broke the Rules, Is Dead at 84

Gaetano Pesce, Designer Who Broke the Rules, Is Dead at 84

Gaetano Pesce, who for more than 60 years created eccentrically shaped, brightly colored furniture, art objects and, occasionally, buildings, remaining the enfant terrible of the design world even as he became its grand old man, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 84.

The death, at a hospital, was caused by a stroke, his daughter Milena Pesce said.

Mr. Pesce, who was born in Italy but spent much of his life in New York City, may be best known for his translucent, brilliantly colored objects, including bowls, vases and trays, which he made by pouring resin into molds, then adding dyes that he chose on the spot. Other pieces, including tables, chairs and lamps, were made of hard plastic, also with vibrant pigments added extemporaneously.

“Gaetano introduced the idea of mass customization,” said Murray Moss, who featured Mr. Pesce’s work at his Manhattan design store in SoHo, Moss, for nearly 20 years.

Of Mr. Pesce’s factory-made pieces, the most celebrated is an armchair shaped like a buxom fertility goddess attached by a wire to a ball-shaped ottoman.

Mr. Pesce explained that, with its suggestion of a ball and chain, what was variously referred to as La Mamma, Big Mama, Donna, and the Up chair portrayed the subjugation of women. It was, he said, “an image of non-freedom.”

Indeed, if his work appeared surreal or whimsical, it was also meant to be political. Unlike other modes of communication, Mr. Pesce said, a chair can bring a political statement right into the home.

His main political message was that conformity was stifling — or as he put it in a 2019 talk at Columbia University: “Repetition in life is a disaster. Order is totalitarian.”

Not surprisingly, he eschewed right angles.

“He felt the framing of something at exactly 90 degrees — that was absolutely dehumanizing,” said Mr. Moss. “He was an enemy of the grid.”

So much so that for a 1975 show at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Mr. Pesce presented models of grid-like buildings by the architect Mies van der Rohe made out of raw meat. When the meat began to rot, the show had to be shut down.

“I wanted to show that people can decompose when they live in a certain kind of space,” he said.

In 2022, he was asked to exhibit his work at the Aspen Art Museum in Colorado. “I won’t do it in a prison,” Mr. Pesce said he told the museum, referring to the wooden grid, by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, that covers its building. Instead, he designed, as an installation that covered the grid for the run of the show, an inflatable facade in the image of a sun setting over a mountain landscape.

In a 2019 essay about Mr. Pesce, the critic and curator Glenn Adamson wrote that “instead of rationalism, he offers wild disruptive energy, provocation.”

“He posits wholly new ways of living just to see what that might look like,” he continued, adding, “He bores easily.”

Mr. Pesce seemed to become more productive with age. In the early 2000s, he moved his studio from SoHo to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to make room for up to eight full-time assistants. In 2016, he affiliated with the prestigious gallery Salon 94 on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

For an exhibition there in 2019, Mr. Pesce and his crew made chairs in front of visitors. Having an audience was nothing new for him; he ventured into performance art in the 1960s. In one well-known work, he promised that anyone who came to the event would receive a portrait — then passed around a mirror.

He was a favorite of design curators. The Museum of Modern Art in New York began showing his work in 1970 and has included it in at least 17 exhibitions. Its collection includes such items as his Moloch floor lamp — an ordinary swing-arm desk lamp blown up to gargantuan proportions.

Late in his career, Mr. Pesce was the subject of retrospectives and celebrations at several of the world’s leading museums. “The establishment was celebrating him because he was anti-establishment,” said Mr. Moss, and that had made for “an awkward situation for Gaetano.”

A full obituary will follow.

Alex Traub contributed reporting.


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