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When Gaetano Pesce was nine, he punched his teacher for being stupid. Improper as the act was, it was also fortuitous. He was expelled and then enrolled in the only other school in Padua, Italy, an all-girls institution. “I was the only boy, and I learned a lot about how to think and act,” says the architect and designer. Two decades later, in 1969, he produced his now iconic Up chair for B&B Italia, a bulbous seat shaped like an ancient fertility goddess. With its spherical ottoman attached like a ball and chain, the chair symbolized the oppression of women by men. It was the first industrial-design object to express such a political point of view—and 50 years on, it’s as relevant as ever.
But then Pesce, who turns 80 in November, has always been a designer for our times. His work, which runs the gamut from bouncy resin vases to an office building covered with flowerpots, is fluid, imperfect, wildly innovative, and, most markedly, colorful. “Color is vital. When I started using it, my colleagues were dressed like priests, which I never understood,” says Pesce, referring to a time when both the culture and aesthetics of design took their lead more from staid architecture than from art. Even when his pieces are laden with social commentary, they are joyful. Which is why, along with Kaws, Jeffrey Deitch, and Laure Heriard Dubreuil, who installed a cabinet he designed—shaped like a smiley face and painted cotton-candy pink—in her New York fashion boutique the Webster, his biggest fans are children.
“Art is not drama,” says Pesce, seated in his bendy 357 Feltri chair for Cassina, which Raf Simons reupholstered with American quilts for last year’s Design Miami. “Art is life, and in a moment when our world is a little depressing, it’s important to make something positive and pleasurable.”
To celebrate the Up chair’s anniversary, Pesce staged a 262-foot version of it in Milan’s Piazza del Duomo this April as part of the city’s Design Week. And earlier this year, he presented new and old works at Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Brussels. Pesce, who’s been based in New York since 1980, still goes to his Brooklyn studio every day. He’s busy creating new pieces and playing around with innovative materials, such as a translucent resin he recently used to recast his 1984 Pratt chairs, making them even more vivid. In the fall, he’ll show new work at the Manhattan gallery Salon 94 Design, and, as part of the city’s Performa 19 Biennial, he will present a resin rug, pieces of which viewers can carve out and take home. “Art is done for others to enjoy.”