by Roderick Conway Morris

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Morandini's Playful Geometric Design

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 10 October 2008
Marcello Morandini
The Piazza Casula, Varese, Italy (1974),
Morandini's first architectural project



In 1968 Marcello Morandini was given, aged 28, an entire room to himself at the Venice Biennale to exhibit his geometric sculptures. These pieces ended up in Canada, Hungary and Switzerland. The largest, seven meters long, was donated to Mantua, the town of his birth, but has since disappeared.

Of the 22 Italian artists invited to the 1968 Biennale, no fewer than five died during the event or shortly after. Morandini, however, survived and went on to a productive career bridging the worlds of art, architecture and design, and the arts of east and west.

To mark the 40th anniversary of his Venice debut, a retrospective has been mounted at the Ca' Pesaro Gallery of Modern Art on the Grand Canal. 'Marcello Morandini: Art, Architecture, Design,' contains more than 60 pieces and will run until Nov. 16, before going on to the Neues Museum in Nuremberg in February.

The 1968 Biennale took place amid political and social turmoil. Morandini and his fellow exhibitor Gianni Colombo stood out among their colleagues in sending an open telegram to the press expressing their absolute opposition to any kind of violence. Morandini has plowed his own idiosyncratic furrow ever since.

Almost all Morandini's sculptures are monochrome, combinations of black and white, sometimes grays. Some are of great simplicity, others of geometric complexity. When he does use color, it is to arresting effect.

Inspired by the Bauhaus, Josef Albers, Moholy-Nagy, and others of that era like the Russian Constructivists, he also drew on the arts of Japan, reflected in simple forms and lacquered or other glossy surfaces.

Experiments in hand-coating poorly seasoned wood in the early 1970s resulted in eruptions of 'abominable fungal growths,' after which he turned for some pieces to precolored black and white plexiglass. At a deeper level, Morandini also shares the Japanese belief that creating beautifully crafted objects is in part a spiritual process.

Having trained at the Brera Academy in Milan, the artist supplemented his income in the early 1970s by working as an industrial and graphic designer. Far from stifling Morandini's creativity, this experience seems to have suited his instincts and helped hone his skills.

While constantly expressive, adventurous and often witty, Morandini's work is always planned with the precision of a master draftsman, as revealed by some telling design drawings on display here.

Morandini shares this graphic background with Maurits Cornelis Escher, and in many respects he could be seen as the abstract heir of the Dutch artist, working in three dimensions. Even the strange suggestiveness of Escher's images is present in Morandini's works - a sense of hidden meanings lying beneath immaculately rendered surfaces. Morandini has said of his work that it strives to contain 'all that normally is not seen or is barely perceptible.'

The artist's experience in industrial design has also assisted him in realizing some fascinating, high-quality furniture, fittings and household goods. The philosophy behind all of these is summarized in his description of the thinking behind his 1991 'Bine' chair: 'The pleasure of finding an active and surprising architecture for a traditionally passive object.'

He has designed an elegant new plexiglass 'Ca' Pesaro' chair for the exhibition. Also on show are a range of diverting tables, shelves, lamps, light fittings, stainless-steel cutlery and 'ergonomic' playing cards with streamlined rounded edges. Porcelain products include spiraling flower vases; coffee services in leaning, funnel-like shapes that evoke romantic voyages on ocean liners; a chess set and a double-faced clock. Morandini's trompe l'oeil rugs, with illusionistic three-dimensional effects, are both floor coverings and woolen tableaux.

Morandini's first excursion into architecture was in 1974, when he was invited to design the Piazza Casula, a new square flanked by administrative buildings, erected on the site of a former factory in Varese, where his family had moved in 1947. Morphing the form of ancient amphitheaters, he created an intriguing, spiraling, stepped white structure. In 2005 he transformed the town's main square with its central fountain, his white, gray and russet-colored geometrical pavings echoing the stylistically varied surrounding architecture.

Although the forms may seem different, Morandini's use of contrasting monochrome stone harks back to Italian medieval and Renaissance architecture. For his 'Das Kleine Museum' in Weissenstadt in Germany, the black and white elements of the geometrical composition - fronted by a gravel expanse recalling a Japanese Zen garden - were provided by polished black granite and Carrara marble from the same quarries that supplied Michelangelo.

Among Morandini's larger scale works have been skyscrapers in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and a new façade for the Thomas porcelain factory at Speichersdorf in Germany, where rising and falling bands of blue and green pick up the hues of the sky and fields around it.

His latest projects, illustrated in the show, include tall buildings directly based on some of his vertical sculptures and a vast waste disposal plant in Milan. This he proposes to wrap with light-reflecting panels, arranged in an interplay of sloping planes and convex cones, to mirror their surroundings and the sky.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023