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The parts to my Enzo Mari table, ready for assembly.

“Mari is right, everyone should have a project: after all it is the best way to avoid being designed yourself.”

— G.C. Argan, L’Espresso, 1974

In 1974, Italian designer Enzo Mari published a series of furniture designs that were free to the public. People were encouraged to use his drawings to produce tables, chairs, beds and bookshelves.

What’s more, Mari designed the pieces so they could be made from standardized wooden planks that were sawn to length and nailed together. The only tools required for assembly were a crosscut saw and a hammer.

Thousands of people built the furniture, and Mari has published all the designs in a great little book titled “autoprogettazione?” This title roughly translates to “self design.”

But why did Mari do this? Was he trying to return to early times when everyone built their own furniture? Did he want to disrupt the industrial economy? Denounce consumerism?

None of those reasons are correct. What Mari was after is a lot more complicated and deep.

To understand it, you have to step outside our IKEA-built world and return to 1974, when buying a dining room set was a huge investment.

Mari was presenting plans for creating a table (or chair or bookcase…) in an incredibly inexpensive and quick manner. But would the new owner and the neighbors accept the piece as an actual table? Even though it functioned as a table, it had none of the other attributes – joinery, figure, finish and (most importantly) a high price tag – of a typical table.

Few people grasped the social experiment. Instead, the furniture was built by students, new families and other people without the means to buy nice furniture. Some wealthier people used the designs to furnish their cottages.

I’ve always been fascinated by Mari’s designs. And I’ve wanted to evaluate them in a more modern context – now that we have IKEA and other knockdown furniture in the homes of every class and caste.

But before I could do that, I needed to build one of the projects for myself. That’s what I’m up to this week. I’m building Mari’s “Tavolo Quadrato” using home-center pine and nails. It’s definitely an “I Can Do That” sort of project but with a lesson behind it.

That lesson has changed since 1974. And I now wonder if Mari’s little experiment actually predicted our future.

More to come on this issue on the blog and in the next issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine.

— Christopher Schwarz

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