An Enzo Mari Table – and a Puzzle - Popular Woodworking Magazine

An Enzo Mari Table – and a Puzzle

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Woodworking Blogs

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

Recent Posts
Showing 11 comments
  • jcurole

    So I know I’m late to the game here, but isn’t the woodworking handplanerati kinda tired of pooping on IKEA?

  • Kd_walmsley

    Please consider reading “Nomadic Furniture”, James Hennessey and Victor Papanek. In a siimilar vein.

  • Old Woods

    Hear what Mari has to say :

  • C. Stanley Plane

    He believed people would enjoy furniture more if they made it themselves.

  • TJdaMan

    “None of those reasons are correct. What Mari was after is a lot more complicated and deep.”
    Indeed, and I think it was mostly missed (or at least not delved into for the sake of brevity) by the author of this article.

    Mari didn’t (and still doesn’t, he’s alive and working) exist in a void and the investment required to buy furniture from other sources had little to do with his work which has more to do with redefining art/design and (the mid-century understanding of) the relationship between consumers and producers of art.

    This is useful background See also Bruno Munari’s book “Design as Art” for more on late 60’s early 70’s Italian avant garde design culture. The foundations of this stuff go back to Russian Constructivism, the Bauhaus, de Stijl, etc. and Italian design theorists are very well steeped in all of that history as well as radical political thought.

    I don’t want to add another link for fear of moderation limbo but saltonline has a pdf relating to a slightly later but highly related design/education experiment called “Global Tools.” Rudimentary google mojo should be all that’s required to find “GLOBAL TOOLS 1973-1975” if you want. It’s highly recommended and ties in Victor Papanek, Stewart Brand (Whole Earth Catalog), Lloyd Kahn, Bucky Fuller and others to help give context to what was happening world wide at the time.

  • Jim McConnell

    I feel like Mari is just trolling everyone with some of those bed designs, but I do like some of the “Tavolo Rettangolare” series (especially C and D)

    • TJdaMan

      Check out Marcel Coward’s bedroom suite for Jean Cocteau. It’s made of unfinished or lightly finished pine, brown leather. and fur and has a look somewhere between crate furniture and pressure treated timber landscape design. It dates to 1929. It’s in the Virginia Museum of Fine arts collection and lovely in person. Photos are online, but not on the museum’s website unfortunately. With Cocteau involved it’s hard to say who was tolling whom.

  • brownkm52

    In the ultimate sort of IKEA irony, did you find this story from a guy who made an Enzo Mari table out of wood scavenged from IKEA furniture?

  • skirincich

    I trust the picture is one of charred wood and not a drool-worthy pile of ebony?


    • Sean McCurdy

      It is, there are pictures of the author and Megan Fitzpatrick on Instagram charring pine with a weed torch.

  • zackdog

    Reminds me of the This End Up furniture (their early shipping crate stuff, not their current “fancy” offerings).

    Perfect for dorms/frat houses/hunting cabins/starter homes after you were tapped out by the home deposit.

Start typing and press Enter to search

Bevel planing. After the mortise is chopped and the groove is plowed, bevel the edge of the parts. Check the fi t as you go, and make small adjustments.