At 83, Gaetano Pesce is enjoying a late-career surge of celebrity. As the artist, designer, and architect told me poolside at the Ritz in Miami Beach on a recent humid afternoon, “When I came here three days ago, there were people stopping me on the street, recognizing me!”
Pesce, who has lived and worked in Brooklyn since 1983, was in town the week of Art Basel to present a series of chairs he designed for Bottega Veneta’s Spring-Summer 2023 show, held in Milan in September. Though responsible for more than his fair share of spectacularly collectible, surrealist furniture pieces, like the buxom “La Mamma,” an occasionally controversial armchair in the abstracted form of a woman held down by a ball and chain, Pesce is as surprised as any that he’s become one of the trendiest names in the novelty-gobbling worlds of fashion and design. (As I wrote last week in GQ’s Show Notes newsletter, Art Base has emerged as a fifth fashion week of sorts, making it a welcoming scene for a design polymath like Pesce.) “Me, I am not very good,” he said. “What is good is that the others don’t do what they are supposed to do. So the little I do becomes very important.”
Despite his elder-statesman status in a town run amok with twenty-something rising stars, Pesce retains all the zeal of his younger self: back in the mid-’60s, he penned a manifesto railing against sameness in architecture and design. When I asked him if he saw anything good that week at the art fairs, he waved his hand dismissively. “At the art show, there is a lot of decoration, a lot of maquillage. In general very superficial. I didn’t see innovation,” he said. Pesce likes Goya and Michelangelo, artists who, in his view, did what artists are supposed to do: reflect profound truths about reality. And don’t get him started on the actual cityscape of Miami Beach. “If we look here, we see a lot of buildings that are all the same,” he said, unbidden. “The International Style allowed an architect to do the same building here, and the same building in Stockholm—the diversity of two different places asks for a different construction. But the International Style is very totalitarian.”
With his Bottega Veneta commission, on the other hand, Pesce sought to capture what he sees as one of the most critical and highest truths of life: that we are all unique, and that uniqueness is humankind’s strength. In Pesce’s world, we are not, in other words, molded plywood Eames chairs, beautiful in our simplicity and replicability. We are instead much more like one of his own creations: organic, gloopy, and even a little ugly. Quite literally, if you ask Pesce: “In a certain way, the chair is the most close object to the human being,” he said, explaining why the chair has captured his imagination for so many decades. Many of Pesce’s most famous designs emulate the human form, like a technicolor cabinet that resembles a face; to Pesce, the appeal of chairs, with four limbs and a back, is obvious.