We certainly didn’t invent much during lockdown. But do-it-yourself took off with unexpected enthusiasm and creativity. The dream of Enzo Mari in 1974 – to return operative power to the hands of ordinary people – becomes reality in time of need

Autoprogettazione is the title of a call for action issued by Toni Merola, Nicola Pellegrini and Bianca Trevisan with Galleria Milano. During the lockdown, it asked 70 artists to create “instructions for the making of a work of art at home.” A tribute to Proposta per un’autoprogettazione,’ the exhibition in 1974 held precisely at Galleria Milano, in which Enzo Mari radically outlined an attitude against a market that flattens people’s critical capacities. In that exhibition, which was substantially an original user’s manual on a scale of 1:1 for simple, easily made furniture, Mari tried to restore operative power to ordinary people. Independent making as a synonym for freedom. “Each of us designs every day, when we have to make decisions, even apparently banal ones,” the designer wrote in “25 Ways to Drive a Nail.” And he continued: “Humankind has evolved by designing what was essential, from the amygdala to the tools for making fire, to the structures of language.”

Know-how means freedom

Mari indicated a simple reality: humans are creative. And he pointed to another, perhaps less obvious fact: creativity is gratifying. It makes us feel strong, capable, complete. And, above all, free. And if the repercussions, at least in the first hours of the Coronavirus crisis, included a chronic lack of yeast on the cooler shelves of supermarkets, things very quickly started moving in different directions. Calling into question practices and habits of the use of design and art no one had discussed for some time. A debate in which everyone has unexpectedly been invited to take part. Art and design began to send out unusual signals. Like children who say: “Do you want to play together? I’ll show you how.”

Starting with masks

It all began with protection devices, of course. In April Giulio Iacchetti published a tutorial for an acetate screen to attached to eyeglasses. The designer made the simplest and most effective choice to make the project usable: he posted it on Facebook. More or less at the same time, this theme was approached by Studio Pastina, with a tutorial for a do-it-yourself mask that also addressed the question of form. Aria is objectively an artifact with aesthetic virtues, made with technical materials that are easy to find at home. It mattered not that the tutorial suggested dismembering a North Face jacket: in March it was impossible to find a mask to buy at a drugstore. The priority was to take back some self-determination, perhaps in a naïve way, but in any case a chance to banish the feeling of impotence and fragility.

Doing it yourself in order to take part

Of course the Americans also arrived on the theme of the mask, displaying their prowess in the area of DIY tutorials: masks made with stockings, t-shirts, teabags, coffee filters. All with a maximum of ten minutes’ effort. Self-design loses its cultural and ideological aura, but pragmatism profits. Anyway, some of the tutorials have been masterpieces of infographics and graphic design: two themes Covid has brought back to the fore.

It is the response to the desire to be on hand in the crisis, to enter a constructive and, above all, personal discussion. Never before as in these months has it been so clear how important it is to bring humanity to care, to the themes of health and illness. Never as in this period has design been summoned to respond with symbolic tools. The Icelandic textile designer Ýrúrarí did this with a guerrilla knitter operation, transforming masks into Grand Guignol artworks.

Art is collective again

Contemporary art has instinctively moved along a very similar path. The more or less conscious objective is to make the audience take part, to activate it and summon it to action. The social networks have become places of art thanks to a mobilization that after many years has reopened a collaborative dialogue with people.

Palazzo Grassi, for example, reacted to the lockdown with a crossover operation. The Workshops for All involved illustrators, designers and architects in the design of open pathways, urging people to explore the processes and tools of creativity. Which, however, revealed a desire to be visible – and not to exhibit – in a moment of crisis. Minimal indications that converge in the exploration of the ordinary, that underline the need to be able to produce even art and design in an autonomous way.

The catalogue of the world to invent the future

This is also nothing new, of course: the visionary Stewart Brand, from 1968 to 1972, regularly published the Whole Earth Catalogue, a publication halfway between a magazine and a mail-order catalogue, including in-depth writings on the off-grid counter-culture, ahead of its time. The criteria for selection were simple: the idea was to support self-production. Useful tools of high quality and/or low cost, not in the mainstream. Brand’s efforts find similarities in today’s need to self-design and self-produce, including visions and solutions for future scenarios. This is the invitation of Tools for After, a laboratory of ideas about what’s to come after the pandemic, open to anyone who wants to take part in projects that defy the present.

Enzo Mari’s birds of paradise

Years ago, in a statement made during a Design Week, Enzo Mari explained that human beings, and designers in particular, are similar to birds of paradise. Small creatures that build complex, beautiful works of architecture to seduce mates. They use the things they find around them: colored stones, pieces of plants, tropical sands. And their compositions are masterpieces. But if they lived inside industrial chicken pens, their constructions would be made of excrement. In the end, the Coronavirus has forced everyone to look for the colored stones in their surroundings. And to take back the power of design, starting from the basics, from immediate necessities that from time to time are transformed into wonder.


Cover Photo: Banksy, Grannies, 2006. Color serigraphy on paper (79/150). Ph. Artrust SA. From Wopart  - Work on Paper Fair 2017, international art fair focusing on paper artworks will feature at the Lugano Exhibition Centre.