Gaetano Pesce was just a teenager when he discovered the material that would shape so much of his career: polyurethane resin. Young and driven by the curiosity that has made him one of design's most innovative talents, Pesce wrote to every chemical company he could find asking for a tour of their facilities.
Only one wrote back, but the experience was transformative. Inspired by the high-tech developments he saw, Pesce dedicated himself to working with the materials of his era. Decades later, he's still filled with wonder as he giddily demonstrates a chemical reaction to a visitor in his studio: "It's a miracle—look!" he exclaims as foam bubbles up over the edge of a Dixie cup.
"There is always something to discover," Pesce says. "This is the beauty of the future, it is open to incredible things. I pay attention to the evolution and discovery of materials, because new materials can do things that are impossible with traditional materials."
Take, for example, his resin vases, which will be on display in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art show Gaetano Pesce: Molds (Gelati Misti), which runs from September 3 through November 27, 2016. The pieces resemble Murano glass, a technique Pesce practiced in Venice, but they're lightweight, flexible, and virtually indestructible. While shipping the glass pieces would require expensive insurance and careful handling, Pesce says he could just slap a few stamps on his creations and send them on their way.
That's precisely why he believes designers should explore the materials of their time. "Honestly, I think that we have to respect history, but history has to respect us," he says. "Contemporary things will be like history one day. We have to continue to produce ideas."
And so, Pesce has spent his entire career experimenting with materials at all scales, from those resin vases to a cabinet coated in a mixture of resin and sand to a house in the south of Italy made entirely of polyurethane foam. "Why do a building with a traditional material when we have a fantastic material to do it?" Pesce asks. "Historically, I think it's correct, because one day someone will see my scheme and understand why I did this in this time because that is a material from today."
Pesce has always been a pioneer, experimenting with things that might have seemed at the time impractical, imprudent, or even impossible. "I was very lucky because I was the first to use certain materials," he remarks.
That doesn't mean he's totally reliant on techy tricks. His practice is decidedly hands-on, and he sees a backlash coming against the current craze for computerizing all elements of design. "The computer is a fantastic tool," he says, "but it's nothing more than a screwdriver."
"I always try to be very straight and simple with my work."
Beyond material, Pesce's approach to the scope of his work is equally experimental. Citing the Renaissance as a precedent, he sees little use for distinction between the worlds of architecture, art, and design.
The MOCA show focuses on his work at the object scale, from vases and furniture to the handmade monotypes he sends out as invitations to his various exhibitions and events. Early this summer, when Dwell visited Pesce's Brooklyn studio, a team of artisans were busy at work hand-coloring molds and making the individual pieces for the elaborate invites for an upcoming exhibition in Italy.
At a time when many would be slowing down, Pesce remains as busy as ever. In fact, the designer is having a major moment: along with the MOCA show and that coming exhibition in Italy, there's a New York gallery exhibition in the works, plus a major public architecture project that Pesce will announce soon.
Five decades into his practice, Pesce is still fueled by the same spirit that caused a teenager to write to a chemical company all those years ago. "Curiosity is the engine of progress," he says. "There is no progress without curiosity." As the many prototypes, sketches, and models around his cluttered studio prove, there's no shortage of curiosity in Pesce's world.
See a collection of exclusive images from our visit to Pesce's Brooklyn Navy Yard studio here.
Get the Dwell Newsletter
Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.