Gaetano Pesce on His Latest Bottega Veneta Collaboration and Remaining Curious at 83

At 83 Gaetano Pesce Is Still a Design Maverick
Photo: Matteo Canestraro

One of the first things you might have noticed while walking around central Milan last week was an unusually high number of brightly-colored shopping bags swinging from the arms of passers-by. For anyone with a passing interest in fashion, that specific hue of kelly green was unmistakable—it belonged, of course, to Bottega Veneta. But the reason why these bags were everywhere remained a mystery. Did everyone in the city suddenly become millionaires overnight?

It turned out the explanation was a little more down-to-earth than that. The bags contained posters for Bottega Veneta’s project for Milan Design Week, which itself came with its own city street takeover, of sorts: namely, the bustling queue stretching halfway up Via Montenapoleone, all the way to the Italian brand’s usually discreet storefront. Instead of the usual muted window display, a bright green backdrop was emblazoned in the unmistakeable globular scrawl of the 83-year-old design maverick Gaetano Pesce, spelling out “Vieni a Vedere,” or, “Come and See.”

Photo: Matteo Canestraro

In other words, it was an invitation to step inside and witness Pesce’s latest project with Bottega Veneta: a tunnel-like structure that took up the entire store. That structure was crafted from the same rigid, resin-soaked fabric he used for his first partnership with the brand’s creative director Matthieu Blazy, a series of chairs that were used as runway seating for the spring 2023 collection and then launched for sale at Design Miami earlier this year. “Matthieu, he is delightful,” Pesce said in at his hotel the day after the installation launched last week, sipping an espresso and wearing a spiffy Issey Miyake pleated waistcoat. “He’s a very intelligent person, and has a very open mind.”

Blazy—who grew up in Paris with an art-specialist father and a historian mother and spent much of his youth kicking around auction houses—had been a long-time fan of Pesce’s work, which is characterized by his use of viscous, unconventional materials (polyurethane foam, silicone, and the aforementioned gloopy resin, to name just a few), eye-popping colors, and forms so wonky as to feel almost psychedelic. After reaching out to Pesce’s team and arranging a visit to his studio within the Brooklyn Navy Yard early last year, the two struck up a fast friendship, and the idea for their first collaboration—the 400 chairs that would line the resin-coated floors of the show space at last season’s show—was born.

“I’ve always been trying to do something innovative, since I was 21 years old,” says Pesce, describing the process of creating the chairs. The individuality of the chairs, meanwhile—underneath their translucent boiled-candy surface, each contained its own unique mix of swirling, prismatic color—speaks to Pesce’s broader ambitions as a designer, reflecting his interest in celebrating the individual. “The people who came to the fashion show actually sat on the chairs,” he says, noting that while it was still an invite-only fashion show, at least that small part of it felt egalitarian in some way. “That was very important, because what we were trying to communicate is that diversity is a quality of life. I’ve tried to communicate this idea for a long time, in opposition to certain political systems that say we are all the same. It’s an important message.”

Photo: Matteo Canestraro

The flaws inherent in Pesce’s visibly handmade approach carries a deeper, more philosophical meaning. “I nicknamed the chairs ‘nobody’s perfect,’ because in reality, we are not perfect—the human being is not perfect, and it’s impossible to try to be,” he continues. “So that’s another message. Don’t be frustrated by your imperfections, because that is the human condition. The question for me has always been: Where can design go if we continue to say that form follows function, and nothing else? You will always repeat the same thing. I am trying to say, yes, form follows function—but also tell your story, express something. This is what I believe is the future of design: a design that tells stories.”

The story Pesce hoped to tell with “Vieni a Vedere” has its roots in an exhibition he produced at the Aspen Art Museum last year. (It’s been something of a bumper year for Pesce, with the opening of his first-ever exhibition in Los Angeles in Feburary, too.) Taking his cues from the undulating landscapes and dramatic snow-capped peaks of Colorado, he began sketching ideas for a bag that would pay homage to the natural world that surrounded him while working on the exhibition. Blazy saw one of the sketches in his studio, and convinced Pesce to recreate the bag as a limited-edition piece with the help of the label’s master leather craftspeople—and thus, the centerpiece of “Vieni a Vedere” was born. 

To reach said centerpiece, you first had to push your way through flaps of resin crudely cut in the shape of a human profile, then walk through a winding grotto of billowing, cloud-like white sheets covered in a plasticky resin and streaked with slashes of grey. The walls were decorated with drawings of bulls and prehistoric-looking human figures that could have been plucked straight from the caves of Lascaux. In prime position at the end of the corridor was a spotlit object, sitting snugly on a plinth. It felt a little like the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones makes his way through the booby-trapped temple to rescue the priceless Golden Idol. Except instead of an ancient artifact, what sat in its place was one of the pair of Pesce-designed handbags: the first representing a rising sun over mountains, then the other echoing the mottled surface of an American prairie. (It was hard not to read the grandiosity of their placement within the space as both knowing and a little tongue-in-cheek.) 

Photo: Matteo Canestraro

“This time we are introducing a new world, an inframundo,” says Blazy of their latest project, citing the Spanish word for an underworld. “It’s about discovery and exploration, something that is personal, private, and unique to yourself. This was a very joyful moment, working with an artist in constant experimentation and whose refusal of repetition infuses all. We didn’t limit ourselves; it was pure freedom.” Indeed, part of Pesce’s willingness to participate in the collaboration is the fact Blazy has been given him near-total carte blanche on the projects, allowing him to indulge his wackiest and most wonderful flights of fancy. “Usually with a fashion company, they don’t want to express themselves politically—they express their point of view through beauty, or non-beauty,” Pesce adds. “With Matthieu, Bottega has become a cultural company—one that is able to talk about these ideologies.”

Using the colorful spirit of his work as something of a Trojan horse for weightier ideas has long been Pesce’s M.O. The sophisticated planting walls and hydration systems of his Organic Building in Osaka helped popularize the idea of “living architecture”; His iconic “La Mamma” chair, whose bulbous forms recall both ancient fertility sculptures and a ball and chain, was intended as a feminist statement. “The beginning of a new idea is always egalitarian,” he says, with a shrug. “Ideas are always new, and the new always disturbs, but then, with time, it becomes familiar. This is the history of human beings.”

Photo: Matteo Canestraro

Over the past few years, interest in Pesce’s work has undergone a serious resurgence as the dial has moved once again towards maximalism—a kind of pushback against the homogenized tastefulness of the previous decade’s predilection for cool tones and Scandi style. (“Quiet luxury” his work certainly isn’t.) Upon visiting the installation on the first day, Pesce found himself surrounded by fans. “They told me that the local people really enjoyed it, and that meant a lot to me,” he says. Many of those fans were local design students, to whom Pesce has become something of a heroic figure for his refusal to bow to trends and his unwavering belief that an interior design object can go beyond simple aesthetic interest, and actually have something to say.

“I went around a little bit in Milan [during Design Week] and I saw a lot of installations that are very minimalist, which is very boring,” Pesce adds, with a wry smile. “It's important that the designs tell a story, that they’re not just comfortable, but they tell you their opinion. Not these stupid objects, like this one,” he adds, gesturing to the plush hotel sofa he’s currently sitting on. “In fact, not only are they stupid, but they are uncomfortable.” 

For Pesce, however, there was a silver lining: seeing the work of the younger generation who have been influenced by his iconoclastic approach to design. “I saw young people doing interesting things,” he adds. “I am Italian, so I am worried about Italian design, which is not as creative as it was in the ’60s, in the ’70s—now, companies like to work with designers that repeat themselves. With my work, I'm always pushing myself to try and do something innovative, and original, and to stay curious.” 

Sure, it’s his endless curiosity (something he shares with Blazy, and that he describes as the foundation of their friendship) that has ensured his continued relevance at the age of 83 as generations of designers have come and gone, but most of all, perhaps, it’s his charm and winking sense of humor—on full show, you could argue, within his “Vieni a Vedere” installation. “Humor?” Pesce says. “It’s very important. It can be difficult to introduce someone to a new idea—but I’ve learned that if you do it with a smile, it always goes down better.”