The Room as a Portrait with Gaetano Pesce and Omar Sosa


February 28, 2018

We welcomed the inimitable Gaetano Pesce—architect, urban planner, and designer extraordinaire—to the Chandelier penthouse to discuss his iconic interiors, views on design as portraiture, and the importance of curiosity, with Apartamento founder Omar Sosa. It was an evening of design conversation dedicated to our dear, late friend Jim Walrod, who was a champion of Pesce’s work and introduced many of us to his spirit of originality.


Jim Walrod on Gaetano Pesce, from Apartamento Issue #10:

“Gaetano Pesce is a guy who manufacturers have never understood, and artists always did. The immediacy with which he can create is amazing. He can imagine and build furniture at the drop of a hat because he developed a way of using poured resin instead of drawings. He can make a chair for you in 10 minutes and doesn't have to deal with manufacturers, doesn't have to deal with distributors, doesn't have to deal with anybody.

It’s the ultimate DIY; like punk rock used to be, where they say ‘We don’t want record labels, we don’t want distributors, we don’t want anything.’ Every time I ever see Gaetano, I just think he’s the most fucking punk-rock guy I’ve ever met in my life!”


Omar Sosa: I want to start by saying, you were dead for a couple of weeks in 2016. I mean, I actually remember Jim calling me and saying, “Gaetano died.” You seem to be very busy right now.

Gaetano Pesce: I am always busy with my curiosity. The story of me dead in October: it’s a long story. There was a mayor in Italy who created the problem for me with the opening of a show I did in Florence. I said, “I will not come back to Florence.” The guy said, “No exhibition.” The critic, who is a friend, said, “Okay, if we say that you're dead, they can say you can't come back and do the exhibition.” Like that, it happened. After three days, I was resurrected.

I mean, that’s pretty punk to me.

I don’t know. Maybe.

Can you tell us about one of your first projects, "Habitat for Two", which you did for MoMA?

The story of that exhibition at MoMA was that I, the archaeologist, discovered a habitat inside the mountain in northern Italy and didn’t know why they were living underground. Maybe because there was a kind of crisis outside. The air was not clean enough and so they decided to go underground. Today we talk a lot about pollution, but at that time nobody was doing that. These inhabitants are enjoying solitude and don’t communicate. I studied the two people and how they were living. The beds were separated, the chairs were separated. The only thing that brings them together is the face in the center of it, and we don't know why.

You’ve said before that spaces, for you, are to find affinity, but this seems to be very different. It’s almost the opposite, right?

That was a moment of my creativity. Maybe a month later it is totally different. To be conformist, to be like someone else, is the worst you could do. Your curiosity is the best guide, because it's your own. Try to be different. Another secret in life is not to do the same things every day, because that is a way to eliminate the notion of time.

Gaetano Pesce's "Habitat for Two People" at Centre Georges Pompidou, 1971-72

Gaetano Pesce's "Habitat for Two People" at Centre Georges Pompidou, 1971-72

You’re one of the most original designers today and have been for several decades. What advice would you give young designers?

It's very important that you are unique, because you are, as a human being, unique. You are the original. The time of copies is behind us. If you do a chair, each chair is different. Then we're able to give people the original. Much better. It's a revolution.

Time is a fantastic thing that changes everyday. In changing, it tells you what you have to do, if you're able to observe. Twenty years ago, time was different than time today. Maybe I'm able to say tomorrow I do something that's unrecognizable as a work of mine, because I change so much, I become someone else. I don't want to teach anything, but think about that.

What is the connection between interior design and portraiture?

The story of interior design is that you don't do decoration. You don't do formalities. You try to understand who is going to live there. As soon as you understand, you can make a portrait. You make an interior as a portrait of the person that is going to live there. Decoration is very superficial. Decoration is the thing that we do, but then we wash every night. The interior is much more stable, like the architecture, and so you have to do something much more solid, which is the person itself.

Are you always friends with your clients, in order to do portraits?

Yes. I try to understand them.

Can you tell us about the iconic Park Avenue house you made in 1994 for Ruth Lande Shuman?

Every part of that apartment is a reference to a person who is living there. The floor was personalized. Why? Because in the dining room, there is a story on the floor. In the floor of the den, there is a representation of books. In the bedroom, there is a symbol of love. Each place was represented on the floors. Going around, he was understanding where he was going.

That's the way to be unique. When you personalize things, you give the best you have to the client. That was a great experience, because if you go one day to see this apartment, it looks like it was done yesterday. It's very fresh. It’s the color. Color is synonymous with vitality, energy.

House for Ruth Lande Shuman, 1994

House for Ruth Lande Shuman, 1994


And that apartment changed her perception of color…

I don’t know if I can say that, but today Ruth works with color, doing something super important. With Publicolor, she created an organization that with the help of people like you, voluntarily, they go Saturday and Sunday to public schools and they put color on the wall, they put color on the doors. They create an atmosphere which is joyful. The school is not a prison anymore. Slowly, she's done more than 150 schools in New York. School is always a torture to go. But she's made it more pleasurable. To do that is very important for social function. That apartment started the story of color that Ruth is today developing on the scale of a city. Fantastic, no?

Tell us about the work you did for the Chiat/Day office in 1995. What was the briefing and did you have carte blanche on this? How does a project with this level of craziness start?

You cannot do good architecture and a good interior if your client is not good. Donatella was the wife of Jay Chiat and went one day to see that apartment. She said to her husband, "I saw a place, it's fantastic." The husband said, "I want to go and see." He was looking for very innovative people. After he saw the apartment, he said we could do the agency.

I suggested an office with no paper. The employees were allowed to work from home because they have the computer to go to work on the toilet, if they need to stay on the toilet because they're having a diarrhea attack. All these stories were created in the Jay Chiat office. In my mind, that office was more of a club, not an office. In a club, you go when you like to meet people that you like, friends, et cetera. That was the characteristic. It was a very lively place. It was a symbol of freedom in a certain way.

The Chiat/Day office, designed by Gaetano Pesce, 1995

The Chiat/Day office, designed by Gaetano Pesce, 1995

That's an interesting idea of an office, because today offices are becoming more open. They’re less of you working in your cubicle and more about sharing ideas, like we’re doing here today. This was so nuts because we're talking about almost 30 years ago, right?

It was the first. The New York Times called that the virtual office. There’s the closed office as a room, then there is the landscape office, and this was the explosion of the office. You can work at the beach, in the mountains, on the PlayStation, everywhere. And also there. Why not?


Can you tell us about your own apartment, which you designed?

I did the house in Bahia with new materials, plastic, resin, and also put it on the wall. For me, it was an experiment because I use new materials that usually when you build in New York, the city will tell you what you have to do and then you do a disaster. Here, I had the freedom to do whatever I want. There are a lot of forms that remind you of an animal, a human, a lot of nature. I experimented for the first time with figurative language for architecture. It's not abstract anymore. I believe this is the future of architecture.

Tell us about the iconic UP Chair you made nearly fifty years ago.

For that chair, it was one of the first times I was using the figure of a woman, but the woman in question - the chair in question - was connected to chain and a ball, and it was remembering the prisoner. Unfortunately, the meaning of the chair is still very topical today, because there are women that suffer in a lot of countries.

I really believe that the future is feminine. I believe that if women decide to become politicians, the world will be much better. Women have multi-disciplinary minds. They have minds that are very elastic. In the morning, some are mothers, they are wives, they are workers. Following the moments of the day, they change. This change makes them very close to our time, which is multidisciplinary in information, this liquidity of our time.

Earlier this evening, you said to always have curiosity be your guide. What are you curious about right now?

I made a project for the city of Padua in Italy, where Galileo made his discovery in a little tower. He stayed 18 years of his life in Padua. When I went to high school there, I always questioned myself, "Why has Padua never had a monument for Galileo?" I suggest to the city of Padua to do a kind of museum to allow people to discover what Galileo was: a guy with a lot of curiosity. He was curious to understand how the solar system works. He was observing the sky without having the instruments that we have today, but he was able to do that because at that time the sky was very clean and everything was very visible.

I study Giotto, who was an extraordinary painter that did a very important series of frescoes in Padua. I understood again that Giotto was a very simple person who was very curious. He was so curious that he became one of the most creative people in the history of human beings. Curiosity is very important. Never say if you have children one day, "Don't be curious." No, say, "Be curious." If you develop that, allow that curiosity to become something, it will make you great.

Do you ever face a dilemma when choosing between beauty and practicality?

I don't have this worry at all. Beauty in my opinion, doesn't exist. We must do practical things because it is the service we do to others. I remind you that in old times, what we call art today was very practical, because a painter who was asked to do a portrait was supposed to make a representation of the person. If he was not able to do that, he threw it out. Art was a service to help people live better.

The representation of a nude was a way to help people be excited sexually, in another function of art. Today, my work is also to do objects, but the objects I do also have to be comfortable. If they are not comfortable, people won't use it. If they don't use it, the message doesn’t come across. If you do an object, you have to first resolve the function and be practical, and then express yourself.

How are objects different today?

Objects today allow people to express themselves. It's not 100 years ago anymore, when a chair was only a chair. A chair today can be who you are, where you live, the identity, the place, the culture, what you think politically, if you are religious, and the chair is able to tell all those things.