With his first major New York retrospective in 25 years, an international design legend is ready for his close-up

In the last decade, Gaetano Pesce has been honored with retrospectives at the Centre Pompidou in France, Triennale di Milano in Italy and Vitra Museum in Germany, yet when his exhibition L’Abbraccio opens at Fred Torres Collaborations in Chelsea on March 21st, it will mark the first time the 74-year-old Italian designer has had a significant solo show in his adopted hometown in more than 25 years. Despite having moved here in 1983, “until now I didn’t exist in New York,” Pesce mused recently as we spent the afternoon together in his Soho showroom. “A lot of people think I live in Italy, but here, I don’t exist.”

"Until now I didn’t exist in New York."

It’s a surprisingly easy mistake to make, even for those who are well aware of his status as an international design icon: Aside from occasional contributions to the former Moss gallery and a tiny survey show that took place at Columbia University in 1999, Pesce has never had a strong public presence in the New York scene. He lives uptown, keeps the aforementioned showroom on Broadway and Prince and commutes out to his workshop near the Navy Yards in Brooklyn whenever he needs to get his hands dirty (“it’s my New York triangle,” he laughs). A local gallery for a short spell represented him in the ’90s, but then the owner of the gallery died, and no one else came calling until Torres found him through a mutual friend last year.

By contrast, it was in Italy that Pesce first achieved fame with the 1969 launch of his groundbreaking Donna chair, a curvaceous anthropomorphic throne that would go on to become a symbol of Italian design’s golden age. He’s spent his career since then working primarily in plastics, which is also strongly evocative of that time and place. And it’s in Milan that Fish Design — the company he started in 1995 to produce housewares and jewelry in his signature wobbly resin — is currently based.

"Life is energy and energy is synonymous with color. I always felt that my work had to convey that sense of joy."

Part of what’s kept him an outsider in New York, presumably, is the innate Italian-ness of his work, which has a sometimes romantic, sometimes grotesque expressiveness that doesn’t seem like it could possibly emanate from a city drowning in cynics and modernists. Pesce’s best known for all things blobby, eccentric, humorous and brightly hued, from intestinal chairs made from extruded neon PVC to the title piece in the Torres show, a cabinet that depicts two cartoonish naked people hugging. His office feels a bit like a cross between a psychedelic candy store and a journey through the human body. “I come from Venice, where the culture is all light and color,” he tells me from his perch atop a jewel-toned sofa depicting the moon rising over the New York skyline. “For a long time, artists and designers here were only expressing themselves in black when in reality, life is energy and energy is synonymous with color. I always felt that my work had to convey that sense of joy.”

Gaetano Pesce's studio

Work area with table and shelves in Pesce’s studio.

Gaetano Pesce's studio
Gaetano Pesce's studio

Left: Resin vases fill the shelves. Right: Cassina I Feltri Chair, 1986

Gaetano Pesce's studio

Cassina Sansone Table, 1980

Gaetano Pesce's studio

Pesce sits on the Cassina Notturno sofa he designed.

Accordingly, Pesce’s rejection of minimalism and mass-production as stifling to artistic and emotional expression is one of the hallmarks of his 50-year career, which has helped earn him a reputation as something of a political provocateur (another quality that’s alien to New York’s designers, if not its artists). His newest project is a chair made from a long piece of rolled-up fabric that’s printed with a bit of anti-globalist dogma inspired by the streets of Soho: “more diversity, less equality.” What Pesce has learned from spending the last 30 years in the center of the historically edgy neighborhood, he explains, “is that you can go around however you want here and other people have to respect your way. And while at the time of the French Revolution democracy was all about equality, I think today it’s evolved into more of a protection of those differences than an assurance of standards. Which is a very important part of my work.”

While the L’Abbraccio exhibition is composed mostly of drawings and models, that notion should still be somewhat obvious to visitors: Pesce’s designs are made for non-conformists, the kind who’d be intrigued by the idea of furnishing their dining room with a one-of-a-kind table resembling a Technicolor sludge pile, or who wouldn’t think twice about strolling into an art gallery and seeing a Playskool-style model of a house that’s been blown apart by expanding urethane foam the color of mushroom soup — a 1970s piece meant as “a statement that traditional architecture was dead,” recalls the designer.

Which begs the question of whether Chelsea is exactly the kind of place Pesce needed to be to finally exist in this city after all, the perfect square to his New York triangle. Hopefully it won’t take another 30 years to find out.