He was annoyed by fame, too; he once slammed Rem Koolhaas, the well-known Dutch architect and urban theorist, as “a pornographic window dresser.” In response, Mr. Koolhaas shook his fist at Mr. Mari. (It was in 2006, and the two men had been invited to speak at the Serpentine Gallery in London by Mr. Obrist, the gallery’s director, who said recently that their behavior was more theatrical than aggressive, like that of two lions growling at each other.)
Along with Ettore Sottsass, Vico Magistretti, Cini Boeri, Andrea Branzi and Pier and Achille Castiglioni, Mr. Mari was a leader in the postwar generation of industrial designers whose work for Danese, Olivetti, Alessi, Artemide and other forward-thinking companies produced what Mr. Obrist called “the Milan Miracle.”
“Here were risk-taking manufacturers who hired these visionary designers,” Mr. Obrist said in a phone interview. “They were all very different, but they all believed that world-class design should be for everyone. That it shouldn’t be a luxury thing. Mari was the most extreme; he really wanted to get rid of this idea of commerce, industry and advertising.”
Mr. Mari also made paintings, sculptures, posters, manifestoes, manuals, games and what artists call “propositions.” For an art fair in the late 1960s, he made a conceptual gallery for one person: a giant cantilevered box with a mirror inside, the top of which fit over one’s head. The point was that what was on view was your own reflection. It came with a questionnaire, written with the Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco, that read in part:
What is this object?
a) it is a work of art b) it is not a work of art c) it is a device for psychological experiments
Do you like it?
x) I like it y) I do not like it z) it irritates me
“Many of Mari’s works are masterpieces — rare combinations of intellectual puzzles and beautiful lines,” the British product designer Jasper Morrison told the design critic Alice Rawsthorn for The New York Times in 2008. “Most designers who analyze problems to the extent that he does end up with rather dry, systemized solutions. His works are highly original and uncompromising, with a kind of poetic and heroically human touch.”