Jan 28, 201112:38 PMPoint of View

Javier Mariscal for Kids

Javier Mariscal for Kids

The gaggle of four year-olds was absolutely delighted with the legendary Spanish designer Javier Mariscal. Before the kids began their school trip to an exhibition of Mariscal’s work at the Casa Mila in Barcelona, their teacher had instructed them to be very quiet. Little did she know that the designer himself would be present that morning.  Mariscal first told the kids that they absolutely must not listen to their teacher. Then he began drumming on the nearest available installation—stacks of colorful, oversized metal letters. Soon everyone was drumming. Javier Mariscal has had a long and illustrious career, and his design studio continues to produce their characteristically irreverent and playful work. But no matter how consistent the house style is, it would be hard to bind together an exhibition that includes an Olympic mascot, New Yorker covers, a Memphis trolley, an altar to the Spanish king, textiles for Nanimarquina, and a Moroso armchair. But the design team at the Mariscal Studio found the key—kids.

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I have never been at a design show, let alone a retrospective of a celebrated designer, that is primarily for children. At best, design exhibitions throw in a few activities to keep the children engaged while the grown-ups contemplate heavier matters. But here everything is the other way around. We adults are the interlopers, and we must first wash away our self-important notions in the car wash at the entrance—strips of Mariscal’s drawings that hang down from the ceiling to be touched and played with.

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Next to the car wash, there are peep holes at several different eye-levels, but the majority are at waist-level for me. Kid’s chairs proliferate in the exhibition, and some of the films are played on screens so low, they are clearly for ages 10 and under. And if I wanted a souvenir for the exhibition, I’d have had to color in a mask of one of Mariscal’s animal characters, then wear the mask, be photographed, and allow the image to be posted on the Internet. It seems suspiciously like a prank on all the adults who visit the exhibition.

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Even in Mariscal’s most minimal works—the industrial designs—have naughtiness just under their clean surfaces. Most all-plastic chairs have ribs on the back and undersides, to re-enforce the surfaces; in Mariscal’s 2006 Alma chairs the ribs erupt into leafy branches, and song birds are perched on them. He is currently working on a lamp for Artemide, but the process isn’t the easiest. “I just like to pick up things from the street and nail them together,” says Mariscal, “But I have to work with engineers.”

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Mariscal famously designed Cobi, the mascot for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. A glass case at the exhibition is filled with all the ways in which this little character has been merchandised—t-shirts, caps, towels, and on posters in every language in the world. Anywhere else, this might seem like self-aggrandizement. But in this light-hearted exhibition, I was sure Mariscal was laughing at the irony of it.

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Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Mila, the venue of the exhibition, has always seemed like the perfect enchanted castle to me, especially with those knights guarding the ceiling. In the exhibition, pitted stone pillars appear out of nowhere, adding to the atmosphere of childhood. At the exit from the show, Mariscal has created a magic forest out of cloth hangings, where images and words are projected onto the Casa Mila’s undulating ceiling, distorting them in mysterious ways. By the time I walk out, the child in me has fallen in love with Mariscal’s world.

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