Designing with Toilet Paper – A Showcase of Maurizio Cattelan

Toilet Paper Collection by Maurizio Cattelan

The History of Toilet Paper

Maurizio Cattelan, in collaboration with the Italian photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari, created ToiletPaper Magazine a bi-annual visual publication. Started in 2009, it still runs and still is an interesting amalgam of cultural forces on the artistic publishing world.
As reported by The New Yorker, Cattelan “had so much fun” working with Ferrari during a shoot for W Magazine, that they decided to continue their collaborations. While not his first publication, Toilet Paper has become his signature piece, providing yet another venue for his eccentric and interesting work.

Art World scandals Fingers - Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari for Toilet Paper Magazine
Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari – NYC Billboard – Toilet Paper Magazine Advertisement

Toilet Paper was given an introductory advertisement, displayed at the corner of 10th Avenue and West 18th Street. The first image being a remarkably odd one. It features a young woman’s manicured fingers separated from their hands, on a blue velvet background. This striking image, and many more like it, are the telltale sign of Cattelan’s oeuvre and the magazine has since seen some lasting success.

Ambiguity is the essence of Toilet Paper images

While they almost seem to be stock images, containing readily available items and people in dated clothing, Cattelan and co. absolutely take unique, custom pains to make every image as unique as possible. Every image contained in Toilet Paper Magazine is created by the artists themselves. In an interview, Cattelan explains the process: “Every issue starts with a theme, always something basic and general, like love or greed. Then, as we start, we move like a painter on canvas, layering and building up the issue. We always find ourselves in a place we didn’t expect to be. The best images are the result of improvisation. We keep homing in on what a toilet paper image is. Like distilling a perfume. It’s not about one particular style or time frame; what makes them toilet paper is a special twist. An uncanny ambiguity.”

1968 Italian Radical Design

In a further collaboration with Ferrari and the Deste Foundation in Athens, Cattelan once again decided to celebrate design with his Toilet Paper franchise, with the project called 1968. 1968 was, “a collection of dreams and nightmares, an inspiring compendium of colorful, ironic materials, objects, and bodies,” says the inside cover of the magazine. The magazine goes on to say, “Toiletpaper’s interpretation of the collection results in mind blowing photographs that trap us in a complex system of references, crossing layers, three-dimensional and real-time collages. 1968 is a rainbow, the memory of a storm and the positive projection of a newborn sun: the history plus the future, masterly shown in the drawings by one of the primary characters of the radical design movement, Alessandro Mendini, who adds a vital contribution to Toiletpaper’s visuals.”

1968 Radical Design Collection Book - Toilet Paper - Catellan, Ferrari, Deste Foundation and Alessandro Mendini
“1968” Radical Design Collection Book – Toilet Paper – Cattelan, Ferrari, Deste Foundation and Alessandro Mendini

This is incredibly indicative of the entire philosophy of Toilet Paper – by providing compelling and often disturbing images, our minds race to make sense of them, thereby leading to fantastic interpretation and creative thinking. Toilet Paper, if anything, can be seen as an artist’s attempt to make sense of the random and the arbitrary – and in so doing lends to us a powerful artistic voice.

Toilet Paper Success

The Toilet Paper phenomenon was a success for Cattelan, and at the opening night of his retrospective at the Guggenheim, spectators were greeted with a limousine with the words “TOILET PAPER” painted on the side. The collection itself marked Cattelan’s “retirement” from the art world and included work from Cattelan’s entire career. From his almost ridiculous Bidibidobidiboo (1996), in which a squirrel has committed suicide at the dinner table, to All (2007), in which a “monument to death” is sculpted, the artist of Toilet Paper was allowed to fully display his talent to the world and his unique view of it.

Toilet Paper Magazine - Covers - By Maurizio Cattelan
Toilet Paper Magazine – Covers

The Primacy of Image

This common idea is held to fast by Toilet Paper and is one of the reasons of its dramatic success. The idea of the image being one of the most important and primal ways of understanding art hearkens back to cave paintings on stone walls – humanity has always had a thirst for narrative and story, and images are understood on a similar level that music is. By diverting language, everyone in the world is able to see an image and understand it, for an image is itself true – no matter what kind of manipulations went into the composition of the image itself, images cannot lie.


Frog Burger by Cattelan for ToiletPaper Magazine
Frog Burger by Cattelan for ToiletPaper Magazine

Toilet Paper transcends languages in the same way – people of all cultures, of all peoples, all over the world, can see and be slightly disturbed by the woman’s fingers on the velvet background. For even if you have no context why this image would exist, or even without the context of the upper-class realities contained in the image (such as the jewelry, or the velvet background itself), you still understand that you are looking at a woman’s fingers separated from her hands and displayed.

Every image in Toilet Paper plays the same way – by drawing us directly in, it bothers us by almost demanding our brains to make sense of what we’re seeing: Why did someone take a bite out of this bar of soap? What did it feel like? What did it taste like? Who are these old people and why are they surrounded by wine bottles? Like the surrealist masters of the previous generation, we are given a world in which certain things are true and then we are left to draw an understanding for ourselves.

Bacon and Eggs - ToiletPaper
Bacon and Eggs – ToiletPaper

It is in this way that the primacy of the image holds true – while surrealist works of fiction, or surrealist movies exist (and are wonderful representations of their media), it is difficult to find a situation where someone can be so instantly concerned with what they’re looking at. By not allowing the viewer anything other than a glimpse, a single frame, the interpretative parts of the viewer’s imagination are allowed to run wild.
The Toilet Paper website offers additional analysis on their work: It is because of the bright colors and the placement of objects in the scene itself that allows Toilet Paper to function as well as it does – because the first reaction of such imagery is to, “amaze before they provoke.”

ToiletPaper Magazine Logo

Indeed, Toilet Paper looks nothing like traditional photography and, in fact, lends itself to an almost 1950’s pastiche that is already wildly ‘out of touch’ for contemporary audiences. This faux-glamour is one of the selling points and one of the more compelling aspects of the images as well.
The article goes on to confirm the “ambiguous way in which the work is proposed in all its aspects,” which seems, “to offer the right to any interpretative position.” The writer goes on to note that, “the unresolved ambiguity of photographic images intended as bearers of a message remains and is enhanced, opening up to totally opposing even readings.” Indeed, if Toilet Paper is anything, it is rife for interpretation.

The Future of Toilet Paper

Toilet Paper is a phenomenon that has caught on, at least in some circles, and has branched out into various forms. For instance, in 2013, Toilet Paper collaborated with an Italian design company, Seletti, to create a series of tableware and kitchen objects that were heavily inspired by the motifs inherit in the magazine itself. Many Toilet Paper images are contained within the objects, such as the infamous severed fingers, a kitchen plunger, a rampant horse and many others and are “perfectly aligned with the pop spirit of the magazine.”

Toilet Paper and Seletti kitchenware display for Art Basel Miami (2016)

Stefano Seletti, the face, and mind of the brand of kitchenware, says in an interview: “”Seletti wears Toiletpaper is, by far, the more up-to-the-minute range of homeware products proposed on the market today. Its exclusive character is not given by economic inaccessibility but, instead, by the intellectual audacity of those who choose to buy it.”
With a humorous and experimental style, the kitchenware collection has seen dramatic success – in part because of the concept’s ability to apply itself to a wide range of products which are sold around the world. Sold and advertised by some leading establishments around the world, such as the MOMA in New York, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and The Corner in London, the success of the kitchenware collaboration is easily seen.

ToiletPaper Plates

Cattelan himself is also extremely pleased with the progression of his idea. “Right from the start. we liked the idea that Toiletpaper was a label that could be applied to a broad series of objects: magazines, books, plates, mugs and tablecloths. Pierpaolo and I are like sadistic scientists: everything that’s around us can be infected by the TP virus, we continually test different samples and we analyze the results, so that Toiletpaper can become a style, and not just a photographic one”, says Maurizio Cattelan. “Just like Toiletpaper’s images, the collection designed with Seletti has a vintage charm; the tin mugs and plates look like they were just taken out from a Fifties’ kitchen pantry, the oilcloths from the drawers of a suburban inn.”*

M.Cattelan and P. Ferrari – Toilet Paper Magazine

Indeed, the longevity and lasting appeal of two tricksters tossing expectations on their heads will not see any diminishment for a while. With Toilet Paper, Cattelan and Ferrari have created a stick of dynamite, and they intend to see it explode as widely as possible.

Check out all the Toilet Paper Collection and items.

*Interview material from Toilet Paper

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