Movie: Italian design duo Formafantasma discuss their work and influences in this first instalment of a discussion chaired by Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs for Peroni Nastro Azzurro’s series of talks on Italian design.
Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi met as design students in Florence before moving to the Netherlands to study at the Design Academy Eindhoven. After graduating they stayed in Eindhoven and set up their own studio, Formafantasma.
Despite being removed from their home country, they often look back to Italy and particularly Sicily for inspiration, and many of their collections have made use of artisanal and pre-industrial techniques and materials.
The talk was filmed by Dezeen at the RIBA in London on 26 April. A transcript of the talk is also included below. Watch out for the second part of the talk coming up soon.
Here's the full transcript:
Marcus Fairs: The Peroni Collaborazioni Talks are about discussing Italian design, discussing Italy’s gift to the world in terms of creativity in art, design, fashion, engineering – across all the creative spheres. The reason we’ve got these very, very young babies here is because, I think, there are lots of legends of Italian design and fashion, lots of icons, lots of highly successful people.
I think these guys represent a new generation. A new way of thinking. A new way of designing. They don’t even live in Italy, they live in the Netherlands, but I think we’ll see through their work that their work is embedded in the country of their origin and can only have come from Italy. So the boys are going to talk to us. Sorry, I’m going to call you boys, if that’s okay. They’re going to give us a talk of about 20 minutes to talk us through their work, then their influences and their background and then we’re going to have a discussion together and then we’ll invite the audience to ask any questions.
Simone Farresin: Thank you for the introduction.
Andrea Trimarchi: Yes, thanks Marcus. Thanks Peroni also for inviting us. I’m Andrea.
Simone Farresin: I’m Simone.
Andrea Trimarchi: We are Formafantasma. We are an Italian studio based in Eindhoven. So we are Italian but actually we are living there. Me and Simone met in Florence while we were studying at ISIA [University of Industrial and Communication Design], that was the first education in Italy that was born after the economic boom during the ‘60s. And after it we decided to leave Italy and to go the Design Academy in Eindhoven to do the IM Masters. We graduated from there in 2009. So two and a half years ago, more or less.
Simone Farresin: So Florence is a specific and beautiful place to study. The school was also interesting because between the people who founded it, or at least our teachers, were the founders of the Archizoom radical movement, so Paolo Deganello and Gilberto Corretti. It was interesting that between the teachers we had were so involved in the radical movement, because in our work there are some critical and political elements that we can somehow connect with those origins. But on the other side, Florence, as you know it’s a beautiful place, Renaissance, it’s really easy to get lazy physically.
So when we graduated from the Bachelor we thought we needed to move abroad. We needed to experience also the collaboration between the two of us in a different environment. And going to Milan of course it was really easy to get in touch with Droog Design and the exhibition and Design Academy in Eindhoven. So we felt this necessity to engage with a different kind of design that wasn’t happening in Italy. And we moved to Eindhoven.
So we passed by leaving the place that is looking like this, to a place that is looking like this. So a really small town, south east of Holland. Quite ugly, uninteresting, in a way. For us this is a wide space. It’s kind of an environment where we had for the first time no visual noises, not a heritage, as you mention.
Andrea Trimarchi: And actually helping us a lot to reconsider our roots and to look back to our origins in a way.
Simone Farresin: Yes, I think as you mentioned it’s happening in art too, but in design it’s even more the way that you have this great generation of masters. Then when you are studying there, you have all these people that are teaching you the right way of doing design, because you have these great examples. In Holland instead it’s completely different because of course the design scene, the most recent one, is not so much linked to the past as the Italian one is instead.
And Eindhoven gave us the possibility to have our own studio in a mental hospital that we managed to turn into a more welcoming and nice environment to work and live in. We can always say that in our work, as we mentioned before, there are some critical and political elements that we can somehow think are an evolution of what happened in the ‘70s in Italy, but also it’s the fruit of the conceptual design scene that grows in the Netherlands since the ‘90s.
Andrea Trimarchi: So the first project we are going to present to you is called Autarchy. It is a project from 2010 that has been presented by Spazio Rossana Orlandi during the Salone del Mobile. And everything started when we visited this small town in Sicily called Salemi. It’s a beautiful town that once a year is producing an enormous quantity of bread. They do this quite kitsch and a bit naïve but really intricate and sometimes nice decoration. And they attach it to quite big architectural structures as you can see here.
Simone Farresin: So for us, what we thought was interesting there, and as you see it will happen a lot in our work, our references are not coming from industrial Italy but more from rural cultures. So that’s also a characteristic of our work. We were not really interested in the results of what they were doing but more the idea of this community, that they just use what they know. And they meet once a year to produce, to engage, we imagine they are re-engaging with production in a way.
So we wanted to translate these ideas in a different way, and we did this installation called Autarchy where we are questioning the way we are engaged with production. Autarchy is both in the first place a material research but it’s also the portrait of a utopian scenario. In fact the vases that you see here are composed essentially with 70% flour, agriculture waste and 10% of limestone.
Andrea Trimarchi: And all the colour that you see here is obtained by filtering and boiling different kinds of spices and vegetables.
Simone Farresin: So we wanted as a result a biodegradable material that was natural, but most of all that the materials involved were kind of easy to be found and used. But a characteristic of our work is that we are never really interested in the technical side of it, but more in the ability that objects and materials have to either evoke memories or to incorporate narrative elements in it.
Andrea Trimarchi: Yes, here you can see a bit of the making of the pieces.
And now we are presenting another project we presented the last year in Milan called Botanica, and we consider it as a sort of second chapter of Autarchy. In fact, after we finished Milan, we got in contact with this really nice lady from a foundation called Plart in Italy.
Plart is interesting because it’s the first and a unique foundation in Europe that is meant for the restoration and recovery of artwork in plastic. When we received this phone call from her we were quite surprised because we had done Autarchy, that was a project that was not about plastic and was almost the opposite about plastic materials. Because of course we were also victims of our own prejudice about the plastic materials. We had in mind, you know, plastic bottles or the enormous patch in the middle of the ocean.
Simone Farresin: So when she asked, “Can you do collections of pieces for us in plastic?” we were thinking, “Okay, why are you calling us?” – coming from the experience of Autarchy. She didn’t really explain it well but she said, “Okay I’m really interested in what you did. And I think you can do something for us”. So we said, “Okay, let’s do whatever we think is relevant for them” – and for us too of course.
And then we researched a specific moment in time that we call the pre-Bakelite period, so before oil was involved in the production of plastics. In that period between the 18th and 19th centuries there were a lot of researchers and scientists who were looking to the natural world in search of plasticity. So we found amazing materials like bois durci that is a mixture of animal blood and sawdust. And DNA is a polymer, so with high pressures and vapour DNA binds the fibres of wood together. And then natural shellac is used in restoration and it is the material excrement of insects, the colonised trees, mixed with wood fibres.
So what we thought was interesting was to use this project to raise questions in the way we deal with evolution and how old production methods can have a relevance in contemporary time. The research was really long because we started in August and it ended in March. So basically we had only one month to produce the pieces.
Because each one of these raises a different melting point, we had to understand how to work with that and of course the foundation really helped us. But still, when you face this kind of materials experimentation you never know what you’re adding. And at the end we managed to turn it into a quite coherent body of work where our main interest was imagining almost a fictional moment in time and wondering what would have happened to these materials if plastic, oil-based plastic, was not invented. So also the shapes and the design really evolved by the making.
Andrea Trimarchi: Yes, I think here you can see a bit better. For instance, the one you see on the left side is the first object we designed and it’s a really archetypical kind of vase shape, but working with the material we were also starting to look at how it was reacting, how the material was speaking to us. So we decided to leave all this kind of tongue or leaf that was coming from the material itself. And that was quite interesting because they are really the result of the process of the making.
A different kind of project instead is Moulding Tradition and Colony, that was presented in the Gallery Libby Sellers before in Basel, and after in London during London Design Week in 2011. Let’s say that Moulding Tradition and Colony are two different kinds of projects. Moulding Tradition is our graduation project, and Colony is the second chapter.
Simone Farresin: Of Moulding Tradition.
Andrea Trimarchi: And we got back again in Sicily and we went to this nice city in the middle of Sicily called Caltagirone. It’s a quite special place because more than 300 artisans are still working in the ceramic field, so there are really a lot if you consider that it is a really small city.
Simone Farresin: So as you see there are some constants in our work. The interest and almost the obsession towards Sicily, and I think it’s also, well Andrea is Sicilian but I think it’s interesting because it’s an island and there is not such an industrial component there. Craft is still really relevant.
And while we were there we got almost obsessed with a specific artefact, this strange and weird vase, because it’s a vase with a face of an African. In Sicily it’s really common to see these kinds of pieces, you walk on the streets and you see on balconies vases with a face of an African. Then you start wondering, why is this traditional? Why is this piece somehow symbolising Italian and Sicilian culture?
Then researching it we find out that this is referring to the 10th century, medieval time, when African Arabs conquered Sicily and the southern region of Mediterranean area and imported maiolica ceramics. So this is somehow a homage to this specific invasion to the origins of these materials. But then for us to be living in the contemporary time, this piece is reminding us of what is happening now in contemporary time.
So we thought it was grotesque, because in Sicily specifically, almost daily 500 illegal immigrants are trying to enter the European Union from the north regions of Africa. So we find ourselves really debating a lot and wondering, “What shall we do? Shall we just ignore this part of the story?” We thought it was already embedded in the first piece. Or shall we embrace it and produce the new design somehow incorporating all these different notions and all the different ideas?
And then we decided on this second option and we designed these collections of pieces that are pretty archetypical, because we went to the museum of the city in Caltagirone and we sampled original pieces from there and really layered all these different meanings into the ceramic. But we substituted the element of grotesque that’s there in the original piece with a portrait of an existing refugee. And we added also textual information that is either describing the first immigration flows, so the first conquerers of Sicily, or the new immigration flows.
For us this is a way to debate how we deal with tradition. You know how important tradition is in Italy. In Italy everything is about tradition. But we have a complex relationship with this idea, because as much as we work with craft, as much as we think it’s important to relate with tradition, on the other side we also see the downside of it.
So we’re not really romantic with it, and both Colony and Moulding Tradition for us are a way to question the relationship we have with tradition because the original piece for us is reminding how much immigration flows are important in the formation of Italian culture. And on the other side we use craft as a way to justify and to protect traditions. So we have this double relationship or complex relationship with this idea of cultural heritage.
Andrea Trimarchi: Yes, in fact Colony, which is the second series of objects we did for Libby Sellers, was really the opposite. While with Moulding Tradition we wanted to trace what African people left in Italy, with Colony we wanted to do the opposite, so we wanted to see what Italians left as a colonists in the north of Africa.
Simone Farresin: We collected a lot of designed materials, for instance the architecture – this is a beautiful example of the futurist architecture that has been built in Asmara in Eritrea by Italians – city plans and stamps.
And we collected all these materials, and then we used fabric because we thought it was the right medium to be used in this case, because textiles are really a perfect medium to incorporate narrative elements in it. And we designed these huge textiles that are set up as gigantic postcards from Tripoli in Libya, Asmara and Addis Ababa. And each of these three blankets incorporates both historical elements and contemporary information on the complex relationship that Italy now has with the northern region of Africa and with immigration flows.
For us these are quite important works because they are somehow telling a lot about how much we are from abroad, and how we are dealing with Italian culture. So the development of the project happened in the Netherlands but still it is a project that deals with Italian culture of heritage.
We added a few slides at the end, because we didn’t want to keep on just talking about our work, on what we are working on right now. So this is a research project we started quite some months ago, and again it’s about Sicily. But this time it is a material of research on Mount Etna.
In Sicily it is one of the few active volcanoes. And it’s quite impressive if you go there because it’s really overwhelming, because it’s not looking like Sicily at all, it’s really an alien or moon-like kind of an environment. But what we like about this space is to think about it as a sort of a natural mine, where nature is mining the mountain, and throwing out material. It’s not like humans that are looking for material, but it is nature that is throwing it out. So you can go there one day and you find, you know, you’re travelling into a street and the day after the street is completely covered with material. And we are really experimenting with it.
This is us experimenting in Eindhoven, re-melting lava, it is turning into a kind of weird glass that is still really brittle, so we can’t really still work with it. And something else that we wanted to experiment with is to mould lava directly in place. It’s something they still do in Sicily.
Andrea Trimarchi: Yes, they do only small souvenirs actually.
Simone Farresin: So we are really interested in incorporating what the companies are already doing there, or the craftsmen are already doing there, and experimenting personally with it.
Andrea Trimarchi: In a month and a half we are going to present two new works for the Vitra Design Museum and for Fendi, for Design Basel. And with Vitra we had a really strange commission, and actually we’ve been chosen for Vitra Design Museum as a Dutch designer, not as an Italian designer, so that is also quite funny. And they pair us with five manufacturers or resources, and we have been paired with a charcoal burner, and we are going to do a nice project there, it will be more performative and there will also be some objects.
Simone Farresin: But it’s again a research project about charcoal as a material.
Andrea Trimarchi: And with Fendi of course it will be about leather.
Simone Farresin: The project for Fendi will be more an investigation on the relationship we have with nature, and somehow we think leather is more symbolic of the complex relationship we have with animals and nature. And of course, because we are Italian we also want to start work with companies.
Because we have been trained as industrial designers, and then we had a chance to investigate a more independent way of working in the Netherlands. So nowadays we are discussing with a few Italian companies and that will be our biggest challenge, because nowadays we experiment more as an independent design studio. But we really want to also understand in which ways we can apply our attitudes within the industry.