Formafantasma, De Natura Fossilium, Eruption of Mount Etna, 20 November 2013.
In Conversation with Andrea Trimarchi + Simone Farresin
Weaving fabric from lava, and combining plant and animal products to recreate pre-industrial materials — these are just some of the methods that Amsterdam studio Formafantasma use while working on the edges of critical design practice.
The young Italian duo have taken the design world by storm, exhibiting a number of acclaimed conceptual design projects at London Design Fair, V&A, MoMA, and Stedelijk Museum, to name just a few.
Leaving their distinctive mark on critical design culture, and through deeply embedded material explorations, Formafantasma reveal hidden and often forgotten aspects of cultural and material history.
Din Heagney spoke to Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, ahead of their visit to the NGV in September, asking the pair about their celebrated Botanica and De Natura Fossilium projects, and the way critical practice can engage us in rich cultural design conversations.
Does the name Formafantasma simply mean to bring the fantastic into form, or does it have a deeper meaning for you both?
S: As designers we are interested in critical and conceptual approaches to the design discipline, and in general towards all of our projects. Formafantasma literally means ghost-shape. We didn’t want to use our names in the studio, so the name points out that our approach is less formal, and that form is something that comes at the end. You could say we don’t have any taboos, and while we don’t despise any kind of design, per se, we don’t like purely formal design, our work is not about form, in a way it is conceptual, and a form is the result of the process.
In an interview with Fredric Baas for your new book, you mention that Andrea is the decision maker, while Simone is more organic in process. Can you tell us about how you work?
A: I would say that’s more or less the roles, but both of us really work in a more organic way. We don’t have a specific or rigid rule for working. I would say, more or less, that one of us normally comes with an idea, depending on the project, but both of us then start to research together into that idea. It’s true that Simone is the one that most of the time is wondering, and even nervous some of the time, and then I will often make a decision at the end, otherwise we would never have anything ready (laughs). So while I do much of the biographical work, Simone will be on the phone talking to people. We have some divisions of work in the studio, but I would say it really 50-50 overall.
S: It’s very organic, you know. Our work started with a relationship, so there is something very organic in the way we work. So in regard to our roles, we identify that one is wondering more and one is more decision-making.
It’s interesting that the Rigg Design Prize this year includes a number of practices made of collaborative partners, both in design practice and in life. How do you find the balance?
A: It is difficult to be self-analytical in this sense. I know this is becoming more common in design, I’m not sure if that says a lot about working and being in a relationship, or more about the quantities of skills you need to have, as maybe one skill is not enough when you are a designer. We don’t know how to elaborate on that, because it felt for us a very natural decision to work together, and we’ve realised that it’s not really a particular condition that needs to be analysed.
Do you work on multiple projects simulataneously, or do you prefer to complete one project before moving on to another?
A: That would be great to only work on one project at a time, but it’s never the reality. We usually have a hierarchy of scales of work, so rarely do we have a situation where we are working on multiple projects that have the same importance or scale at the same time. Sometimes there is a project that needs more time, so the scale of that project changes. Ideally, we try to construct our schedule or our working environment in such a way that we have different scales of projects operating at the same time.
You have said that Formafantasma doesn’t have a style and that you don’t work that way. Can you explain this further?
A: A lot of people see style in what we do, and we’re happy that it’s there in that sense, but generally that’s not our concern to work on style. A very important aspect for us, when we work is that there is always a moment when we bump into the question of the context in which we are working. We almost instinctively come to ask why is something the way it is and how can we question this. That is very important for us—questioning why things are they way they are in a specific moment, and if there a chance to make it differently, not just for the sake of it, but to see if there are other possibilities and potentials.
S: In regard to style, sometimes we appropriate existing aesthetics depending on what we want to say. When we are working on something, suddenly we realise that what we want to say goes in a different direction than expected. This is something that we never decide at the beginning, it comes from the process. In the beginning of our project about lava, for instance, the research and the expression of images were about organic design, while the end of the project went into a more Brutalism style of shaping because of the process of making. This isn’t something you can decide at the beginning, and we like that improvisation in the process, not everything is decided.
A: Yes. We always say we know where we start, but we don’t know where we are going to end. And in terms of style, there is always a moment when we are surprised at what a project is becoming, and that’s what we find exciting.
In many of your projects, there is a rich and evocative conversation between history and material and process. What do you look for when you start work on a new project?
S: Context. We don’t like starting from nothing. This sounds really banal, but whether we are doing a project for a company, or a more self-initiated project, we don’t like when people come to us and say ‘do what you want’. That’s not what we are looking for. When we start a project, we really want to start from a context—from the past, from history.
A: We do not feel the need for generating objects from a self-indulgent position, where we create things from an expressive necessity. Our reason for the expressive component in an object we design is from when we look at an idea, and we need a context to refer to this. So it could be production or a physical context, or it could be, as in the case of a commercial client, understanding our position towards what they do, which is fundamental for us.
What is the trigger that sets you off to research a particular subject? Is it within this context that you define and set for yourselves?
A: We always question the definition of the context, such as for a client wanting us to design something, so you start questioning: okay, why do you want this, is this really important, or should we do something else? Sometimes we react to a request that slightly shifts the context. Other times we define what we are working on, and that comes from natural experiences or looking at a part of life.
For instance, De Natura Fossilum, the project that we did with lava from Mt Etna, was taken from a very personal and private experience of landscape and locality in Sicily. We were fascinated with this location near a volcano, which is a force of nature, but is also entertainment for tourists, and so it has all these layers of complexity. We find this fascinating and, you know, it’s Mediterranean but it doesn’t look Mediterranean at all, and we wanted to question this, so that was where we started with the context of that project.
A: Other times, say a client like Fendi working with leather production, they came to us wanting us to work with their materials, with the leftovers from their production, and we said we can do that, but we’d also like to implement your selection of skins with our own selection. We shift the request slightly so we can respond better to their context.
In De Natura Fossilum you use alternative materials from the lava and basalt from Mount Etna, translated into a range of products and complementary photography and research materials. What does this say about contemporary design in the production of broader projects rather than a traditional collection of discrete objects?
S: The world is getting more complex and you need more complex ways of constructing a body of work. We haven’t yet had the possibility to present the research and the results in a way that satisfies us. You need a lot of funding and further possibilities to do that.
A: In this specific work, we worked through our relationship with our photographer, who always works with us, and then wanted to have a link with the locality that was our context, and so the photography was one of the tools we used. Ideally, it would have been good to also have a documentary, which would have shown how we developed the work in different locations with different expertise, but that was not possible.
S: Also we like to generally construct a body of work, which is not necessarily trying to squeeze all our ideas into one object, or contextualise everything within one solution. Because we don’t like that, and we don’t believe in that—it’s almost as though you construct a body of work that is offering a view, but it’s a bit more complex, because you don’t work with only one object, or with only one form, or with one material, or even with one point of view. It is more layered, possibly less clear, but we are okay with that.
In your project Botanica, you used petroleum-free materials and pre-industrial materials. Where did the context for this project emerge?
A: It was a commission for the Plart Foundation in Naples, and while they weren’t particularly involved in the development of the work, their request was the starting point. They asked that we work with classical design and plastics, which was an interesting choice. The curator, Marco Petroni, he came to us with this and he didn’t go for the obvious. He could have gone with a design that would suit Kartel or something like that. Because it was coming from the Foundation, we started asking what plastics actually are, and where this idea of plastics started. I say idea, because plastics are more than one material, they are integrated materials and plasticity is a material quality. So we looked back in time, which we think is always interesting, as there is potential in that.
S: All the time we go back into history, but it’s not with a subjective attitude, actually it’s almost the opposite. So while we don’t believe that people were living any better before plastics, we are interested in going back in order to understand where things first started. It is amazing how petrol was discovered and was also used to make plastics, but there were also other formalities and other materials that were coming from animals and plants products, and these things traditions are starting to return now, such as the project in Russia where they are extracting rubber from the dandelion plant. This is something that is starting to happen again in universities, where they are rediscovering old techniques and old materials, but giving them a contemporary finish. The approach we had in Botanica was almost trying to discard this 100-year history of synthetic plastic, so we did a jump in time. We went back and gave a really new aesthetic to plastic that had never been done before.
A: We were interested both in how the objects look and also how the material looks, while there are a lot of different levels, we’re talking here just about the materials. It’s not as if we have anything against plastics, because we don’t like to have pre-conceptions about materials, but I think that particular project can be interpreted as offering a solution by looking back to these materials that have possibilities. The objects use almost formal inspirations from the way we engineer the new aesthetics of materials. With plastics and with all engineered materials, it’s of interest to us to see different aesthetics arise. So here we have made synthetic materials look less disposable.
Are you interested in dealing with the dilemmas we have in our disposable culture, where materials are sourced from a world of limited resources?
S: People are much more aware that the Earth is limited. Also, with cheap flights available now, you can travel really anywhere and see that the Earth is limited. So we are of a generation that is much more aware of this fact.
A: We couldn’t really be aware of that unless the full scope of possibilities was there. So in the sense that we can travel the world in such as short time seems a banality, but you really have the sense, physically, that the earth is limited and that there is no more discoveries to be made. And that is a kind of horror, because all the histories, at least of Europe, have been founded on discovery. Australia is a clear example of that. That age of discovery in the traditional sense is now over. So a different approach to resources and space needs to be constructed.
One area that remains largely undiscovered is the oceans, yet plastic is causing ecological disasters from entering the food chain. While we can’t blame plastics as a material, per se, do you think the problem is in our use of materials?
A: As a designer, you cannot afford to be moralist, toward anything, and not even toward material, because it would be otherwise go against everything that we are interested in, which is also the reason we look back in time.
S: Also there is nothing bad about plastic itself. It is more how we use plastic, how we give shape to the material, how we give value to plastic. Considering that plastic could itself become a rare material soon, because it is a limited material. Why should plastics have this throwaway aesthetic? Plastic should have the aesthetic of a rich and valuable material. So how you use resources, and how you use aesthetics, are the ways you create value.
So if you can’t be a moralist as a designer then how might design engage with ethical concerns?
A: I see a difference between ethics and morality, but it could be a more personal definition. I think we do this by posing ourselves questions. Also you have more responsibility within a profession than in your private life. The way we separate this, and when I say you don’t need to be moralist, I mean that we don’t want to impose points of view onto things. We don’t want to tell others what they should be doing or how they should behave. So it’s more our decision-making that is affected by ethical questions.
Is this making of enriched design projects, and the way you present the complexities around your objects, a way to engage people in understanding these layered contexts in broader terms?
A: Definitely. It’s exactly that. You need to zoom out, as much as you need to zoom in, you need to offer a bit more a view from more afar, a view that is more comprehensive. That’s what we are trying to do.
You both completed your Masters degrees at the Design Academy of Eindhoven (DAE), and now live and work in Amsterdam. How to you see the cultural relations or differences between Dutch and Italian design practice?
S: I would simplify this as more of a contextual analysis. Italian design has been linked to industrial production, while Dutch design, particularly in furniture design, is very different. Holland or The Netherlands doesn’t have such a permanent furniture production tradition, so this has lead to different results. So, for instance, design in Italy, and through education, is definitely linked to industrial production. In Holland it has always been something much more to the creation of culture and art, and is even organised politically under the Ministry of Culture and Economy. I’m giving you quite a technical answer, but I think that’s the best way of avoiding cliché and misconception of the two approaches. But indeed I do think this is relevant way of reading into different approaches—one that is very much linked to industry and production, and the other one that has always been more about individual practices, where industry is stepping in at the second moment or stage.
Some writers have commented that your design work is targeted to museums and collectors rather than the general consumer market. Is this how you place your design research into the cultural sphere?
A: I think that is the status quo, but that is the reality of our work. We don’t start any of our projects thinking about that. I think of work we have developed so far, defines our position within the design discipline. But it’s not our concern is specifically that. It’s not our concerned in asking who’s the audience, or where will our work be seen.
S: We are now in phase in which we are more in timing with our production and what we are doing now, only six years later, we are still a young studio so we are using this time as a kind of gym to understand our interests and our points of view within the discipline. So for sure it has a less commercial appeal, because when we start a project we never think about a specific market that could buy the work, but the moment you give less accessibility there is a limitation in the production, so either we do it in the studio or we work with producers, but those are limitations on the production so this kind of work is more exclusive or collectible in nature. But that’s not our main concern when we produce a project.
You met each other in Florence while studying undergraduate degrees. What drew you to decide to work together?
S: Andrea is younger than me and we were in different years at Florence ISIA, Istituto Superiore per le Industrie Artistiche (Higher Institute for Artistic Industries), and it was a university based on industrial design but there was also some communication design courses, so it was quite a broad range of experiences there. But we found that both Andrea and I were starting to our interest in design, because we didn’t really appreciate the education system there. So when we met and started to get to know each other, we began sharing the use of light and production. And we realised that we shared a common interest and a common view, but it was quite intuitive and not really planned. At first, I wouldn’t say we were working together, but we shared ideas together and then we decided to apply to the Eindhoven Academy together with a shared portfolio.
Did you go to DAE at the same time?
S: We looked into several education systems in Europe, and we considered both the RCA and Design Academy Eindhoven, and we decided to apply with a shared portfolio basically on instinct. We wanted to apply together and based on our portfolio we were accepted by Gijs Bakker, who back then was the director of the Masters course we attended.
A: While we now realise that it was strange, while we were studying in Italy, we have been encouraged to work together but more because the education system there was really focused on industry, and they wanted us to focus more on constructing an idea in a team. So I guess we were also pushed to work together while studying in Florence at a school where some of the founders of radical Archizoom Associati were teaching there. So it was coming from a tradition where groups of designers were also used to working together.
Can you tell us a little about Archizoom and their influence?
A: It was the first design education institution in Italy. The founders of the Archizoom movement, Gilberto Corretti and Deganello Paolo, started in Florence and moved to Milan, but they were both still teaching and having an influence at ISIA while we were there. When we started studying, it was the nineties, and the political situation was completely different and Italian design was completely different, so we couldn’t really recognise this in the design coming from the institute, which is one of the reasons we started to lose interest in design. It was only when we met and visited the shows at the DAE in Milan and later in Droog Design, it wasn’t that we saw so much social and political content there, but we saw a generation that was similar to ours.
S: With a radical attitude.
A: Yes, with a radical attitude.
The NGV Department of Contemporary Design and Architecture invited Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin as international guests for the Parallels: Journeys into Contemporary Making event in September 2015.