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Interview Formafantasma

‘What lies underground gives us food and material’

For the second year in a row Design Academy Eindhoven commissioned Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin of Formafantasma to curate the Graduation Show. What was the influence of the academy on their perception of design? A talk about surfacing the embedded layers in products, the appeal of the underground, exhibiting graduation work, and the role of education in their design practice.

By Nadine Botha

Since this is the graduation catalogue, let’s start back when you completed your Masters at Design Academy in 2009. How did you transition from graduation to working professionally?
SF      For us, our graduation work was really formative. It felt like that was the moment in which we actually became ourselves as a studio. The Masters was very fundamental for us, because for the first time we just found people that had the right questions — that is also now our approach to teaching.
AT      Yes, although we had known each other already from Florence and applied as a duo with two identical portfolios, we used the time at Design Academy to find out how to work together. This is also where we developed our research approach. In Italy, you use your hands as little as possible; it’s a lot of theory. Here we learnt a lot about making and materiality.

Your approach to research and materiality is very distinctive, a signature even, with layers of history, psychology, semantics and technical aspects, all blurring the notions of manmade and natural.
SF      That’s what we love about designing objects; they are composed of all these different layers.
AT      Actually, all objects already have these layers embedded, but not visible. The phone you are using has embedded social issues — labour, exploitation, resources etcetera — but these objects are not talking about it. What we like in our work is to make that visible.

How do you got about researching and surfacing these layers?
SF      For us, a big part of the process is just intuitive, which is also how we understand the connections between things. That’s why we can tap into a lot of different issues within one work because we see the connections between different elements. Apart from intuition there’s also a ping-pong between more conventional investigation such as collecting information and reading.
AT      We like to connect to a lot of people, because of course we are not experts in everything. For example, for Ore Streams, I think we have spoken to over 100 people.
SF      Ore Steams is a project for the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne, and the research is also being documented with an internal blog where we have collected maps, information, and these original interviews with people. More than any of our other projects, it has entailed the most careful collecting and analysing of information. We were given an open brief, but in discussion found out that Australia is one of the few First World countries that is still mining minerals. We started by looking at metals, the connections with colonialism and the logistics behind it, but then moved to looking at future trends in mining and how increasingly recycling will supply most of the metals needed. We have already mined enough metals for our needs. We thought this was a fascinating idea.

Going beneath the surface also comes up in your Underground project for this year’s Ljubljana Biennale. Beyond the physical underground, do you see the verb of mining, sifting through the dust of our planet, and finding and forming things, as part of your practice?
SF      Actually, the physical underground has been a fascination in several projects.
AT      Yeah, maybe it’s about discovering what lies behind things. What was interesting talking to people in Ljubljana, the underground often as negative connotations. But why? I think that’s what fascinates us. What lies underground is what is giving us food and material, both literally and as inspiration.

What then is the role of products in your practice?
AT      For us products are, most of the time, vessels. We are really proud of our training and practice in product design, so for us it’s never a question of whether we’re making art. We are reflecting on design as a discipline and on design issues. Objects, and their contemporary impact, are actually the main things to problematise.
SF      Actually, I think our biggest (pre)occupation is not really the objects, but the production. How we produce things and how they come to be a certain way; how the material is processed, where it goes and what it becomes. That is the thing that is the most fascinating, and most troubling, to us.

How do you apply all these aspects of your practice to curating the Graduation Show?
SF      In this case we actually go for a very pragmatic and more designer-as- problem-solver approach. We take some very simple things into account. For instance, the human factor is more important than the result. We spend an entire week working with the students trying to make them all happy. We also push for departments to be presented together because we want the students to feel comfortable in their own environment, and we try to respect the way they wish to show their work.
AT      We’ve been there. So we know how it is and how you want to show the work at its best. For us it’s important to respect that as much as possible. In terms of designing the furniture, it’s a platform, so we keep it as simple as possible. Some colour on the sides, but then the surface is always white or grey because that shows off the work better.
SF      Our role is not about making a statement in any way.
AT      Last year we were influential in pushing the concept of an Arena, a place for lectures, conversation and live performances within the exhibition, and in using all three floors in order to have more space. So we are making decisions that hopefully help people to enjoy the experience more.
SF      As part of the experience, the Arena is about creating more space for discussion. We hope that in years to come, this will grow even more and become a fundamental part of the show, which traditionally is very much a visual thing and less of an occasion for wondering about design.

You’re also getting more and more into education. Both of you teach at Design Academy, as well as the Made Program in Sicily; and you just hosted your first summer school in Syracuse, Sicily. Why?
SF      It’s funny because even when we did the summer school we ourselves were wondering why we couldn’t just take a holiday! It’s true that we are getting more involved in education. What I enjoy the most is actually following the graduates, because that’s the moment when it’s not really about giving them an assignment, but witnessing them becoming themselves, which is very beautiful. Plus: education is not about you. It is about you in the sense that you use what you know, but I find it fascinating to be with students whose work is different to ours. I enjoy seeing diversity, which is what is beautiful about Design Academy.
AT      What is also amazing about the Design Academy is that students know what they want — even if they don’t precisely know, they have this sparkle in their eyes — and you see them mature in front of your eyes. We don’t have that in Sicily, and we need to do a lot of building, especially of knowledge and consciousness of what’s happening around the world, which is a challenge.
SF      Teaching in Sicily is a way of doing something that we feel is worth it for a place. It’s not about our ego but about finding out if there is a chance for one of the poorest areas in Europe to become a place for design. In Italy especially there is a narrative that design is only in Milan, only where industry is, and definitely not in the periphery.
AT      Eindhoven is a good example of how a city reinvented itself from scratch after the catastrophe of an entire industry around Phillips leaving. That’s one of the good things that we need to export from Eindhoven.

Is this increased interest in education influencing your own work in turn?
SF      Everybody always says teaching must be very inspiring, but it’s just as inspiring as any other work. What is different about teaching is that you learn a lot of stuff. It has affected our work in one specific way: it has taught us how to switch from one project to another almost instantly, because that’s the routine with students: you have to able to mentor a group of student, one after the other, each with different projects and on their own terms.
AT      As teachers, we are still at the beginning of our careers. Too early to claim we’re any good. But I like to think we are quite open to each student in front of us. I remember teachers in the past, especially in Italy, who were trying to teach us their own way of thinking.
SF      It’s basically all about asking questions to students, which is sometimes not enough. But that’s our way of trying to help students find their own position.

In a way, you’re talking about how your own work and capabilities have matured, and this past year has been huge for you. We haven’t
even touched on Milan yet. Is this your mid-career blooming?

AT      We are at the point where we need to start saying no to things, where before we were just yes-yes-yes. It’s not that we want to slow down for the sake of slowing down, but we want to take less work and do it properly. We are starting to understand our strengths and where we are not good. In this sense, we are not mature enough. I mean, it’s only eight years now, and after 10 years I think you need to rethink decisions.
SF      We definitely need to improve our industrial design skills. We just launched two products, and it’s not that there’s an urgency to do more, but we have to get better at that.

Let’s talk about Milan and your first two commercial products. How did that happen and why did it take so long?
SF      We met Piero Gandini, the CEO of Flos, in 2011. We had a few conversations but, to be honest, we weren’t ready to design anything on that scale. So, we just left it there and for many years didn’t do anything. Then we started working with lighting more within the studio, and after many of our own experiments, we went back to him and our collaboration started.
What is nice about some of the Italian companies, especially those like Flos, is that there’s really no marketing department. You don’t talk about doing something because it sells. It’s just him liking it and going for it. We had tried working with other companies before but there just wasn’t a good relationship. They would only contact us because of the hype. The majority of companies are very boring to work with, because they don’t actually give you anything. I don’t mean in terms of money, but they don’t open up their doors or tell you what they’re thinking.
AT      They just say: “Send us a drawing”.
SF      That’s the most frustrating thing you can ask us.
AT      Then we don’t get the work. For us the context is important. When we start a relationship, we want to know everything about what you do. The biggest delay with us getting into industrial design though, is that especially Italian companies don’t pay. They pay in royalties when the product will be sold in the future, but how can a small studio invest all that time and pay their employees to work on it?
SF      Let’s face it, industrial design is having big problems. We don’t live in post-war Europe anymore. Today there’s no reconstruction, there’s no existential need.

Given that, how do you think the role and definition of the designer is changing?
SF      I still like the idea of a designer as someone who shapes things, but not only their physical shape. We are still interested in the physical dimension that affects the way we live, the way we experience the world. So maybe what we’re doing as designers, is designing new interfaces. By designing an object, you design the world, or an idea of the world. And that’s what I find most beautiful.
AT      I really like the Dutch word ‘vormgevers’. It’s one of the most beautiful ways of talking about design. We are not into this idea of design as always looking for the future of things.

(This text was written for the Graduation Catalogue Mined, Design Academy Eindhoven)

Published: 22-Oct-2017 10:09
  • Formafantasma – Not to steal the show

    Graduation Show 2017 - Images by Angeline Swinkels

  • Formafantasma – Not to steal the show

  • Formafantasma – Not to steal the show

  • Formafantasma – Not to steal the show