Disegno #26, Spring 2020
Disegno is a quarterly journal dedicated to long-form independent reporting and critical writing on design. For the Spring 2020 issue, Disegno #26, I visited Formafantasma’s studio and chatted to them about design as research, timber, curating, collecting and their exhibition-cum-research project “Cambio.” The article is also available online here.
Formafantasma’s home-studio space, a converted stove factory in north Amsterdam, is richly suffused with the aroma of smouldering cedar.
The shelves are lined with paperbacks, positioned with their fore-edges facing outwards—a neutral backdrop for the residues of former projects and curios that have accumulated since studio founders Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin met in design school in Florence in the early 2000s. There are bones, chunks of basalt, lava ash-glaze tests, dollhouse-sized cardboard models of chairs and stacks of wabi sabi bowls. In the kitchen area, a wicker basket hangs on a rope, just in case an object or snack is urgently needed in the sleeping space above. It’s also a nod to Trimarchi’s roots in Sicily, where such devices are used by people lucky enough to live above an alimentari. Like everything in the space, the burning palo santo that I detect upon entering is far from extraneous. The pungent pine molecules provide the correct atmospheric conditions for our discussion of the designers’ most recent project—one that examines the extraction, production and distribution of wood products.
“Cambio” is a web archive and research exhibition that opened at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery in early March. “We conceived the exhibition as just one part of the outcome of the project,” says Farresin, describing an aspect of the undertaking that became unexpectedly significant when the show shut down in mid-March as galleries across the capital closed in response to the coronavirus outbreak. “It’s important to make the wider research available and we had already uploaded all the content of the show to “cambio.website” so that people can access it remotely.” It’s a pragmatic response, but it also highlights a peculiarity of the “Cambio” project, as well as Formafantasma’s wider practice.
Placing an emphasis on research rather than designed objects is unusual for an art-gallery context (and even for design, at least beyond academia).
Placing an emphasis on research rather than designed objects is unusual for an art-gallery context (and even for design, at least beyond academia). Nevertheless, Formafantasma has framed its work this way since its founders graduated from the Master’s programme at Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE) in 2009. While the studio produces commercial objects for both galleries and industry, its work can be seen as a series of increasingly sophisticated and complex thesis projects (both self-assigned and commissioned) through which Trimarchi and Farresin foreground historical and applied research. Formafantasma’s investigations are typically focused on locally specific craft traditions (basketwork, textile dyeing, needlepoint and glassblowing, to name a few) and raw materials (sorghum, charcoal, fish skins, Slovenian limestone). They are documented and made available (albeit in an edited, aestheticised way) through the “Process” section on the studio’s website, a tab that accompanies some collections of more familiar design typologies: vessels, lighting, furniture and textiles. “We see the two strands [research and commercial design] as separate,” says Trimarchi, “but, in the best possible scenario, they come together.”
“We see the two strands [research and commercial design] as separate,” says Trimarchi, “but, in the best possible scenario, they come together.”
De Natura Fossilium, the studio’s research into the properties and possibilities of basalt, lava and volcanic fibres, is a typical Formafantasma project. Beginning in 2010 as a matter of personal curiosity, it was subsequently fortified by a commission from Gallery Libby Sellers in the wake of the eruption of Mount Etna in 2013. Eventually, it was realised as an editioned collection of clocks, textiles, furniture and vessels. Five years later, when architectural materials brand Dzek approached Trimarchi and Farresin with a commission, they returned to lava. The pair have described the ensuing material research as “a battle of wills between man and volcano” that involved exploding, imploding, cracking and caving prototypes before they found the right combination of porcelain body, ash glazes, firing temperature and method to produce a commercial tile collection—ExCinere. “This is exactly how we would wish to work,” says Farresin of this trajectory, where one line of inquiry extends across multiple collections. “We invest time into research, create a body of work, and hope there are clients who can understand that work. With their support, they allow us to take it to a different level and to a broader audience.”
This form of practice has a well-defined theoretical background. In 1994, the cultural historian Christopher Frayling categorised what he saw as three main types of design research in his paper “Research in Art and Design”. The first, research into design, is the most straightforward. It tends to be conducted through the lens of history or theory; is positioned outside design practice, looking in; and manifests itself in recognisable academic formats, such as written texts. The second variant, research for design, is a process of gathering reference materials. It leaves no trace, except in an embodied sense in the final design product. The last, research through design, is the most complex and expansive. It embraces experimentation conducted with the materials, technologies, processes and sensibilities of design in a self-aware manner, usually resulting in documentation but not necessarily a final designed product. The research is “still identifiable and visible”, as Frayling puts it, but undoubtedly “less straight-forward”.
“We are not doing this kind of work within an academic context and we’re constantly struggling to find a balance between commercialism and research,” Trimarchi explains.
It is this latter form of design research that resonates most fully with Trimarchi and Farresin. Formafantasma is a self-described “commercial studio”, which designs lighting and tableware collections for high-end brands such as Flos, Hermès and Lexus. Much of its research, therefore, feeds into making tangible, marketable products—research for design. By inclination, however, Trimarchi and Farresin aspire to shift this emphasis onto research through design. “We are not doing this kind of work within an academic context and we’re constantly struggling to find a balance between commercialism and research,” Trimarchi explains. “We are sure some people find that a weakness in our practice—we believe it is our strength.”
In 2017, a commission from the National Gallery of Victoria Australia (NGV) and Triennale di Milano to examine e-waste provided the studio with what Trimarchi calls “a laboratory for us to better understand how to do research”. At first, the NGV asked Formafantasma to create a collection of furniture from e-waste, but the studio insisted the project be expanded to embrace a broader and more thorough research process. It ended up taking three years and included visits to waste dumps and recycling facilities; interviews with lawmakers, manufacturers and scholars; the gathering of key documents and secondary literature; and videos of the deconstruction and taxonomical arrangement of the components of electronic appliances. For Trimarchi and Farresin, the heart of the project, titled Ore Streams, is not the final furniture collection, but its online archive and accompanying video essays. Here, Formafantasma assembled all its research, which Trimarchi and Farresin encourage other designers to use as “a platform for reflection and analysis” to better understand the material context in which digital design operates. The pair were disappointed, therefore, by ensuing requests from museums in the Netherlands and France to acquire the Ore Streams furniture but not the research. “When you talk about design in the context of museums, there is this idea that they are somehow progressive,” says Trimarchi. “But in fact, the ways that collections are organised and how things are acquired are still very stiff.” The designers attribute such curatorial “stiffness” to the historical configurations of design and decorative-arts museums, organised as they are around materials or typology. Such categorisations do not easily lend themselves to multidisciplinary approaches, with intangible outcomes such as online archives.
With “Cambio”, by contrast, the commission came from a contemporary-art exhibition space rather than a museum. As such, it offered Formafantasma what Trimarchi refers to as “a more free-form approach to exploring research”. “Cambio” largely eschews products, a position that emerged through conversations with the Serpentine’s artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist. The last time the Serpentine devoted its gallery space to a designer was in 2014, when Martino Gamper created an installation of historic and contemporary shelving. Like Gamper, Trimarchi and Farresin identify as designers, but “Cambio” is less about design as a distinct discipline and more about what practitioners from the field of design, alongside those from science, literature and anthropology, can offer in thinking about an issue—in this case climate change.
The “Cambio” project addresses the environmental impact of the global timber industry. “It’s a topic that allowed us to talk about the complex relationship between species,” Farresin explains. “Trees are, first and foremost, living beings, and this was something we could not address with Ore Streams—the ethical and existential questions arising from the transformation of other creatures into materials.” What the designers also find compelling about the timber industry is the way its “tentacular supply chain” has grown out of the exploitation of the biological capital that took root throughout colonial territories during the 19th century, when it was realised that certain plant species, like mahogany, could be immensely profitable as a raw material. Trimarchi and Farresin acknowledge the enormity of this field, which they refer to as a “hyperobject”—a concept developed by the philosopher Timothy Morton to deal with objects that are so radically distributed across time and space that they defy categorisation. By definition, a hyperobject cannot be grasped in its totality, but this does not mean that any attempt to do so is entirely fruitless. “It’s almost as if you have a gigantic body,” says Farresin, “and you try to work as an acupuncturist, finding trigger points.”
Retooling a design studio to conduct this scale of research project has brought challenges.
Retooling a design studio to conduct this scale of research project has brought challenges. Despite financial support from the Serpentine, Farresin and Trimarchi admit that Formafantasma made a “heavy investment” into “Cambio” in terms of the sheer hours involved in research. To deal with projects of this kind in future, they may split the studio. The Amsterdam space would remain but be joined by another location, potentially in Milan. One would focus on research and, as Farresin puts it, be “more radical”, while the other would be centred on commercial work. Research through design is not exactly financially remunerative, however, and viable business models are difficult to apply at all scales. The architecture giant OMA has managed to subsidise its dedicated research studio AMO through commercial work, for instance, but it is much harder for a small atelier to follow this path. “The more radical we go with our independent practice, the more commercial we will need to be to economically sustain it,” says Trimarchi. “On the other hand,” adds Farresin, “we think that clients will ask us to integrate the two in the long term. The research-based attitude we displayed in “Cambio” could be applied within a company and that kind of holistic analysis is even more urgent there.”
Trimarchi and Farresin are self-taught researchers drawing on familiar methodologies from the humanities and social sciences. For “Cambio” they dug through archives at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the V&A; conducted visual and textual analysis; and interviewed experts connected to the timber industry. They are particularly fond of this latter method, believing it allows scientists and professors to be freer in speculating and making associations than they can be within the strictures of academic publication. “The interview allows us to get to know things that you cannot find in published materials,” says Trimarchi.
In order to understand the history, context and implications of a topic as massive as the global timber industry, the designers knew they would need to call in the expertise of specialists and institutions in science, conservation, engineering and policymaking. Videos and transcripts of interviews with wood anatomists, dendroclimatologists and professors of transnational governance can be viewed on the project website and read in the 90-odd-page catalogue elegantly designed by Studio Joost Grootens. Formafantasma’s questions to these experts demonstrate their awareness of the finer points of the environmental impact of wood extraction, but also betray their designerly pragmatism about the expediency of extrapolating specific knowledge beyond discipline boundaries. When speaking with a senior researcher at Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, for example, they ask him: “We wonder if understanding how plants have adapted to harsh environmental conditions throughout their evolutionary path might inform the discourse around climate change and the consequent need to design more resilient ecosystems. Is this something already embedded in your research project?” He responds: “Let me say, my first interest as a scientist, the reason why I decided to undertake this career, is to understand how plants function and why they evolve the way they do. Its potential social relevance is not something that prompted me to start this research.” Later, Trimarchi and Farresin say, “And here we see why disciplines like wood anatomy and wood evolution, which look into the microscopical features of trees, can have a positive impact across different scales”. By this time, the biologist knows more about where his interlocutors are coming from. He sensibly answers, “Yes.”
Research, for Formafantasma, doesn’t just mean interviews and texts, however. Throughout “Cambio” information is animated in imaginative formats, ranging from three-dimensional data visualisations to a series of essay films. To illustrate the disconnect between the time it takes for a tree to grow and the time people tend to keep wood products, the studio made a tower of the popular £20 Ikea aspen Bekväm stools, rebuilt in woods such as cherry, chestnut and oak. These stools were then stacked according to how long each tree species took to grow before it was logged, and how much carbon dioxide it is able to store within its structure. Elsewhere, a series of everyday single-use products made from wood or wood pulp—such as reinforced envelopes, paper towels, and takeaway containers and cups—are heaped in piles. These piles give physical form to the fact that it will take five years for a single pine tree growing in Central Europe to reabsorb the amount of carbon dioxide released when each stack is eventually discarded. The piles are alarmingly small. Other exhibits include an array of samples selected from the 42,000 wood specimens held in the Economic Botany Collection at Kew Gardens, and microscopic imagery of the cellular structure of different woods species that illuminates the varying densities and relationships between the vessels and fibres that give rise to their unique anatomical characters. Experimenting with installations is important in the evolution of the research-driven exhibition, a genre whose stereotype involves little more than stacks of photocopied articles and documents with key passages highlighted. Although “Cambio” does still have its fair share of these, it is also staking out new ground for bringing to life the process of research through design.
The kinds of investigation involved in the exhibition might give the impression that design, as popularly understood, is in danger of dissolving into the entanglement of the social, political and economic issues being uncovered.
The kinds of investigation involved in the exhibition might give the impression that design, as popularly understood, is in danger of dissolving into the entanglement of the social, political and economic issues being uncovered. This, you suspect, is not antithetical to the studio’s wishes, particularly given that the discipline’s connotations of luxury and, increasingly, waste, can easily impede the kinds of discussion Formafantasma wishes to generate about the realities of the climate crisis. “In order to perform as designers today, we need to be aware of the macrodynamics of the context in which we operate,” says Trimarchi. “Otherwise we are reducing what we do to form a styling or interface design. We can only be aware of our political and ethical responsibilities as designers if we are aware of this larger context.”
The design of a product sets in motion an environmentally damaging chain reaction of natural- resource extraction, refining and manufacturing processes, shipping and distribution, and waste disposal. Like many of their generation, Trimarchi and Farresin struggle with the existential quandary of wanting to make beautiful things, while also acknowledging design’s complicity in climate crisis. “Cambio” has not, for instance, completely resisted the allure of producing a commercial collection. The exhibition’s various exhibits are shown on a set of specially designed wooden tables, reading desks and shelves, which the studio will now retail through Gallery Giustini / Stagetti in Rome.
The “Cambio” furniture collection is intentionally low key, but its individual elements have nevertheless been brought to exquisite refinement in terms of their aesthetic and provenance. The entire exhibition display has been constructed from an amount of timber equivalent to one pine tree, for instance, sourced from the Fiemme Valley in Italy, where a storm felled tens of thousands of trees in 2018, and which is also the source of the wood used for Stradivarius violins. This fact led the designers to musical instrument production as a reference point for the series. Each element is built around an elegant tapered jointing technique that is derived from instrument production and eliminates the need for screws. The furniture pieces are additionally coated in the same finish used for wooden instruments, mixed with some grey, water- based paint to achieve what Formafantasma calls a “foggy” feeling—a way to approximate the studio’s research journey through the timber industry.
“The display was purposely designed not to be a white plinth, which by nature is disposable and almost a symbol of the ephemeral condition of exhibition-making,” explains Farresin. “The idea was to make the pieces so obviously long-lasting so as to outlive the exhibition itself.” Nevertheless, one wonders if there were qualms about producing any new commercial pieces for a project geared towards analysing some of the follies of manufacturing processes and consumption. The sociologist Bruno Latour succinctly summarises this predicament in his book An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. “Between modernising and ecologising,” he writes, “we have to choose.”
For Formafantasma, research seems to offer a possible third route, as well as representing a practice that arms designers with the knowledge required to produce more responsibly. Far from being paralysed by climate crisis, Trimarchi and Farresin believe that being designers affords them a unique vantage point from which to engage with the issue. “Design has this very peculiar position,” Farresin says, “because it’s really in between the extraction of material and its transformation into a desirable object.” What precedes and exceeds material, is matter: the matter that goes into the making of design and the matter that remains after a designed entity’s period of usefulness is over. Thinking of products in terms of the resources from which they are constructed—the rare Earth minerals that are transmuted into electronics, and the cellulose fibres that make up our tables, chairs, books, and toilet paper—helps us develop better ways of designing how they degrade, or do not degrade, after use.
As with Ore Stream’s online archive, Formafantasma says it wants “Cambio” to serve as a launching point for other designers to continue the research. It can, as Trimarchi puts it, be “appropriated[…] in a second moment.” Formafantasma’s next research project will also be collaborative, but this time they will be working with students of a new Master’s course they are developing for their alma mater, DAE. Called Geo-Design, the course will address the ecological implications of the discipline and is due to launch in September 2020. The designers, who have been teaching at DAE for the past several years, say they have been “pushing” for a course to address the ecological implications of the discipline. “Everybody said, ‘Yes, but that’s common to all design,’” says Farresin, “but we strongly believe that is not the case.” Having collaborated with so many people from both design and beyond, the studio hopes the course will serve as “an umbrella,” according to Farresin, “for all the people who are currently dispersed.”
“Cambio,” as an ongoing investigation, is likely to figure in their curriculum. Trimarchi and Farresin plan to design the course using the model of a research group in an academic scientific setting, where students and teachers work together on commonly defined research projects, rather than each participant working individually to a teacher-set brief. The idea is that the group will collaborate to research a topic, share their findings and only then move toward developing individual outcomes. Through this, Formafantasma hope to generate the freedom to embrace a diversity of approaches instead of having to choose between defined routes that might include critical-theoretical, applied-product, and artistic and self-expressive. As they say, “in order to tackle the complexity of climate crisis, we’re going to need all the approaches we can get.”