It's always interesting to try to fool time. To create certain scenarios that could have or should have or would have happened had things gone otherwise. But it is less common for designers to actually choose to leap into the past, essentially harking back to a specific historical moment when a new material was discovered, that period immediately prior to its subsequent exploitation, and often deviation, into what we have since come to accept as a given. In other words, this design duo reinterprets the history of a chosen material and finds a parallel life for its development.
What would have happened if we had remained in the pre-Bakelite era - that time in history right before the invention of synthetic polymers, in the second half of the 19th century, when man began to conduct research into the plasticity of materials and experiment with bio-derived materials like wood fibres, resins, animal blood, and insect faeces? Like back in 1856 when François Charles Lepage invented Bois Durci, an animal polymer made from wood fibres and animal blood from the Paris slaughterhouses, mixed together and heated up, causing the DNA in the blood to function as a binding agent. Another natural plastic diffused at the time was Shellac, a resin secreted onto trees by the female Lac bug in the forests of India and Thailand.
In their recent project, Botanica, Italian designers Andrea Trimarchi (b.1983) and Simone Farresin (b.1980) turned their attention to this former period in history. The duo recreated some six or seven natural polymer materials and realised a series of objects characterised by organic forms and archaic motifs, for a project commissioned by Plart, an Italian foundation dedicated to the conservation and restoration of works of art and design produced in plastic, founded in Naples by collector Maria Pia Incutti.
In their material research, Trimarchi and Farresin are not interested in purely technical speculation. They observe the evocative ability of materials - their symbolic and historic meaning. “We look at the beginnings of things, when experiments are made and some of the findings are rejected", the designers tell DAMn, “and we ask ourselves what would have happened if we had interpreted those experiments differently.”
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Originally from Sicily and Veneto, respectively, Trimarchi and Farresin met at university in Florence, where they both studied communication design. The pair soon discovered their common interest in conceptual design. Agreeing that this was a subject that had been neglected in Italy in recent years in favour of a more commercial approach, they decided to move to Eindhoven, The Netherlands, where the attitude to design development was more akin to their interest.

Getting real

Since then, their collaborative entity, Studio Formafantasma, has produced works that have been exhibited and appreciated at an international level, garnering approval from influential personalities like Paola Antonelli, design curator at MoMA in New York, and Alice Rawsthorn, design critic for the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. Both cited Studio Formafantasma as one of the 20 most promising young design studios of today. “Our work explores issues like the role of design in folk craft, the relationship between tradition and local culture, critical approaches to sustainability, and the significance of objects as cultural conduits", the designers describe. “We identify our role as being the bridge between craft, industry, object and user, and seek to stimulate a more critical and conceptual design dialogue through our work.”
In June, at Design Miami in Basel, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin present their two newest projects, commissioned by the fashion label Fendi and by Vitra Design Museum. Fendi invited Studio Formafantasma to develop a new body of work exploring leathercraft in conjunction with other hand-worked, natural materials. The resulting project, called CRAFTICA, evokes the complex relationship between man and nature, and recalls memories of a time when nature was hunted in order to produce food, tools, and protection for the body. The materials used are: discarded leather, leftover from the Fendi manufacturing processes; a wide range of leathers obtained from the skins of fish, like salmon and trout, discarded by the food industry; leather processed using natural substances from tree bark; cork leather extracted from cork trees (without harming the tree); and animal bladders, investigated for their ability to hold liquids. These natural materials have been paired with marble, oxidised metal, glass, wood, and other unprocessed materials including bones, shells, and sponge to create a large variety of objects such as lamps, tables, stools, and jars.

Playing with fire

The Vitra Design Museum project is part of an exhibition entitled Confrontations, curated by Amelie Znidaric. In conjunction with a major retrospective on Gerrit Rietveld, the museum has invited five designers from The Netherlands to collaborate with a partner from the region in developing a proposal. Studio Formafantasma was paired with Ms. Doris Wicki, the only female charcoal-burner in Switzerland who still produces charcoal using slow burning wood. The designers have concentrated on the purifying power of charcoal and produced a series of jars and wooden filters. At the same time, Trimarchi and Ferrarin wanted to underline the dichotomy between the nostalgia for tradition and today’s reality, as this kind of charcoal production was banned in many countries due to deforestation and CO2 emissions. In the Congo, for example, charcoal burning threatens one of the nation’s biggest natural reserves, the Virunga National Park. Reality is contrasted with the romantic image of the festive folk event; pollution caused by charcoal production clashes with the purifying properties of the material. To underline this aspect, purified water is served at the exhibition, while twelve charcoal drawings portraying polluted cities, burning trees, and black rain highlight the misuse of charcoal through the ages.
After completing their projects in Basel, the design duo is venturing to Sicily to work on their next one. As their new research subject they have chosen volcanic lava, focusing on the use of extrusive lava in Sicilian handicraft, reflecting on local production conditions and industry. In Sicily there is a strong presence of heavy industry (for example, in the oil and metallurgic sectors), but it isn’t an industrial region. The island lingers in a sort of pre-industrial state, which influences the life of local workers but not necessarily their living conditions. Again, experimentation with the material will give birth to refined objects, but also to a deeper analysis of the history and significance of the material itself. Lava, the title of the work, is due to be presented in April 2013 at Spazio Rossana Orlandi in Milan.