Look around your living room, your bedroom, your kitchen, and think about everything you see. A Missoni bedspread, a Patricia Urquiola couch, an Eames chair, a Viking stove...or, you know, IKEA. Some of these objects that form part of your daily life were found when you moved in, other things gifted or bought, inherited from a relative, schlepped from apartment to apartment in rented U-Haul, and friend of a friend’s trucks.
The average American has some 300,000 items in their home from tables and desks down to mugs and paperclips. Behind each of these is a complex intertwined ecosystem, a neural network of creativity, industry, and resources, which undergird the modern world and life as we know it. The multifaceted context and implications of an object or space’s creation is central to the work of transcendent Italian design studio, Formafantasma.
Founded in 2009 by designers Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, Formafantasma, explores this very cross-section between the history, ecology, politics, and social forces that shape design. Based between Milan and Rotterdam, the studio is helping to redefine how we think about the field with projects ranging from educational initiatives to museum exhibitions, product development, and research.
Since its inception, Formafantasma has continued to push boundaries, developing projects such as Prada Frames: On Forest, a symposium examining the relationship between the natural environment and design to Cambio, an exhibition and research initiative on the extraction-production cycle of wood products commissioned by Serpentine Galleries in London. Along with a project and client list that ranges from the Venice Biennale to Hermès, Formafantasma’s award-winning work has been acquired by institutions including MoMA, Fondation Cartier, and Walker Art Center.
The design studio’s latest project, Oltre Terra, an exhibition commissioned by the National Museum in Oslo, examines the extraction and production of wool. Rather than viewing wool as simply a material, Oltre Terra–a play on the Italian and Latin roots for the seasonal pastoral grazing practice known as transhumance–examines the relationship between people, animals and the environment. A tipping point of wool’s ecology, domestication, and symbiosis at the cross-section of the natural and built world. Through a series of images, artifacts, conversations and film, the exhibition transcends design to offer a new perspective on production and biological evolution.
How did the line of investigation that turned into Oltre Terra begin? What interested you about wool as a jumping-off point to explore the interaction and interdependencies within an ecosystem?
The idea of working with wool came from the museum who reached out to us a few years ago thanks to the curator who really appreciated our work...She was interested in the way we were addressing the economy and ecology of products and materials. Wool played such an important role in the economic and cultural histories of Norway–even just the possibility of inhabiting a country so far north is also thanks to the products and protection that sheep and other animals provide. We were also very much interested in the relationship that humans have with animals. We saw that wool could give us the opportunity to look at these questions through the lens of materiality.
As I started to think about the history of wool, the tale of the Golden Fleece came to mind. How do you think about the socio-historical and mythological symbolism of wool?
We looked into the mythological religious representations of sheep and wool, but at one point, we touched upon the different representations of sheep and flocks. The flock is very often considered a sin or synonymous with being stupid, or control or a representation of boredom.We also looked into pop culture representation...This didn’t become the main focus, but we used it to make a point about how the domesticated animal is generally considered. Even by scientists[it is believed] that humans roll over what is considered natural and hence everything that is touched by human intelligence or human interaction is inevitably read as the outcome of humans. The idea of domestication was one of the biggest areas we looked into with Oltre Terra. We were very much interested in understanding and dissecting how you can look at domestication from the perspective of humans, but how you can also look at, as from the perspective of animals. To some degree, [animals] also chose domestication, many people will be against that. But I think it is very important to see the relations we have with animals as much more nuanced and complex than what we think.
Animals provide us with food and materials that we have historically needed to achieve a certain quality of life, so it makes sense that we think we are controlling animals, but at the same time we are actually very much beholden to them. How do you think about the symbiosis between the natural world and the built world, and how do you feel that this relationship will continue to shape the future of design?
It’s interesting because generally when you talking about symbiosis, you are referencing animals that live in some condition of wilderness together, where the animals benefit from living in proximity to each other. When you start talking about the relationship that humans have with nature, you talk about domestication. The process of domestication comes from the idea that the human is intelligent, and decides how, and with whom to live. But it is interesting because when it comes to other species, we would never dare to say that one animal domesticated another. To me this is the central point, the fact that we have biases from which we look at the relationship we have with the natural environment. Regarding the future of design and the relationship we have with other species, I think it is going to become more and more vital because what is more and more vital is the survival of humanity on planet Earth. If we consider ecology an important aspect to do so, we can no longer conceive of the best design as being human-centered. Traditionally, and historically, you can have design that is considered as a form of styling that is more about responding to human desires. And then you have a form of design that is much more human-centered and is focusing on real needs. In ecological terms, we can no longer think that we have one person who will use the object or the service we’re going to design. Making, producing, and inevitably designing something intersects with many people. So I think the conversation—or not even a conversation, but the concern, about the well-being of others will be more and more vital.
Building on that, how do you think about ethical design given the different stakeholders you’ve discussed?
I think being a designer is being faced with constant ethical questions to the point where I think that some of the questions we are facing in our work like Oltre Terra, they would not be what they are if we were not designers in the first place. I would say that a lot of our practice is continuously facing the possibilities and the problems of being a designer, also on an ethical level. To give you an example, the profession of design sits between industrial processes and artisan processes; it fits between commercial and economic accumulation and social and ecological justice. I would almost say that it is contradictory. Design is a contradictory discipline. Nevertheless, it is because of this complexity that we find design so interesting.
Do you feel like there’s a misconception that the final output in the field of design is always a tangible item or space? How do you think about the output of design and what the limits of design can be?
In terms of outputs, I think there are limits that are inherent to the discipline, but not the output. So what I think is a limitation is that even institutions are very often focusing on design collaborations based on objects. If an institution has a collection of furniture, for instance, we’ll often address our practice through that lens. So for instance, when we developed Oltre Terra and Cambio, which is a project we did at Serpentine Gallery a few years ago, we weren’t asked to produce objects, but have the freedom to use the museum and exhibition to add a design discourse. It doesn’t mean that what we’re doing is not art because it isn’t objects. I think we can also recognize that exhibition-making is a format, which doesn’t exist only in the art world. Many designers before, have used multiple mediums and formats to express their ideas and establish a discourse within the design discipline, which is what we’re trying to do when we work with institutions on shows, like Oltre Terra.
What is this process like of moving from investigation and exhibition to applying it to a real-world case study?
Whenever we develop a project in a museum, we always hope that its impact will be extended beyond the space of the museum. Maybe we should think of a different word than exhibition, because exhibition, at least in the way we are used to conceive of it, is sort of a moment of conclusion, a moment of wrapping up and presenting. You can also consider the exhibition as a starting point.
Written By Bennett DiDonna