A/D/O | Formafantasma shifts focus

Formafantasma shifts focus

Designers Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi are now taking an anti-anthropocentric approach to their work.

It’s not that Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi – the Italian-born, Netherlands-based duo behind the design studio Formafantasma – are anti-futurists per se. It’s just that, “If we’d been born a long time ago, we probably would be modernists,” says Farresin. The self-proclaimed extrovert of the pair, Farresin sees futurism in design as a two-pronged obsession: a market-driven preoccupation with the “next big thing” and a race to reach a future that may never happen because, “[We] know we are crushing the planet.”

For Formafantasma, looking to the past for insight on modes of durability and sustainability, is the more useful process. Their projects like Baked (2009), Autarchy (2010), and Botanica (2011), all reflect that mentality, with natural and biodegradable substances serving as the foundational material for their designs. With Baked and Autarchy, flour, coffee, cocoa, spices, salt, beets, spinach, cinnamon – all kitchen-pantry provisions – are used to shape functional vessels and earthenware-like objects. And with Botanica, polymers derived from plants and animal products, rather than plastics, comprise the vessels’ raw material. In a similar vein, the studio’s Still (2014) series, a do-it-yourself water-purification set made of copper, charcoal, and crystal, melds a contemporary sensibility for natural filtration with a sleek update on fine, old-world crystalware – an homage to J&L Lobmeyr’s candy dishes and Hans Herald Rath’s 1920s-era drinking cups.

Trimarchi and Farresin take no premise for granted when they begin a project. Objects have a life outside of their visible function and contain tangles of histories and ecologies. The duo also view their role as designers critically; incorporating or unpacking the politics of design – and the subjectivity of the designer – has always been an integral part of their process, says Farresin. Overall, they want audiences “to question their position, our position, and the system of design,“ as a whole – to notice how particular economies and identities intersect with production.

Their process is unique, highly analytical, and can be strenuous, with Farresin admitting that it never really gets any easier. But, for the duo, pushing through these tough moments is crucial for creating provocative work: “I think, ‘Okay we have another 10 years and hopefully another 20 years of working.’ But there's not so much time that you have available to develop great work, and so we better challenge it. We need to see our work evolving.”

Their partnership undoubtedly helps: Farresin calls their working relationship a “constant observation in two.” Studio Formafantasma grew out of their time spent collaborating on projects both at design school in Florence and as graduate students at Design Academy Eindhoven. “Me and Andrea are also in a relationship – and the way our relationship grew, and the way our practice grew, in a way, went together. We just realized that [...] it was all about observing the world together.” As the industry changes and demands more from designers, having a business partner who has complementary skills – Trimarchi tends to be the organizer, decision-maker and writer, while Farresin is more of the ideas-generator and lecturer – can be an invaluable asset.

Both have also begun to teach more regularly, which has required some adjustment. “At the beginning, it was all about giving, which is the majority of the time, the case,” Farresin explains. “[T]here are some moments that you realize you are stressed and nervous, and you realize that’s because you demand from yourself so much, which is not even from the amount of physical work you do, but in the amount of shifting [between kinds of work].” Mentoring students can be like design speed-dating, with a maximum of 20 minutes to assess 12-15 different projects. Although, the frenetic pace can have its benefits too. Accelerating the duo’s ability to articulate ideas and critiques can be equally advantageous to their own process, like developing “an intuition,” as Farresin calls it.  

Teaching has also given them a mirror into some of the more frustrating parts of the design process, namely overcoming creative barriers. Students come to them frequently looking for advice on how to get to get unstuck. Farresin opines, “If you are any person that works creatively – if you are a writer, whatever – there are moments where you get stuck. There are different techniques, but the best is to keep on going, which means, like, being a hammer – just struggle, and then at one point, things break.”

To look at Formafantasma’s oeuvre is to see this kind of thoughtful, purposeful struggle manifest; an embodiment of their ethos to make many complex and invisible processes visible. Their ongoing Ore Streams (2017-2019) project is the most recent and perhaps most extensive example. A heavily researched, multimedia analysis of electronic waste, and the burgeoning industry surrounding it, Ore Streams exposes the cyclical, neo-colonial economic processes that produce and profit from e-waste, and details its devastating human and environmental costs. E-waste production is enabled by the widespread practice of planned obsolescence in tech, which inspires both awe and fury for Formafantasma. “The idea that you operate with the idea of making something and deciding when it’s going to expire” is confounding, says Farresin. It’s also a principle that, if problematized, can be tackled by a systemic and critical understanding of design.

Farresin elaborates: “In fact, one of the things we are suggesting, with the strategies we proposed for electronic waste, is that we should use legislation to force producers – since they know how long a product is supposed to last – to be forced to declare it, so we can make more informed choices.” The idea is gaining traction in both the EU and in several US states, and Farresin sees it as a positive indicator of how making the industry’s practices more transparent can produce good. “This is how we can do design,” he concludes, emphatically.  

Formafantasma’s recent endeavours include new lighting designs for FLOS, presented at this year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan, and a commission from the MAXXI in Rome, along with various other architectural exhibitions. Yet the project they’re most excited about is their 2020 show at the Serpentine in London, which will center on the rights and intelligence of plants and other Earth-dwelling, non-human species.

“The only relationship [humans have with other species] is one of exploitation,” Farresin adds.  “Whether it’s an animal or a plant, it is always about ‘how can we use this to fuel our own needs?’” The duo are asking themselves instead: what would it be like to design primarily for the benefit of plants and animals? At its core, the inquiry turns another fundamental premise of the industry on its head: that good design is, and necessarily should be, anthropocentric. Here, as with many of their other projects, Formafantasma shows how unravelling established epistemologies of design can reveal unforeseen alternatives to existing architectures – as if to say that, in order to fully prepare for the future, one needs to excavate the present, in all of its contingencies.