A/D/O by MINI | Studio Ossidiana: The Secret Life of Things

Journal

Installations

Studio Ossidiana: The Secret Life of Things

In their families of intriguing objects, Studio Ossidiana’s Alessandra Covini and Giovanni Bellotti explore cultural concepts and material richness.

From a fairytale landscape of floating islands as a redevelopment project for an industrial corner of Amsterdam, to an abstracted concrete “garden” inspired by Persian carpets, Rotterdam-based Studio Ossidiana has a knack for creating the unexpected. 

The studio’s projects are scenographies, entire ecosystems of elements that use custom materials and a rigorous conceptual foundation to playful and poetic effect. Sometimes, you can walk through them, as in the grand parade of Paper Gardens in Milan’s Villa Necchi Campiglio during this year’s Salone del Mobile. Other times, they invite you instead to take a bird’s eye view, as with the intriguing miniaturized elements comprising Amsterdam Allegories, which won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 2019 for its lyrical suggestion of alternative urban realities. 

Studio Ossidiana's Paper Gardens was installed at Villa Necchi Campiglio. Photo by Altopiano.
Photo by Federico Ciamei.

Whatever the scale, Studio Ossidiana’s work is always visually stunning and deeply grounded both in materials research and cultural narratives. “We have an ongoing fascination with crafted objects that tell stories and with the transformation of materials into architecture,” studio co-founder Alessandra Covini told The Journal. 

Like her partner, Giovanni Bellotti, she is Italian; however, the two met in the Netherlands while studying at TU Delft. They began working together, long distance, at the end of 2017, when Bellotti was completing a postgraduate course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Their first collaboration, a competition for a playground, has become their first permanent built project. Due to be completed later this year, the Kees Valkenstein School playground in Vleuten is a child-scale landscape of undulating forms, inviting kids to explore it on their own terms.

A playground at Kees Valkenstein School will become the studio's first permanent built project.

Within the simple forms of the playground there is a rich materiality. Covini and Bellotti developed this by making the playground in miniature, using plaster to simulate the concrete-casting process and devising a range of tactile experiences by inventing various formulations, mixing in sand, stones and pigments to create a richly multi-textured environment. The result is totally at odds with typical expectations of concrete, the experimental potential of which, in Covini and Bellotti’s view, has been sadly underrated.

Winning the playground competition proved that Studio Ossidiana was on the right track regarding its working method, which relies on making ensembles of small pieces that may or may not become full-scale creations. “We make small objects to tell a story,” said Bellotti. “What should we call these objects? They are not really architectural models; they communicate with you. We use them for projects that will be built, and for the ones that won’t; they are a tool, yet they are also the result in their own right.”

For Petrified Carpets, the duo experimented with concrete to create unexpected colors and textures.

The objects are about materiality more than form; materials, in Studio Ossidiana’s work, determine architecture. That the office name is itself derived from a material – the volcanic stone obsidian – is a clue to Covini and Belotti’s metamorphic ambitions. “We find materials research really exciting,” said Covini. “Not for its own sake, but as it is carried out through our projects. In them, we are looking at ways to broaden our agency as designers – not necessarily to produce everything ourselves, although we are very hands-on, but to fully address the material culture of objects.” 

An example of this approach is their collaboration with high-end prefabricated concrete manufacturer Hurks Prefabbeton, which resulted in the surprising diversity of concrete objects that feature in Petrified Carpets. In this installation, inspired by Covini’s time working on a graduate project in Istanbul, a group of concrete architectural objects reinterprets the ideal garden represented by Persian carpets. Carpet design elements such as the frame and central medallion – themselves schematic references to garden borders and fountains – are translated into tactile concrete forms born from experiments with casting, color, and texture.

Animal Encounters explores how architecture might mediate between humans and other creatures.

Now Covini is set to return to Istanbul with Bellotti and a new project for the city’s Design Biennial – an installation along the lines of Amsterdam Allegories, with its dreamlike vision of urban public space, this time applied to the Prinseneiland area. Also in Turkey, they are due to complete a project for bird-friendly nesting shelters for geese, using three different kinds of brick for tactile effect, for a Turkish artist and progressive organic farmer.

The geese huts tie in with Animal Encounters, their installation currently on show at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, which is based on Bellotti’s MIT research. Animal Encounters explores how architecture might mediate between humans and other creatures, reforming their relationship by rethinking the typology of the cage. Evocative objects are combined with eloquent text explanations exploring the boundaries between human and non-human.

Firedune, an artificial sand dune for a public beach in Almere, could form a venue for barbecues.

Covini and Bellotti put considerable effort into their accompanying text explanations, which are in fact the foundation of their work. “The story always come first for us,” Bellotti said. “By story, we mean the ideas. They guide the design. All our projects are born of this kind of conversation about how people behave. Sometimes we are quick to arrive at an idea, sometimes not.”

In Firedune, the pair set out to create an artificial sand dune for a public beach in Almere, placing four fireplaces inside it for different purposes, from a private barbecue to a public party: “We always base the concept on what people do; in this case, we know they like sitting around a fire,” Bellotti continued. Firedune may be built next year, and if so, it will be the first constructed version of the kind of concept behind Amsterdam Allegories: a new kind of public space that invites a fresh kind of urban interaction – an adult version of the playground, if you like.

Amsterdam Allegories suggests an urban reality using miniaturized elements. Photos by Kyoungtae Kim.

Asked what their ideal project would be, the pair come up with progressed versions of what they are already doing. “An aviary!” said Covini. “We want to rethink it the way that Animal Encounters rethinks the cage. And then new kinds of public spaces – possibly floating ones, as we imagined in Amsterdam Allegories. Finally, playgrounds – we really enjoy working on this scale, making abstract shapes and creating worlds to explore materiality and encounter others, connecting people with people.”

Joining materiality and urban connections is Studio Ossidiana’s unique gift. ““We arrived in a similar place having taken different roads,” said Bellotti. “Alessandra had been working on material culture, and my background was more in urban narratives. We share certain fascinations, and somehow that crystallized into making things together. Actually, we’re better together – I’m not quite sure of the chemistry, but we bring something to each other.”

Studio Ossidiana’s Animal Encounters is on view at the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam until January 26, 2020.

Text by Jane Szita.

Images courtesy of Studio Ossidiana. Main photo by Vincenzo Lombardo.