``Still, nowadays, there is a misconception that sees nature and culture as polarized ideas. In fact, especially in Italy, the landscape is a real work of design: it is a human artefact.``
Founded by Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi, Formafantasma is the Amsterdam-based design studio that works to facilitate a deeper understanding of both our natural and built environments. The duo met in Florence during their studies and through their multi-disciplinary, hypothesis-driven approach to design they have established an internationally renowned practice that embraces a broad spectrum of outlets. From product design through spatial design, strategic planning and design consultancy, their work has been featured at the MoMA, Victoria & Albert Museum and Triennale among others.
In May 2021 at the Centro Pecci in Prato, Formafantasma will present the second instalment of their latest investigative project Cambio. Following the first iteration at the Serpentine Galleries in London, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Cambio is an ongoing inquiry conducted by Formafantasma into the governance of the timber industry. Having pursued their studies in the city, the duo has returned to Florence, at Numeroventi, to take time to expand the scope of Cambio by placing a focus on the forest of Vallombrosa.
Numeroventi: What were some of the core ideals and hopes that moved you to establish Formafantasma in 2009?
Formafantasma: the decision to establish our own studio was moved by the intuitive awareness that we could have never work for somebody else. We knew we had our own ideas, and we wanted to commit to these ideas. We have never seen design as a discipline only about form and industrial production, rather about anthropology, economics, social and environmental justice. These were the reasons we decided to start Formafantasma
N: For the Tuscan iteration of Cambio there’s a particular focus on the forest of Vallombrosa—what do you hope the takeaway of this investigation to be in the context of the exhibition? What are some of the other inspirations for the show?
F: The exhibition was initially conceived for Serpentine Galleries in London. When thinking about the show travelling, we decided to make sure the exhibition was not just a copy-paste of ideas from one place to another. Considering how the show is exploring the timber industry’s governance, for the installation in Tuscany, we looked into forestry in the area. Still, nowadays, there is a misconception that sees nature and culture as polarized ideas. In fact, especially in Italy, the landscape is a real work of design: it is a human artefact. More specifically, we looked into the cultivation of White fir in Vallombrosa. Many of the buildings in Florence, such as the Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio, are constructed thanks to these trees. The expansion of the urban city centre was directly connected to the development of the intensive cultivation of trees. We did a show focusing on these issues because we believe that only by investigating the forces that shape the infrastructure of extraction, refinement and distribution of goods and materials we can, as designers start developing real ecological thinking.
N: Florence was the city where you studied and already spent some time in the initial stages of your practice—what did it feel like to return and how has your stay at Numeroventi helped to further inform your current research?
F: Florence feels like home. We love it and hate it at the same time precisely as when coming back to the place where you spent your youth. The stay at Numeroventi helped us in re-connecting in the best way possible to the city centre. While on an architectural level, downtown Florence is impressive, it is also equally disrupted by tourism. Numeroventi elevates hospitality because it is at the same time about hosting visitors but also facilitating the creating of contemporary culture in the city centre with the residency program. We felt like coming back home while taking with us our studio and our practice—it does not get better then that.
N: Alberi In-Versi, an exhibition dedicated to Giuseppe Penone’s affinity to the ecological aspects of art will be on view at the Uffizi Galleries through the summer. Has Penone’s inquiry of trees also inspired your investigative approach to Cambio? How do you think Alberi In-Versi and Cambio will communicate between one another in the environmental awareness discourse?
F: That’s an interesting question! For the expansion of the exhibition at the Pecci Museum, we also include one of Penone’s works. We still remember when we saw one of his sculptures at Castello di Rivoli, probably almost 20 years ago. His work definitely was very formative for us.
N: Milan will be the backdrop for one of your latest projects, as you are planning to build your personal residence—how is your design process going to change when you are both the designer and customer?
F: It’s just much more intuitive and quick, in a way less idealistic.
N: You were recently appointed MA Heads of the GEO-Design Department at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, has your teaching role enabled you to access a new layer of complexity in your work?
F: Yes absolutely. Teaching is a way to be more radical, extend ideas beyond personal ego, and make sure that positive change becomes multi-generational. Education is about making idealistic choices—thinking beyond the market.
N: Living in a society that runs on militant, image-heavy marketing opportunities, how can one navigate the nuances of greenwashing towards a more conscious and conscientious approach to sustainability?
F: This is such an important point but equally slippery. We recently talked to a company, and they described ecology as a trend! The worst. On the other side, even if it sounds almost impossible to believe, their hearts were in the right place. Many projects are greenwashing, but most are derivative of pure ignorance of what real commitment to ecology entails. This is why many of our most radical and research-based works are self-initiated. It is almost impossible to have an in-depth conversation about ecology with many of the clients we encountered in the years. On the other side, some are also committed and understands the challenge. The best way is to be critical, focus on a few producers you like, and ask questions. Online activism isn’t really working.
N: What are some of the books you recently read in the lead up to the Pecci exhibition that you feel like recommending.
F: We would suggest La Storia del Bosco by Mauro Agnoletti, a fantastic historical investigation on the development of forests in Italy, obviously Emanuele Coccia’s books and Non-extractive Architecture by Space Caviar.
N: How do you see Formafantasma evolve in the next five years.
F: 5 years is too little to plan! At leads 10. We know its sounds like a paradox, but we would like to become more radical with our independent works and more commercial with the others. One feeds the other on all levels.
Formafantasma is a research-based design studio investigating the ecological, historical, political and social forces shaping the discipline of design today. Whether designing for a client or developing self – initiated projects, the studio applies the same rigorous attention to context, processes and details. Formafantasma’s analytical nature translates in meticulous visual outcomes, products and strategies.
CAMBIO is on view at Centro Pecci in Prato through 24 October 2021.
Photos: Martino di Napoli Rampolla
Words: Carlotta Maneschi