The designers Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin – who operate under the name Formafantasma – have seized every opportunity to confront the ecological and political responsibilities of their discipline. In the last decade, their research based practice has often called on materials that remind us of our precarious place in the world: lava and volcanic ash, animal bladders. Charcoal. Wood. A fortnight before the UK lockdown was announced, the pair opened Cambio at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery – a tender show that lays their ongoing investigations into the governance of the timber industry bare. Behind the gallery’s now bolted door is an archive of rare hardwoods first exhibited in the Great Exhibition of 1851 gathering dust; the devices spewing an aroma of wet forest earth have been switched off for well over a month. The show lives on as an orgy of pixels online. A world on lockdown is a world full of questions. What do Formafantasma do now?
Dal Chodha: After months of panic, artists and designers are beginning to accept COVID-19 as a chance to rewire the impulse to keep making more things out of habit. How are you feeling about the show closing so soon?
At the start, when we were discussing the idea with Hans-Ulrich and the curatorial team, they brought up the fact that all of our work is always in conversation or collaboration so we saw the exhibition as the beginning of an outcome rather than the outcome itself. It was never meant to be this grand moment where we were showing something finished – there’s always potential for re-view. It doesn’t really feel closed.
DC: I’m interested in how lockdown has thrown this idea of ‘access’ into focus. It’s something that’s talked about a lot in other fields like education, health and social care, but design and art still exist within a bubble.
SF: We were thinking about Cambio as something that would serve different purposes. We knew we wanted to turn it into a compendium of knowledge for the beginning of our GEO-Design course at the Design Academy of Eindhoven, which starts in September. Accessibility has always been super important to us.
Andrea Trimarchi: I really love the fact that Instagram was just used for entertainment before this and now it’s a space for conversation. I like this idea of tools that are adapting and becoming less superficial, less shallow. Before this, most museums and institutions were only using digital platforms to showcase what they were doing. They weren’t engaging us. But now, all of them are willing to discuss ideas with everybody.
SF: The most traditional designers rely on reaching people through quantity and the possibilities of industrial repetition. We don’t see it like that. This generation has seen the failure of that kind of thinking! Our work is much more about the distribution of ideas and questions. Design has to have something to say.
AT: In the 1960s design was much more political and designers weren’t afraid to take on bigger issues, but that was all pushed aside in the eighties and lead us to the way we live now. It’s rare to find product designers working in the last 20 years who address overtly political or social themes with their work.
SF: How can we address consumerist attitudes whilst making more things? This dilemma was there even for the Bauhaus. Designers are seen as extremely powerful in improving the lives of people but equally important as tools for supporting economic expansion. Our critical position came because of the discipline of design. What you are asked – and what we have been trained to do – as product designers is transform materials into desirable products. But in order to do that you have to have a position on ethics because you’re always addressing how we can improve the lives of people. We forgot about questions like this over time.
DC: It’s easier to interrogate that when design is placed within the walls of an art gallery, away from the buzz of the shop floor or the mess of home. Is this why you wanted to work within that setting?
AT: You have more freedom to address certain questions but, in a way, what we’re aspiring to do is infiltrate all the sectors and have the same conversations using different words, across institutions, galleries and industrial production.
SF: The museums and institutions that deal with design should stop focusing on product and concentrate more on ideas. Isn’t it funny that a lot artists struggle with the white cube scenario because it’s so removed from the world, but design is so much in the world that you need space around it to understand the other layers of meaning. It’s interesting how there are opposite problems in design and art.
DC: I have always taken Jeff Koons as a product designer because of the way he creates multiples of things as if factory-made. Do you think that a lot of product designers mistake themselves for artists? We’re living in this multi-hyphenate world where we are encouraged to align ourselves to many disciplines. Be the jack of all trades and master of some.
SF: A lot of design people think that our work is closer to art, which we don’t agree. We are designers, it’s just that we don’t think we should necessarily develop product every time we do a show. Our work always relates back to the discipline of design in terms of the impact of production and making or the significance of objects into wider contexts. Even museums that deal with design struggle with this. We’ve often been asked to finalise our research into furniture pieces because the museum that was commissioning the work was collecting furniture. There is this difficulty with how our work can be conserved in museums. If we hadn’t designed furniture in the past, some of our ideas would never have been part museum collections. Any institution that is essentially focused on applied arts still needs the ideas translated into an object. A physical thing.
DC: Your resistance to that is what’s exciting about what you do. At the same time, self-isolation has re-calibrated how we experience the world via Instagram live poetry readings, leisurely cooking podcasts and audaciously cute mammalian snapchat filters. Suddenly, too much world is available. None of it is tangible. Nothing feels real. Do you think this idea of owning or having physical objects will remain important?
SF: When we opened the exhibition at the Serpentine, the people coming in the first few days were young designers, students – we realised that there are people looking for a new direction. Over the years we have been asked to work with big commercial design companies but often the conversation is very shallow and so we’ve been guided by the relevance to what we do. When we work with commercial companies, it’s either because we believe we can still do something interesting or it is viable for the running of our studio.
AT: We’re a commercial practice that is interested in doing non-commercial work. That tension motivates us. The kind of questions we are trying to answer are rooted in the reality of running a studio.
DC: Everyone is desperately searching for meaning right now – everybody is asking the questions that maybe you’ve been asking for the last decade. We’re all catching up.
AT: It’s about time! It’s true that we were preaching certain ideas but sometimes we were not applying them. Like travel, we were doing too much before and the virus is giving us the good excuse not to, to save energy and time. To say no. We’ve already been asked to attend lectures abroad in October and it’s so strange. I mean, are we learning anything or not?
DC: Has this situation changed how you feel about materials. Your work raises ethical questions for example in Cambio you talk about ‘trees with human rights’ and ‘trees as labourers’. A lot of your work is about earthly matter…
SF: It’s difficult to say how this situation is affecting us because we don’t know yet. Nobody knows. We’re still interested in natural materiality but it was always an intuitive and instinctive search for something more sustainable. We were drawn to those natural materials because of what they communicate. The ecological issue for us is the umbrella under which design can address many things. Design has focused forever on thinking that, at its best, it serves the needs of humans to improve their lives. What the show does is think about the needs of non-humans, other species that we share the planet with. That’s something we have underestimated for a long time.