Ethical practice.

Taking root in the present to observe – and love – what is happening.

— 31 Mar, 2020 —
Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, credit Renee de Grot
Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, credit Renee de Grot

Studio Formafantasma was founded by Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, two Italian designers who live and work in Amsterdam. Their method experiments with ever-changing codes and approaches to explore themes such as the relationship between local cultures and traditions or the meaning of objects as cultural channels, developing a contemporary critique to sustainability and production. They have collaborated with many international companies and galleries, as well as with prestigious cultural institutions, universities and academies; they coordinate the MADE program in Syracuse, Italy and the master in Geo-Design that will start in September at the Design Academy in Eindhoven. Their latest work launched on 4 March 2020: the Cambio exhibition held at London’s Serpentine Gallery, which offers a complex exploration of the mechanisms, history and impacts of the wood industry.

[The exhibition is currently closed, but accessible online at Cambio; interviews about it are also posted on the studio’s Instagram profile, within the Antenna Fantasma series.] / in conversation with Sara Fortunati, director of Turin's Circolo del Design, ed Elisabetta Donati de Conti, author and curator.

Sara: What is your biggest worry right now?

Formafantasma: We are worried about what will happen, or might happen, to the European Union and about what is happening in Italy, because the pandemic is bringing up serious issues that have remained unresolved for over a century – such as the gap between North and South or the presence of different mafias, which unfortunately take advantage of any difficult situation. However, every day we also notice there are extremely encouraging signs of social cohesion, which prove that people respond positively if the government is able to point them in the right direction.

Sara: The cohesion we feel in this moment seems like a unique opportunity in history: individual actions rarely generate relevant change, but today good political measures might find the right context to take root at the collective level.

Formafantasma: We hope so. We hope the situation is not exploited and politicized – as some have already tried to do – and that the pandemic can clearly prove that we can only face problems together. We hope anyone who can be a role model will cultivate and fuel this spirit.

Elisabetta: Cambio opens up to an analysis of the relationship between man and other living species, which is in part relevant to the current situation. What are your thoughts, as you shift from the reality we were completely immersed in to the new reality we live today?

Formafantasma: It was a pleasant and terrible crash at the same time. After working so hard and having the exhibition open for two weeks before it suddenly closed, the feeling of alienation went beyond the experience of the pandemic. We are obviously very sad about it, but it is such a small event compared to the huge changes we are witnessing. Luckily, our work for Cambio – which is an exhibition not only about products but also about ideas, which always have to be shared – was already available also through the catalog and the online version of the exhibition. Now we are reflecting on the future of our work, and we clearly see how some things are suddenly becoming meaningless. For example, we are cancelling some lectures that would require long travels in the next few months, because we won’t be able to just go back to our lives as if nothing happened. We will create content specifically for those events, and we will try to imagine other ways that we can respond to new needs without completely eliminating physical presence, which would be neither feasible nor wise.

Elisabetta: How will this moment sediment?

Formafantasma: Like all historic events, there will certainly be a phase in which we process everything and will have to re-read and re-write the stories emerging now. At the moment, micro-communities are trying to give this experience a positive meaning, trying to turn tragedy into a sort of moral allegory. This might not be possible, because the economic practices we live in are far more pervasive than the virus, and this is what scares us the most. We know very well that there will be an attempt to turn the economy and its structure right back to what it was, using the same recipes. Like everyone else we hope the economy will recover – but we also hope it can do so within a framework of awareness and understanding of the reasons that got us into this situation, with a strong focus on environmental issues.

Sara: Your work for Cambio gives a holistic interpretation of design – of which there are traces also in other aspects of your work. By embracing many disciplines and subjects, some of them difficult and complex, a broader vision for design can be defined. Ellen MacArthur, for example, says that design is at the heart of the circular economy; that is the reason why her namesake foundation invests in creating a fertile debate for the promotion of this approach. What role do you think design and designers can play, in these complex times?

Formafantasma: Every designer should find his or her own way. We don’t think ours is the only way to see design: it’s just the way we are interested in and what we know how to do or, to be more precise, what we are learning to do. The best way to answer this question is by explaining how we came to work in the way we do, and why we have come to our conclusions and are moving in a certain direction: we reflected on the ethical implications of design, and really tried to understand what its role is. In this sense, design is not the practice of technically drawing an object but a broader discipline; it’s the human drive to shape the world. We began critically observing this drive and noticed the limits of design’s deeply pragmatic and positivist approach, which sees efficiency – for example in the use of resources and in its ties to industrial manufacturing – as the culmination of a designer’s ability to increase wellbeing. However, this approach is inevitably connected directly to what has led to the climatic crisis we live in, of which the Covid-19 is probably a sign.

After the Second World War, design contributed to rebuild Europe and countries in the rest of the world by bringing wellbeing to people; the attitude has changed over time, and design has become an instrument in the hands of economic growth, which uses it to take raw matter and turn it into desirable products. With our work, we strive to understand the hidden implications of design by wondering – for example – if and how it might contribute to the overhaul of the production chain. In the case of the wood industry, which we analyzed at the Serpentine Gallery, this entailed trying to understand what kind of industry we are supporting when we decide to work with wood. That doesn’t mean we will never use wood anymore or will always work only in a sustainable way, because that is not completely feasible at the moment, especially when working with other realities. This dichotomy – supporting an economic system you don't fully share on the one hand and being aware that you have always been part of it on the other – generates a quite complex situation and here lies our challenge as designers. However, instead of seeing the negative aspects of the position we are in, we try to balance commercial work with other projects like Cambio: by managing our studio at the crossroads of these two opposite models, over time we will find ways to transform our “industrial” practice into an ethical one.

Sara: Setting up an exhibition to tackle all these issues requires not only that you carry out research, but also that you pursue the goal of raising and spreading awareness. You are also very active in the field of education, with your master in Geo-Design soon starting at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, and this ties in perfectly into your approach.

Formafantasma: Our interest for education is part of an evolution in which, once we noticed the limits of the discipline and everyday work, we also tried to figure out where design might go from here. For the first two trimesters, our exhibition in London will provide the Geo-Design course with a theoretical structure as well as a digest of information that students can access, make their own, develop, enrich through further research, critique and discuss, trying to define new transformative proposals. With this master, we want to build critical mass within the department and suggest design activities that will not necessarily aspire to change the world, but can develop on different scales: from product, to strategy to – why not? – semi-philosophical visions. So, if we focus on a hyper-object like the wood industry, students’ actions around it can be like acupuncture on a sick body and have a restorative effect, like Paola Antonelli suggested in Broken Nature. Our goal is not to affirm that design can do anything on its own: even in Cambio we decided to invite other professionals to take part in the exhibition to try and convey the idea that design, as a way of thinking and working, can be useful in other fields too.

Outside Studio Formafantasma's window
Outside Studio Formafantasma's window

Elisabetta: One of the things design does is imagine what doesn’t exist yet, but it usually has tracks to follow, limits, or very specific aims to achieve. In this period, and perhaps already in the past decade, a new question has come up: is designing in uncertainty possible? Should we prepare ourselves better to constantly lay new foundations for our thinking?

Formafantasma: Donna Haraway explains this aspect of contemporary life very well in her book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chululucene. Right now, we can neither be catastrophists and think it’s too late nor deny what is happening. What we should do is learn to love the monsters around us, and the mud we are immersed in, which means reacting to what exists here and now. However, we must be careful because being rooted in the present does not mean giving up a holistic view. In fact, it’s the opposite: the more we can observe phenomena on the macroscopic level, the better we can structure a long-term response to problems. For example, we have noticed that the stratification of problems the pandemic generates reveals where we have not acted in a systematic and coherent way, like in the very first we made about the Italian case. Instead, if we learn to see phenomena in a more interconnected way, we will inevitably be able to suggest strategies or solutions that can contribute to a more coherent response, even in times of difficulties. In this perspective, the storytelling of the climatic emergency should be analyzed, discovered and loved. If it’s true that ideologies have fallen, as many claim, then we could build new ones around the environmental crisis. We are deeply convinced that the terrible times we are living in can give us the opportunity to build a truly new vision beyond modernity, while maintaining modern knowledge and attitude, as we overcome the obstacles that force us to stay in a constant post-modern phase.

Elisabetta: One of the things you have stressed is, unfortunately, how little science has able to communicate itself in the past few years, and how much the scientific community struggles to explain what is happening to the world today. Do you think you will focus your efforts more and more in this interdisciplinary direction?

Formafantasma: We can answer with more examples from our recent experience with Cambio. While studying for the exhibition, we went through a lot of scientific publications, and what stood out was the fact the scientific method offers great opportunities – as long as it works within the very strict limitations that are part of how the method itself works. Scientists cannot include their opinions in their published work: they have to be impartial and show data and information. But when we start a conversation with them, we give them the freedom to make connections and comparisons with other disciplines. The scientific method’s great limit lies exactly in the impossibility to communicate scientists’ most human side, which lets opinions, feelings, nuances and their non-scientific thoughts show. For example, we talked to Philipp Pattberg from the Amsterdam University, who works on the governance of natural elements in the Anthropocene – transnational forests, lakes and rivers. Working together, we gave him the chance to speculate and try to come up with a different way to tackle forest governance at a global level: something that has never been achieved, due to the political tensions between the North and the South of the world. This was an interesting exercise for him, but also highlighted how hard it was for a very intelligent and professional person to work speculatively. It helped us understand how many limitations there are at all decision levels, in terms of both feeling free to imagine and imagining the impossible. This becomes a limit especially when we are tasked with rebuilding the world, because we need to use imagination in that and creating these relationships is important. We must consider this a deeply naive thought: we don’t have any answers, only the feeling we are at the beginning of a journey that should be protected in some way, nourished, and that we hope will give results as soon as possible.