In conversation with Gea Politi and Cristiano Seganfreddo
Formafantasma is not an ordinary design firm. The brainchild of two Amsterdam-based Italians, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, the research-driven practice interrogates what we think we know about design. They analyze the way humans do things. They look into the past to find new paths forward. They propose change. Or else. And change—Cambio—is the subject of their solo exhibition at London’s Serpentine Galleries, which reopens on September 29. In it, they explore the global timber industry, examining how wood is grown, sourced, and used worldwide, and showing viewers that in these times, ‘there are many things we can work on’. Here, we excerpt a conversation between Formafantasma and Gea Politi and Cristiano Seganfreddo of Italian publishing group CGPS, originally printed (on certified paper that doesn’t use protected tree species) in Flash Art
CGPS: ‘I’ve taken it as a rule to always proceed from what is known to what is unknown, and to never make a deduction that doesn’t follow directly from experiments and observation.’ Your work progresses through experimentation, a bit like seventeenth-century scientists in search of new truths that are both hidden and evident in nature, a way of learning by producing results that develop from an initial idea. Tell us about your experimental method and how it has developed in the last ten years of research.
FORMAFANTASMA: When we began, our approach was more intuitive and less programmatic. Our first works were the most introspective. We tried to identify what interested us the most within design, understand its clichés, and where we could expand our vision. The topics that interest us were already all there, as was our observation of the dynamics of doing a project in the most holistic way. Recently with our less commercial works such as Ore Streams (2017–2019) and Cambio (2020), we have tried to be more radical.
CGPS: Let’s talk about Cambio. The project is also the title of the exhibition at the Serpentine, and it is in Italian. Why did you decide to keep it like that? Is it tied to your mother tongue or are there other reasons behind this choice? The word cambio implies a clear action: change. In the installation presented at the Serpentine is
FORMAFANTASMA: Cambio has a dual meaning. In Italian, cambio (from the Latin cambium) is a tissue layer in trees found between the bark and the internal body. This very thin layer is fundamental because, in addition to other tasks, it is responsible for communication between the interior and exterior of the tree. When plants emerged from the water, after creating the atmosphere millions of years ago, they experienced different stresses due to climate change and needed some protection to survive. The cambium facilitated this process of transformation and helped them become trees, producing a true biological armour: wood. We preferred to use the Italian term rather than the Latin one because we didn’t want to suggest the immediate connection with the scientific world, but rather orient ourselves on a more humanistic level, which suggests just that, a moment of transition and change, which is what we hope for.
CGPS: A project like Cambio certainly entails a team of researchers and designers. Was it one of the first projects to be organized like this?
FORMAFANTASMA: When we met with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rebecca Lewin about doing a show at the Serpentine, what seemed most interesting to us was that the request was not to think about a retrospective, but to show — as Kostantin Grcic and Martino Gamper did — a way of viewing design, like a sort of manifesto. Product design in this sense is not fundamental. Starting with these assumptions, we understood the exhibition not like the final phase of a path, but rather like its beginning. So we were interested in focusing on the research phase, in this case a hyper-object like the wood and logging industry. In reality, the structure is similar to what we used with Ore Streams (which was commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne). The basic difference is that in that case we had limits, or rather a more specific commission. We were asked to design furniture related to the recycling of electronic waste. This was because the museum had begun a collection tied to the design of mobile phones and wanted to ensure that our work responded to that need. An institution like the Serpentine, which works more like a Kunsthalle, in the sense that it doesn’t have a permanent collection, allowed us to go beyond the product itself. The exhibition tries to expand the usual circle of conversations about design, so the project includes research by different professionals dealing with the discipline, such as dendroclimatology, wood anatomy, conservation, philosophy, activism, and governance policies. So in reality we are the only designers, but many other people helped us build a more holistic vision of design and the knowledge necessary to develop ecologically responsible strategies.
CGPS: The exhibition is a trip through a process to raise awareness about how urgent it is today to change the way our society operates. How much do the critical part and finding a solution influence your path?
FORMAFANTASMA: The critical part is certainly present and fundamental. More or less explicitly, though, the exhibition offers points for reflection and questions that suggest possible, more transformative paths. For example, with Cambio we are dealing with the complex link between the acceleration of production, the natural time it takes trees to grow, and the cycle of CO2 absorption. These considerations can offer interesting but radical starting points, proposals, or considerations about the life cycle of products as well as the need for greater transparency in the supply and
CGPS: You have reflected at length about how to proceed in terms of the exhibition’s production, from the book to the realization of each room, to impacting the environment as little as possible, to generating awareness about the costly means of designing exhibitions in the past. Do you think you have been successful in this? How have you managed to avoid unnecessary waste?
FORMAFANTASMA: Yes, the exhibition also works on a meta-level. First of all, we limited ourselves to leaving the gallery walls white and not building any added partition that wasn’t strictly necessary. For example, we had to build a wall at the entrance to limit the light entering so we could project a video. All the supports we designed to exhibit the various content were also not pedestals, but real objects like tables and shelves. We didn’t want the design to suggest an idea of temporariness, as if they were worthless elements left over from an exhibition. The pieces are clearly designed to have a life beyond this one. We also wanted the wood used to somehow be meaningful, so we chose to work with Norway spruce from the Val di Fiemme. About a year ago, due to climate change, a storm destroyed 13,000,000 trees there. The risk is that the rest of the forest becomes contaminated with bacteria from the trees, which will inevitably rot if not collected. Spruce wood is not a material adapted to furniture construction because it is very soft and catches fire easily. So we treated it with a finish similar to what is used for musical instruments, which makes the surface more resistant. While the scale is laughable, choices like this hold a precise value for us in our process, which distances itself from exclusively formal choices. The same is true for the catalogue, which is obviously made with certified paper that doesn’t contain traces of protected
CGPS: Your actions seem to proceed with systematic willpower. You use cross-disciplinary, authoritative, and unexpected sources and research, like an always in-progress catalogue, that reflects the variety of ideas and skills, to create what you define a ‘conceptual umbrella’. Cambio is the beginning of another phase of investigation. Where does this continuous change take you now?
FORMAFANTASMA: Some of the content in Cambio will continue on the educational level within the master’s degree that we are going to teach starting in September 2020 at Design Academy Eindhoven. If Cambio now looks at the macro dynamics that govern the wood industry, the next step will be to focus on more specific case studies. We will shift from the macro scale to the micro scale. We would like, for example, not only to transform part of the content developed into a compendium for the master’s degree, but also work with a furniture or semifinished products company.
CGPS: You love to work with, and on, apparently marginal aspects, marginal given both the topic and latitude. You fly to different parts of the world to find communities and practices that have settled over time which are often unknown and forgotten. Tell us a bit about the unexpected encounters of this change in your inquiries.
FORMAFANTASMA: To tell the truth, we have flown as little as possible. Simon, for example, who works with us, is from Colombia. He managed the contacts with the Gaia Amazonas Foundation, which helps indigenous Colombians trace out their territory to provide data that can be translated into legal action to ensure that the part of the Amazon where they live is not deforested. Simon flew only once to Colombia. All the other conversations were held via Skype or WhatsApp, both regarding this part of the exhibition and for everything else. For the exhibition, we worked with the Thunen Institute in Germany, Kew Gardens, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the European Investigative Agency of London, a scholar of wood evolution, and people involved in the construction of governance tied to natural elements such as forests. It’s a very long list. More than unexpected, all these encounters were strongly desired and sought out. The most intense part of the exhibition was this: interweaving relationships.
CGPS: Even the large financial funds talk about ESG — Environmental, Social, and Governance — for their investments today. Are these just trends or true changes
FORMAFANTASMA: Design has a political role and this is inevitable, because it is often used as a tool of economic expansion. Giving shape to the world also and especially means choosing the policies.
‘Cambio’, the solo exhibition by Formafantasma, is showing at the Serpentine Galleries in London from 29 September 2020.
Gea Politi is Publisher and Editor in Chief of Flash Art. Cristiano Seganfreddo is Publisher of Flash Art.