Renaissance Men

Amsterdam’s Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi of Formafantasma use basic principles to give new shape to light. darc sat down with the pair to talk about the past, present, and their big plans for the future.

“What I love about light is that it’s intangible,” says Simone Farresin of Amsterdam-based design practice Formafantasma. “Light can have such a tremendous impact on a space. Designing an object for it is interesting because it’s not really about the form of the object, but about the feeling light can create.” Fascinated with objects and the ideas they convey, Farresin founded Formafantasma, together with partner Andrea Trimarchi, in 2009 after graduating from Design Academy Eindhoven, in the Netherlands. Originally from Italy, Trimarchi and Farresin are paving the way for a new generation of philosophical designers. Their thought-provoking creations, often exhibited as humble experiments, or ‘tests’, expose the nature of things, prompting us, the collective viewer, to consider both our past and our future. From their studio in Amsterdam’s Noord district, the pair speak with poetry and passion about design and the need for progress in the field.

“I discovered design at an early age, it was something that I was always fascinated by,” Farresin tells me one early morning in January. “It was a bit different for me,” says Trimarchi, from across the table. “I come from the south of Italy, from Sicily, where there isn’t much of an interest in design,” he explains. Indeed, design schools in Sicily are extremely sparse. To study the subject, most travel north or move abroad. “There is this idea that design is only in the north, which is crazy” he adds. Out of what felt like necessity, Trimarchi left his hometown of Caltagirone to study architecture at the Istituto Superiore per le Industrie Artistiche in Florence. It would be here, amidst the masterpieces of Renaissance art, literature and culture, that the two would eventually meet.

The pair started working together, albeit on minor projects, almost immediately. “It was mostly for fun, something we did next to our studies”, explains Trimarchi. “We weren’t interested in design in the beginning, we were doing mostly graphic stuff,” adds Farresin. An affinity for design, and specifically product design, grew gradually over time, as the two got to know one another. “We’re a couple, so it happened very organically” explains Farresin. Hours outside of class was spent mostly at gallery openings and exhibitions. These early excursions proved to be profoundly formative, prompting their first dialogues about design. “We didn’t really realise we were talking about design at the time,” he says, adding that “it was through these talks that we began to see that we had a similar way of looking at the world.”

Conversation continues to play a major role both in their relationship and in their work, so much so that it’s become an integral part of the studio’s design process. “Our way of working is about discussion,” says Farresin, “it comes from words,” he adds. He explains how having shared goals and values as designers keeps them in tune, even when their opinions seem out of sync. “We can understand each other very intuitively, which helps us a lot” he says. “We never have dramatic discussions about the direction of something. The struggles we face are the usual struggles of the creative process.”

With undergraduate degrees now in hand, the pair set out to explore new design terrains, outside of their native Italy. They applied with a single portfolio to Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and much to their delight, were soon ready to enrol. “Crazily enough, we were accepted as a duo form the very beginning,” says Trimarchi. Formafantasma, which is a combination of the Italian words forma (form) and fantasma (ghost), was a name that the two concocted while still in Florence. “We chose the name really early on,” says Farresin. “The idea was totally different back then. The idea was that it’s the process that informs the form, and not the other way around, meaning that the form can change. Our work is formalised carefully, but it’s not about form. The name is pointing to that,” he explains.

To the design industry today, the name Since establishing the studio in 2009, Trimarchi, 34, and Farresin, 37, have swiftly set themselves apart with their thoughtful and eloquent creations. More than makers of beautiful things, they are provocateurs, poets, philosophers, and dare I say it, idealists. The pioneers of a modern humanist ethos, they seamlessly fuse past with present, anthropology with art, and in so doing, set the precedent for a more honest and holistic discourse around the subject of design. They do not shy away from the past, but instead embrace our collective human history as a tool for shaping progress.

“Design as a discipline is in a very peculiar spot in a chain of different elements, from economy, to politics, to social science, to the everyday,” explains Farresin. “We’re interested in that chain, and how objects in their particularity connect all these things together.” Fuelled by their seemingly boundless curiosity, Farresin and Trimarchi approach each new project from an analytical standpoint, stripping down everyday objects to their most essential elements, or truths. To do so, Formafantasma morphs into a creative chameleon, masterfully assuming the role of artisan, archeologist, botanist, historian, humanitarian, physicist, and more. They are the Renaissance Men of our time.

As young graduates determined to make a career in design, Farresin and Trimarchi saw little space for a future in Italy. “We come from a country where young people are not really considered,” says Trimarchi. “Seeing the graduation show at the Academy and how students here are given such an amazing platform was exciting for us, it opened up our eyes. We unconsciously knew it was our only chance if we wanted to do something in this field.”

Farresin agrees: “Eindhoven is so different from Florence. It’s a place without history, which was very liberating for us. A lot of what we do as designers is very thought through, but it’s also very instinctive. Our instinct was telling us to go there.” If life has taught me anything over the years, it’s that you should always go with your gut. Good things typically follow.

“We first started thinking about light six years ago, around the time we presented Botanica,” explains Trimarchi. Exhibited for the first time in 2011 at Spazio Rossana Orlandi in Milan, Botanica is a poetic study of natural polymers and plastics. The collection, which features a family of sculptural vessels, and has nothing to do with lighting, captured the imagination of local artist and filmmaker Francesco Vezzoli, who, as it turns out, is also a close friend of Piero Gandini, CEO of Flos. “He came to see our exhibition, and was determined to put us in touch with Piero.” Before they knew it, they were sitting at the Flos headquarters talking design and light with Piero himself. The meeting didn’t go quite as planned, however. “We weren’t ready,” confesses Trimarchi. “We went there without a product, just with ideas. We realised that it wasn’t the right moment for us. We were still in the process of shaping our own perspectives about design, and needed more time to investigate.”

Formafantasma spent the next few years developing their craft, all the while enchanting us in the process. Lighting remained on their radar, and in 2016 the pair presented their first experiments with light as part of a broader collection called Delta. A collaboration with Rome’s Stagetti Galleria O. Roma, Delta is the fruit of the gallery’s annual Privato Romano Interno programme. Each year, the gallery commissions international designers to create a collection of furniture pieces using the Eternal City as muse. As part of their research for the project, the pair travelled to the capital as full-time tourists. They visited nearly every museum and archeological site in Rome, documenting every detail and object along the way. “We found the light in Rome to be very peculiar and interesting,” says Farresin. “So, we thought, why not use this time to think about lighting? We started developing the body of work that is now Delta, and in the meantime also began experimenting with elements of light.”

Drawing references from the rituals and ruins of ancient Rome, Delta is an elegant exercise of abstraction. Formafantasma reinterprets Roman architecture and artefacts and reduces them to their simplest and purest forms. Composed of two discs suspended by gilded guitar strings, the Eclipse lamp models the skylight of the Pantheon, while another lamp, aptly titled Helmet, recalls the shape of a centurion’s headgear. The Magnifier, Reflector and Radar lamps take a slightly more scientific approach, and instead make use of mathematics and materials to reflect and refract light. Employing natural materials endemic to Rome, such as porcelain, travertine, wood and bronze, Delta makes the old and seemingly mundane shine anew with a fresh modern aesthetic.

“We really like indirect lighting,” says Farresin. “Almost all the lights we’ve done are reflecting off other surfaces and things.” Anno Tropico, which the duo presented in 2016 at a solo exhibition held by the Peep-Hole Art Centre in Milan, is a masterful investigation into the material quality of indirect light. Relying on as little material as possible, each ‘test’ looks at light from a specific perspective. Sculptural pieces made with dichroic glass, optical lenses and parabolic mirrors, bend and redirect the passage of light, casting shadows and projecting shapes and colours across what would otherwise appear to be plain surfaces. “The construction of the lights is very simple,” explain Trimarchi, adding that “it’s not so much about the object’s design, as what effect light can have in space.”

At last year’s Salone del Mobile, Formafantasma inaugurated the reopening of the historic gallery Spazio Krizia in Milan with a retrospective exhibition called Foundation. “We wanted to first call the project Formation, but it reminded us too much of the Beyonce song, which we love,” confesses Farresin, with a chuckle. Dedicated solely to the study of light, the exhibition displayed pieces from both Delta and Anno Tropico. Mixed in with the old were also a few novelties, including a preview for designs being created in collaboration with Tilburg’s TextielMuseum. Also on show in Milan were prototypes for what will be Formafantasma’s first industrially produced lights, for — you guessed it — Flos. Blush Lamp, an adaptation of colour tests created for Anno Tropico, and WireLamp, a circular wall sconce entailing just a ring of light and a cable, are scheduled for release later this spring.

Next to running their design practice, Farresin and Trimarchi teach, travelling once a week from Amsterdam to Eindhoven to run courses at their alma mater, DAE. In 2016 Formafantasma joined the Rosario Gagliardi Academy of Fine Arts in Siracusa, located in Sicily, as co-heads of the bachelor of design programme MADE. “It’s a challenge to do both, teaching and working. It can easily become too much” confesses Farresin. As with their studio work, the duo approaches education from a design standpoint. Farresin explains: “Education is a very interesting field, in fact, we’re more interested in education than in teaching. In Sicily, we have an opportunity to design education, to build a course. We’re deciding what to study, as well as when and how. In that sense it’s much closer to design.”

After all, designing ideas is Formafantasma’s forte. Given that they’re still at the start of their career, Formafantasma has accomplished a great deal in almost next to no time. Just shy of their ten year anniversary as a studio, the pair has a lot to think about this year. “2018 will be a year for understanding and reflection” says Trimarchi. “It’s an important moment for us to think about what we’re actually interested in” adds Farresin. Like the studio, the future may also come as a pair: “We’re considering the possibility of having two studios, one experimental and the other commercial,” explains Trimarchi. “Sometimes it’s difficult for people to understand what we do, because we do a bit of everything: interiors, fashion shows, products, exhibitions. Right now everything is on the same level. We care a lot about the experimental work we do, and we’d like to highlight that more.”

While the shape the studio will take in the future is still to be seen, what Trimarchi and Farresin know for sure is that they want their designs to make a difference. “The design industry is completely disconnected with reality,” says Farresin. “Other industries such as fashion have done some interesting things in terms of sustainability, but the furniture industry is still behind.” Trimarchi is on the same wavelength: “Sure, we can design a nice object for a company, but what if we can help in other ways? I think that’s how we feel we can make an impact on the industry, to bring a more holistic view on things, to advise companies on how to be more sustainable and efficient, from materials to manufacturing. That’s where I see a potential for change.”

www.formafantasma.com