Radically pragmatic, pragmatically radical | Katie Treggiden Skip to content

Radically pragmatic, pragmatically radical

This article was written 3 years ago.
Flat lay of burgundy magazine called The New Era

Most designers start their creative process by asking questions, but few go to quite the lengths that Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin do to understand the social, economic, territorial and geopolitical forces shaping every project they take on.

In their Milan- and Rotterdam-based design studio, Formafantasma, a rigorous research phase is combined with seemingly endless questioning of everything around them. ‘We’re not just here to make things pretty – it’s our role to ask questions,’ says Farresin. And yet somehow, for all their knowledge and expertise – particularly in sustainability, they resist the urge to be judgemental of the answers, preferring instead to investigate each project before deciding which levers they can pull to bring about positive change. ‘You can’t change the whole system with every project,’ he adds. ‘But you can keep asking the same questions – you’ll get different answers every time, but the important thing is to keep asking.’

Farresin talks to craft, design and sustainability writer, Katie Treggiden, about how they keep both the radical and the pragmatic sides of their business in check.

You’ve said “When we create something, it will have an impact. We don’t have a solution, but we question all the time.” What kind of what questions motivate you?

We always ask: ‘What role does design play in this context?’ ‘What is the ecological impact of what we do?’ We can’t always afford to think about the answers – we are a commercial studio and sometimes just try to execute something well within the constraints of the brief. But at other times, we have the freedom to question the impact that designers have – or don’t have. We love to get involved in conversations about what design can do.

So, what interests you about objects? What is your relationship with collecting and owning things?

We like beautiful things, and we care about the things we own, but we don’t fetishize objects. When you look at an object, you can talk about the people who produced it, economics, theology, anthropology, politics… Those are the things that excite us about objects.

Your work often involves rigorous research. How does that impact the sort of work that you make?

Not as much as we would like! We work on three types of projects – research-based projects such as the Cambio exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London, more commercial projects where we work more as a traditional design studio, and education through our role at Design Academy Eindhoven. This is our own balance. This is not the rule, but it is our way of making peace with being designers. Because of projects such as Cambio, people often see our work as closer to art, but these projects simply show our approach. We could apply the same approach to working with a company on a more holistic level – and our ambition is to find more opportunities to apply our more radical and investigative approach. I would love a furniture company to give us an open brief and full access. Then we could come up with some really interesting ideas. And if they don’t, the next generation of designers will get those opportunities and that’s fine too. Our thinking is more radical than what we do. At the moment, we are only able to apply the full extent of that thinking to projects such as Cambio, and we are okay with that. It means that we have to make compromises, but compromises that keep us rooted in the reality of what we are criticizing and that in itself is extremely useful. After our Ore Streams project – which investigated electronic waste – we took on projects with electronics companies and tried to start conversations about privacy, repairability… but they weren’t really interested. It was frustrating, but extremely useful for us to see up close how the design process is too fragmented to allow holistic thinking and therefore innovation. So for us, that was extremely beautiful. Did we achieve what we wanted? Not really. But still…

What role could designers have in tackling electronic waste?

The first step is repair. The second step is the reuse of components, which is different from recycling – and the future for electronic waste is not recycling, but reusing components. And then there is recycling, which means shredding stuff to obtain materials, but fragmentation of responsibility and knowledge is a big problem within recycling systems, and this needs to be addressed with both micro- and macro-governance. Even there, design can play a role – designers can understand production processes and come up with solutions – such as a simple colour coding system that would tell you which elements are hazardous.

There’s an expression I came across when I was studying for my master’s, which is that ‘no research is ever wasted’…

Absolutely, and that’s also why we ended up also being involved with education, curating the geo-design master’s degree at Design Academy Eindhoven, because what we’re doing is not only about building a business, it is also about building knowledge and awareness. Being involved in education is a way of expanding this in a non-commercial realm of design – and that’s extremely fulfilling.

Let’s talk about the Cambio Exhibition – what made you decide to investigate the global timber industry?

I have plenty of answers for this question! The first is a simple one. We realized that it was going to be difficult to develop our Ore Streams project further, because it proved so difficult to engage anyone who was making electronics. So, we went back to our roots. We started our careers in Italy, making furniture, using wood. The second reason is that we wanted to address the complexity and ethical questions of working with living creatures – trees. The third reason is that Serpentine Gallery is in Hyde Park surrounded by trees, so it made sense. And finally, there was The Great Exhibition, which took place in Hyde Park in 1851. The Great Exhibition glorified the shift from design as an artisanal practice to working for industry and making with machines. And it showcased materials extracted outside of Europe, so there was a clear link with colonialism. All in giant green house that was being used, for not for survival of living creatures, trees, but to glorify products. I cannot think of anything more emblematic of the complexity and the problematic elements of design. And so, we went back to those marginalized trees…

And what is the role of a designer in investigating the global timber industry? You’ve talked about a shift in the role of designers away from human needs…

When a designer is called in to do something, the thinking tends to begin with the human in front of them. The designer is thinking about what the needs or desires of the ‘target audience’ or ‘end user’. But if you want to think about the impact of design at an ecological level, you need to think about what happens before that moment – where are the materials coming from; which politics are they supporting? We cannot resolve ecological problems at a product level – simply by making materials biodegradable for example – without considering the lifecycle of the material. Ecology is also related to social justice, and there’s a lot of injustice in the way things are executed in the way timber fields. Instead of designers thinking ‘What can I do with this material?’ we should be thinking, ‘What can I do from and for the forest?’ If we extract value from the forest, we should also look at the needs of the forest and the other services the forest provides, such as sequestering carbon, providing a habitat for creatures, holding the earth together so that it’s not blown away by the wind…. Everybody talks about the quality of execution, the quality of comfort for the person using the product, but what about the comfort of the trees and the forest? We’ve got to stop centring humans.

As you conducted this investigation, what did you learn?

The biggest learning was that fragmented responsibility and knowledge is not working. Just to give you one example, the tools that designers use to make renderings enable us to render furniture using endangered species. This is a really powerful example of how the design discipline is shaped around the needs of humans, not the rest of the planet. There is a lot of conversation about trees as a solution in climate mitigation. If this is the reality, we have to change the way we use wood. Wood absorbs CO2 – it is 40-45% CO2 – but if you dispose of it and it is incinerated, that carbon is released. So how can we apply it to disposable products? Or even buildings that are renovated or demolished after decades? You are not making something ‘sustainable’ just by making it out of FSC-certified wood. We need to challenge the business models that rely on short lifespans – we need to talk about the economy. As designers, we can at least be aware of these systemic issues and start considering how we might apply this kind of thinking.

Tell me about your tile collection for Dzek, which is glazed in volcanic ash…

Inspired by De Natura Fossilium, a project we did for Gallery Libby Sellers, the concept is that many minerals used for glazing are extracted from underground. We were fascinated by the idea of volcanos excavating these materials for us, so we wanted to see what we could do with a non-extractive material. What is really interesting is how the chemists we worked with kept asking us what aesthetic we wanted and we kept saying “We don’t know, because it depends what comes out.” For us, it wasn’t about dictating the aesthetic, but reflecting the materials. The development of products is not about reflecting reality anymore – it is about fulfilling desires.

Tell me about your upcoming project for Hem…

It’s probably the most industrial product that we have done to date – it’s a shelving system made with extruded aluminium and it is all about maximizing efficiencies of effort and materials. It’s made of a highly renewable, entirely recyclable, single material and made with a very efficient technology – two extrusions create the entire shelving system. It is the opposite of what we do with our research-based projects, where we are trying to sort out things on the more macro level. It’s beautifully old fashioned in its attempt to resolve things, as much as possible, on a product level.

Because sometimes you’ve just got solve one problem at a time?

Yes, and also at different scales. Our practice is full of contradictions, but if you remove the contradictions, you need to remove yourself from the mud in which we’re living – and that’s not what we’re interested in. We are gloriously engaged, and we make compromises. We could be more radical, I’m sure, but this is where we stand, this is what we have decided, and these are the compromises we are willing to make within our own code of ethics.

Yes, and the danger is, if you can’t contradict yourself, it’s the radical stuff you can’t do. The only way you can never contradict yourself is to never try…

Honestly, you need to work on an academic level to only do the radical work. And even then, there are compromises. Or there are the people who seem very radical, but don’t sign the work they do to make a living. So, they can they afford to seem radical, because they do horrible works behind the scenes. We would rather be honest about the compromises we make and be proud of everything we do, at whatever level we can bring about change.

How else can designers contribute to a better use of resources?

It’s about making better choices driven by an understanding of the whole system, so it’s about sourcing, production, repair, distribution, and so on. Designers need to think about these same categories and reapply them to every brief – what can you do in each context? Maybe you cannot address these issues on a material level this time, but there’s something you can do on a distribution level. I have a lot of respect for everybody in this discipline – and you cannot afford to be ideological when you’re a designer. Otherwise, you need to quit being a designer. We’ve even had conversations with companies who clearly only want to get involved with ecology as a trend, but we might still do something with them and then maybe they will start to understand. Maybe that trend will sink in and start to become a culture. And that is starting to happen. It’s happening.

To find out more about Formafantasma here.

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Katie Treggiden is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular — an international membership community and online learning platform for environmentally conscious designers, makers, artists and craftspeople.
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