Design duo Formafantasma's new collection using ash from Mount Etna
It was hard to avoid Formafantasma at this year’s Milan Design Week. The Italian duo, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, met while they were both students at the Design Academy Eindhoven and currently have a studio in Amsterdam from which they work on a variety of projects – from material experimentation and craft to more obviously commercial products. This year’s annual design bunfight in Milan highlighted their breadth of interest. In the main halls on the outskirts of the city, full of manufacturing companies conducting business, the pair launched a new light with the Italian company Flos. Across town at the Triennale they also have an installation highlighting issues around waste from electronic products as part of the huge (and somewhat sprawling) exhibition, Broken Nature, curated by Paola Antonelli.
Sitting somewhere in-between on the spectrum of their output sits ExCinere, a new collaboration with the architectural materials company Dzek, shown at satellite space Alcova. At a glance the project’s virtues aren’t immediately obvious – although beautifully presented it is essentially a collection of porcelain tiles in two sizes and five shades of brown. In the middle of a week where big brands – including Sony, Lexus and Peugeot – spend big money on splashy installations, it could easily have been looked over by the event’s visiting hordes. However, what sets it apart is the material the tiles’ glaze has been created from: volcanic ash sourced from Mount Etna in Sicily.
Trimarchi grew up in its shadow and the mountain is long-held a fascination for him. ‘The place has always been like the big fear and the big love,’ he tells me. A few years ago the pair happened to be visiting when it erupted and witnessed a huge explosion of ash. ‘We thought: “OK what can we do with this?”’ remembers Farresin. After all, as they point out rather poetically, Etna is fundamentally ‘a mine without miners, it is excavating itself to expose its raw materials’.
The material has its own will and you have to let go of your ego and allow your design ideas to dissolve a little bit and just let the material guide you
Their initial experimentations with the material led to 2014’s De Natura Fossilium collection of glass, basalt and textile pieces, which were aimed at the gallery market. And it was while they were showing work with Libby Sellers that they started talking to Dzek founder Brent Dzekciorius. ‘Brent immediately felt there was the potential to go architectural with it but he didn’t really know how,’ says Farresin.
They began looking at a glass-based research project, before moving onto brick and, subsequently, alighting on a glaze. As Dzekciorius explains: ‘The material has its own will and you have to let go of your ego and allow your design ideas to dissolve a little bit and just let the material guide you.’ The different hues are determined by adding different percentages of ash into the glaze formula, the size of the granules of sand and the number of times the glaze itself is applied to the tile. The finished products can be specified for floors, facades or even benches either inside or out. ‘They can be used as a mono-colour or they can be combined,’ adds Trimarchi.
The duo have now been working together for a decade and as Trimarchi says: ‘After 10 years I think we have a good balance of commercial work and research-based projects.’ This week’s Milan would seem to bear that assertion out.