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They organise exhibitions, design objects and intervene in current debates. Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin from Formafantasma are among the leading voices in design by addressing the pressing issues of our time critically, precisely and at the same time in a highly aesthetic form.

By Martina Metzner

Is design partly responsible for the exploitation of our planet and social injustice? Or can design work in harmony with people and nature to create better conditions? The discipline of design is currently questioning itself. The traditional understanding of design as a purely solution-orientated tool that can make things and applications formally and functionally better is crumbling. Instead, people are discussing how design can contribute to the necessary transformation of developed industrialised societies, how it should be understood and implemented today. Designers of a new type, a new generation – such as Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin from Formafantasma – are at the centre of this committed and controversial discourse.

Andrea Trimarchi und Simone Farresin sind Formafantasma. Bild © Rubelli

Research and Radical References

In the international design scene, Formafantasma has been known for several years for its critical examination of its own discipline, which at the same time comes across as very elegant. “We don’t solve problems,” say Trimarchi and Farresin, who see their practice as ongoing research, as investigative design, so to speak. “We address problems.” Their work is characterised by looking at the big picture, by critical reflection, such as the “Radical Design” of the 1960s in Italy with protagonists like Enzo Mari, to whom they like to refer.

Together with their team, they work in an interdisciplinary way between art, politics, business and science. For Formafantasma, design is a mediator that can bring the different strands together and prefers to ask questions rather than provide answers. Trimarchi and Farresin scrutinise materials, production, market mechanisms and usage habits and illustrate their impact on the environment. They are, to put it casually, investigative designers who uncover “green washing” and speak uncomfortable truths. This approach was also recognised by the jury of the ICONIC AWARDS: Interior Products 2024 of the German Design Council with the “Creator of the Year” award with the words: “Their motto is simple: think before you design.”

Formafantasma has designed the “Flock” exhibition for Tacchini, which proposes discarded sheep’s wool instead of polyurethane foam for car seats. Image © Andrea Ferrari

In the exhibition “Oltre Terra” (National Museum of Norway, 2023), Formafantasma traces the complex ecosystem of humans, sheep and wool. Image © Giorgio Gonella
The ongoing research project “Cambio” (Serpentine Galleries, 2020) addresses the complex relationship between humans, forests and wood. Image © George Darrell

Diversely Active

Just like Enzo Mari, the design duo is not just at home in one genre: the two design objects, curate exhibitions, conduct scientific research, write books, advise companies and lead discourse formats. Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin have realised highly acclaimed exhibitions such as “Cambio” (2020) and “Oltre Terra” (2023), but have also designed classic spaces and products and collaborated with well-known brands such as Fendi, Hermès, Prada and Vitra. They also designed the central exhibition at the 59th Venice Art Biennale (2022) and the “WireRing” luminaire for Flos. The fact that they design all of their projects in an aesthetically advanced way is probably a large part of their success. Formafantasma’s way of working and thinking is particularly evident in the “Cambio” exhibition, which has also attracted a lot of attention outside the design community: shown for the first time in 2020 at the “Serpentine Galleries” in London and curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Rebecca Lewin, the show is an ongoing research project on the complex relationship between people, forests and wood and how wood is produced, marketed, utilised and used.

“WireRing” by Formafantasma for Flos. Image © Flos
Formafantasma have been “Heads of Creative Direction” at the Venetian textile manufacturer Rubelli since the end of 2023. Picture © Federico Ciamei

About People and Wood

The exhibition features objects and films that shed a critical light on the topic – the majority of the films consist of interviews with experts from the fields of botany, forestry, climatology, engineering, environmental policy, art and philosophy, which Trimarchi and Farresin conducted themselves and which can also be viewed independently of the exhibition on the dedicated website. Formafantasma had objects such as guitars, brooms and brushes analysed by the Thünen Institute in Hamburg to determine the origin of the wood used to make them. It turned out that some of the products were made from illegally felled wood. However, Formafantasma used a tree from the Val di Flemme in Trentino, Italy, for the exhibition displays and seating they designed themselves. In 2018, storm “Vaia” uprooted and destroyed 13 million trees there.

Cross-references resonate everywhere – to the colonial structures that are still effective today, the climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity that are omnipresent in the wood-processing industry. A narrative about trees that is as philosophical as it is sensual also spreads throughout the exhibition, which inevitably brings to mind positions such as those of Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, who advocate a stronger connection between humans, plants, animals and minerals. And what does this have to do with design? Even if many companies are already producing in a socially and ecologically responsible way: Sustainability often stops at the “sourcing” of wood and materials, explain Trimarchi and Farresin. We are dependent on global flows of goods whose sources are often opaque. In the end, everything is connected to everything else.

„Stool 60“ von Alvar Aalto erscheint zum 90jährigen Jubiläum in der von Formafantasma kuratierten Sonderedition „Villi“ aus Birkenholz mit Makeln. Bild © Artek

Wild Birch for a Famous Stool

As holistically as Formafantasma conceptualises exhibitions that you would hardly believe were made by designers, their ideas also result in concrete products. The duo recently reissued Alvar Alto’s famous “Wild Birch” stool in collaboration with the Finnish company Artek. 90 years after it was first created, “Stool 60” can no longer only be made from flawless wood, but also from birch wood in the “Villi” line, which was previously out of the question due to knots, stains and darker heartwood.

Beyond Dogmas

The fact that Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin are now regarded as “leading voices and players” in the industry is also the result of their unusual backgrounds. While studying at the ISIA Design Institute in Florence, where the two young men from Sicily (Trimarchi, born in 1983) and Veneto (Farresin, born in 1980) met, they visited the Salone del Mobile in Milan and saw an exhibition by the Dutch design collective Droog. This experimental, free and artistic approach to design fascinated them. The two realised that they didn’t want to be just another cog in the Italian design industry, so they enrolled at the Design Academy Eindhoven – without having visited the university beforehand. At the academy in the Netherlands, which is known for its unconventional and forward-looking teaching, they were quickly confronted with a culture of critical debate. “We felt that our generation of designers had a voice there, without the dogmas left behind by the years of glorious design in Italy. It was the best decision of our lives.”

The “Ore Streams” project (Triennale Milano, 2017) takes a critical look at how the recycling of metal can be improved. Image © Ikon
For “Botanica” (Part, 2010), Formafantasma researched historical alternatives to plastic and moulded containers from natural raw materials (including ox blood). Image © Luisa Zanzani

After graduating in 2009, the two founded their studio, which they named Formafantasma, meaning “ghost shape” – a reference to their approach of going beyond formal design. Since then, they have also taught at the Design Academy Eindhoven and run the GEO Design master’s programme, which was launched by Italian director and curator Joseph Grima in 2020. Trimarchi and Farresin want to convey one thing above all through their teaching: That students develop an ethical attitude. For the younger generation, Formafantasma is much more of a role model than the many star designers who introduce yet another new chair every year.

Two Designers, one Idea

They worked from Amsterdam for around ten years before returning to their home country of Italy, the heart of the design industry, in 2021. In Milan, they moved into a workshop in a semi-industrial neighbourhood in the north-east of the city, where their greyhound “Terra” is always to be found alongside their team of ten. The two have never managed a project individually, they always work together: “Our work would not be possible without each other. We are one.” Only the clothes are not shared by Trimarchi and Farresin, who are also a couple in their private lives, the two remark laconically.

Since their return, Formafantasma has become even more the centre of attention: the duo collaborates with many Italian institutions and companies of distinction, wins prizes and is more sought-after than ever. For “Milan Design Week 2024”, they are curating the discussion format “Prada Frames” for the second time, this time on the topic of “Being Home”, to which they have invited friends and allies in spirit. These include Paola Antonelli, the curator of design and architecture at MoMA in New York, the architectural theorist Beatriz Colomina, the design critic Alice Rawsthorn and the Berlin-based architect Sam Chermayeff. In addition to the theoretical debate, there is never a shortage of concrete design: Among other things, as the new “Heads of Creative Direction” at Venetian fabric manufacturer Rubelli, they have revised the company’s collections and drawn up new guidelines for the design team.

Formafantasma has achieved what many designers long for today through its theoretical approach, combined with practice and wrapped in an appealing form: Not only to design products well, but to be involved in the process at an early stage in order to help determine strategy and content. And, last but not least, to be recognised and appreciated outside the small, refined design bubble. Who knows, perhaps Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin will one day be seen in retrospect as pioneers of a new era in which design proves to be an effective tool for change and stands for man’s responsibility towards the earth, the cosmos and living beings.

Formafantasma organises discourse formats for Prada – like here on the topic of “Material in Flux” during Milan Dersign Week 2023. image © Formafantasma | Jacopo M. Raule, Lorenzo Palizzolo, Pietro S. D’Aprano

Creator of The Year 2024

Formafantasma was honoured with the special “Creator of the Year” award at this year’s ICONIC AWARD: Interior Products.

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