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Prima Materia
 by Formafantasma

Currently on show at the Stedelijk Museum ‘s-Hertogenbosch (SM’s), Studio Formafantasma’s retrospective exhibition Prima Materia invites visitors to consider the power of objects as vehicles for ideas. 

By Jeanne Tan /asdf 20-02-2014

Visitors to Prima Materia should expect a thoughtful, coherent and beautifully laid out exhibition that is the first survey of Studio Formafantasma’s work. 

Prima Materia presents 9 exquisite projects by the Italian-born Eindhoven-based designers Studio Formafantasma from their Design Academy Eindhoven graduation project Moulding Tradition to the Craftica collaboration with Fendi to the more recent Charcoal for the Vitra Museum.

What visitors may not know is that the body of work on show – 8 of which are sizeable collections – is the result of only 4 years work. The productive career so far of Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi has produced acclaimed work that is deeply rooted in context, juxtaposing materiality, production, heritage, culture, and socio-political critique. It’s kept them very busy with exhibitions (no less than 20 exhibitions featured their work in 2013!), giving guest lectures and workshops, teaching at the Design Academy Eindhoven, and has earnt them serious design recognition along the way: in 2011, Autarchy was nominated as an INDEX: Award finalist, and Alice Rawsthorn and Paola Antonelli nominated the duo as one of the 20 most promising design studios of the future.

It may seem premature to host a retrospective for such a young studio, but the coherence and depth of work on show easily rivals that of more established designers while their critique about topics such as immigration and sustainability gives relevant insights into current issues of today. Another timely consideration is that despite their work being exhibited extensively internationally, it’s rarely seen in the Netherlands where the designers live and work since 2008. “We were very happy to be invited to show our work at the Stedelijk Museum because this was the perfect opportunity to introduce our work to the Dutch public,” says Simone Farresin. Prima Materia continues the museum’s design exhibition series that started with Wieki Somers (2009), Maarten Baas (2010) and Scholten & Baijings (2011). “The starting point for us was in 2012 with the museum’s acquisition of Autarchy,” explains SM’s curator Fredric Baas. “For some time now, we’ve taken a keen interest in design that goes beyond ‘mere’ product design. Formafantasma is, for me, definitely part of this development which includes critical or conceptual design; design that engages with people, society and today’s pressing issues in the same way that we, as a museum, (would like to) do.”

The exhibition comprises two parts: the entrance corridor that takes visitors through the ‘minds’ of the designers via videos, sketches and images through to the main exhibition area, where the finished products are exhibited in their respective collections. While the studio may be known for their conceptual designs and experimental making process with materials such as bio-resins, charcoal and leather, the exhibition hopes to highlight more of the thinking behind. Simone: “We wanted the exhibition to be more than just about the look or the making of the objects. It was important to show how the materials ‘vehiculate’ ideas and show the context and ideas behind the work without being too explicit or literal. The corridor shows how we map and formulate ideas and translate them into objects.”

Like each object, visitors can take Prima Materia at surface value being an exhibition of beautiful products crafted from unusual natural materials. To delve deeper, people can linger a little longer to learn more about the underlying thinking. Through discovering the different layers that make up the work whether they be about manufacturing, environment, history or material, visitors can connect to the objects in their own way. What emerges clear is the studio’s focus on context and how the overlapping layers together give richness to the projects. Highlights include Charcoal - a series of charred wooden utensils and mouth-blown glass jars - which brings together the negative connotations of charcoal with its beneficial use in water purification and the nostalgic craft of its production. Craftica paired the designers with Fendi where they investigated leather using leftovers from the luxury fashion house’s production process alongside more unusual ‘leathers’ from discarded fish skins, cork trees and animal bladders to transform seemingly ugly materials into objects of beauty. Made from flour, agricultural waste and limestone, Autarchy proposes an autonomous, uncomplicated way of production – of vessels, tools and food - without waste.

While it’s the first time that so much of Formafantasma’s work has been exhibited together, it’s also the first time that the designers themselves have seen so many of their own projects all under one roof. “Normally when we finish projects, they immediately leave the studio so this was a great occasion to see everything together,” laughs Simone. ‘It was very special to not only see all the work but to also physically walk through it. In this way, we were able to look at the work from a distance for the first time.”

No doubt, visitors will leave the exhibition wanting to own all these beautiful objects. But if the intention is for visitors to ‘take home the idea’, the exhibition shows how design can form part of the bigger picture. Fredric Baas: “I hope visitors will leave thinking about the different issues raised: sustainability, cultural identity, manufacturing, traditions, craft, and the way objects function as carriers of meaning. That they see how functionality goes beyond use; how a vessel can contain both a substance and an idea.” Simone: “We’d like people to consider that design can be used to communicate ideas that are not only strictly related to design. Products are a particularly powerful medium because of people’s intimate relationships with them.” So what’s next for the duo? Their next project takes them to Mount Etna in Sicily where lava will play the starring role and they hope to work more with product-based industrial design in the near future. Through the thoughtful combination of context, culture, critique and craft in their work, Formafantasma has truly succeeded as modern alchemists to transmute Prima Materia (prime matter) into gold.  

Prima Materia is on show at the Stedelijk Museum ‘s-Hertogenbosch from 15 February until 15 June 2014. The exhibition is accompanied by the publication Formafantasma which includes contributions by Lidewij Edelkoort, Alice Rawsthorn, Louise Schouwenberg, and Fredric Baas. Published by Lecturis. Watch the interview with Formafantasma, made for the exhibition, here

Photography: Inga Powilleit
Courtesy of Stedelijk Museum ‘s-Hertogenbosch

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