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Studiopepe Went Full Mystic For Milan Design Week

A few weeks ago, while other brands and design studios were barraging our inboxes with press releases and preview images pre-Salone, Studiopepe — the Milan-based interiors duo of Arianna Lelli Mami and Chiara Di Pinto — kept relatively mum, announcing only that they would be investigating “the interconnection between matter and the archetypal power of symbols” in a former gold factory in Porta Venezia. In other words: design week catnip.

When the doors finally opened on the first day of Salone, the set up satisfied the hype. Entering the space — which the two dubbed Les Arcanistes in a nod to those who divine the future using “arcanas,” or tarot cards — visitors were ushered through a gold-colored curtain into a mystic maze. The steel structure of the ex-factory, whose walls and ceiling had been stripped down to the exposed concrete, were painted a murky shade of seafoam, while melted glass panels in violet and chartreuse divided the various “rooms.” Those spaces ranged from the eerily domestic — vintage and new furniture arranged around chunks of stone masquerading as coffee tables — to the downright bizarre: a small vestibule lined floor to ceiling with striped Bardelli tiles, scattered with amorphous seating by Studiopepe for paradisoterrestre and soundtracked with a layered chorus of ticking clocks. Throughout, neon lights were affixed to the walls, spelling out phrases or twisted into cryptic symbols. Colored carpeting lined the floors and walls, while clustered collections of vessels and objects were displayed on floating shelves. Down a set of stairs, a carpet of white smelling salts had been laid out in the labyrinthine basement, which was enveloped in white curtains and led to a series of esoteric fortune-telling games.

In addition to the theatrical interiors, performers and experts were installed throughout the space: a Buto dancer doling out sips of water, botanical chemists creating elixirs from dried leaves, and even a tarot reader who had swapped out his cards for precious stones and totems. As anyone signed up to at least one design week mailing list can attest, the term “immersive” is criminally overused, but in this case, it felt more than justified, with Studiopepe creating not just an interior in which showcase their various projects for brands but rather a sustained, and otherworldly, mood.

We spoke to Arianna Lelli Mami and Chiara Di Pinto over email to find out more.

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© Giuseppe Dinella

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© Tekla Evelina Severin

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Can you explain the concept behind Les Arcanistes?

Les Arcanistes is an investigation into matter. The word “matter” has the same Latin root as mother — the archetype of creativity. This project talks about how important it is for a designer to deeply understand and respect matter and its connection to various archetypes. In this project, you have to pass though several rooms: Water is the first room of the journey, because water is purification and the link between earth and sky. Then there is the room of the Alchemic Laboratory, where you can find healing and divinating plants. After this, with your body and soul prepared, you can go downstairs to the Mantica Society, a total immersive white space with a salt floor — salt, another important element for an alchemist, which also stands for purification — and only then are you ready to ask the right question of the divinator. Knowing yourself is at the root of every discovery process. This is the storytelling behind our concept.

More practically, the space is about presenting our design projects for brands we collaborate with, along with research projects that are meant to be presented in galleries around the world, as unique or limited editions. This year, for example, we worked with a molten glass manufacture, Vetreria Bazzanese, with whom we realized two tables and the partition walls of the space. In the project, you will also see slabs of onyx and real stones, as a reminder to respect and enjoy the beauty of things as they are in nature.

Where did the inspiration come from? What sort of research were you doing when you were preparing the exhibition?

We have always been fascinated by the world of the arcane; these symbols are at the root of our culture and of our collective unconscious, as theorized by Jung. Our research took us on an infinite journey because all of these topics are linked — psychology, philosophy, and chemistry.  We love to read and for this project, we received support and guidance from everyone from psychologists to professional tarot readers. In fact, one of them was hired as the clairvoyant in the Mantica Society downstairs.

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© Tekla Evelina Severin

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© Giuseppe Dinella

Can you take us through the various rooms?

THE FOUNTAIN OF WATER / THE HIGH PRIESTESS: Water generates every form and every substance. It represents rebirth and regeneration; it is a carrier of information. Thanks to its intrinsic properties and ability to be absorbed, water is the element of the “communication” of information. Over the millennia, the elemental particles of which it is composed, hydrogen and oxygen, have induced the formation of all metals and metalloids, and are what allow water to resonate at any vibration or frequency, modify itself and mutate according to necessity or required uses. This cycle is the rhythmic oscillation, the source of the primordial vibrational information that, through water, nourishes and forges matter.  In this room, one can behold water’s ability to vibrate at different frequencies, observe the vibrational dance on the surface, and touch the fountain to physically experience the vibration with the body.

SOCIETÀ MANTICA / THE EMPRESS: The heart of Les Arcanistes is a secret, subterranean space containing divining tables. This area is dominated by the color white and salt flooring and is accessible to only a few visitors at a time, who may participate in a personal divination experience. This space is dominated by the color white because white is the origin from which all other colors derive; it is the symbol of the passage from one state to another, from unawareness to awareness. The other element is salt, as a symbol of purity. In alchemy, salt is the element that stabilizes the experience and allows for personal growth.

THE LIBRARY OF MATTER / THE EMPEROR: Matter derives from the root “mater,” or mother. Human beings have always left their mark by manipulating matter and interacting with the environment to measure, demarcate, and take possession of it. Matter is a fundamental element of the alchemic process. By forging matter, humankind accessed awareness of the self and successively of the universal. This access to the world of archetypes is the perfect commingling between matter and spirit.

THE ALCHEMIC LABORATORY / THE LOVERS: This is the room in which the alchemic water is distilled. The Alchemic Laboratory represents the possibility to enter into contact with the essences of the spirit in its diverse realities. It is the place where alchemic products are prepared: distillates of divinatory plants and preparations or crystallizations. The alchemic process of distillation and refining is a metaphor for professed personal growth. The products from the alchemic laboratory are reminiscent of the alchemic procedures for refining matter from lead into gold. Gold was the quintessential matter for the alchemists; the selection of this location, an old factory in which gold was manufactured, is no coincidence. The purpose of distillation is to separate one or more components from a liquid mixture which is boiled to bring it to a vapor state which, once condensed, becomes the distillate. Our laboratory produces herbal distillates which are attributed to divinatory properties.

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© Giuseppe Dinella

There are a lot of different elements going on  — conceptual dancers, clairvoyants, botanical chemists — can you tell us about the various interactions you can have in the space?

We love, in all of our projects, to link design and experience. It’s a way of interpreting things in a deeper and more immediate way because performance touches a more unconscious level. The Buto performer performs a Japanese dance that aims to represent emotions; he is also the guardian of the room of water. A reminder to purify yourself with ritual and let your emotions be free. The clairvoyant is a person who not only tells you about your future but something more deep and complete. The alchemic laboratory is an important element of our investigation; the location was a former gold factory, and the alchemist’s quest to transform lead into gold is a metaphor of inner growth and development.  The alchemy is the subtle theme of all the project.

What do you want people to take away from this project?

Our storytelling is about the power of creation and creativity that starts from matter and the respect for it, therefore the respect for nature. That design is a beautiful way to improve our lives and the quality of our life, it is not just something to show off. We saw in past years many “show-off pieces” and this is not the message we would like to communicate. We love to present our pieces not in a white cube because our work is meant to generate emotions and to underline that design is strictly bound to people and the quality of their living.

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© Giuseppe Dinella