An Interview With Formafantasma, Whose Queer-Coded, Modernism-Inspired Solo Show Was the Best Thing We Saw at This Year’s Milan Fair

In the whirlwind of this year’s Salone, Formafantasma’s perfect solo show, La Casa Dentro — presented on the quiet second floor of the Fondazione ICA Milano — made us stop and catch our breath. La Casa Dentro (meaning The Home Within) is as much a collection of furniture and lighting as it is a meditation on design, memory, the familiar, and the uncanny. It conjures a dream state where the clinical feel of a medical office gives way to the comforts of an old family home (if your grandparents were the kind with an eye for stylish detail). Bent tubular metal forms are combined with embroideries and embellishments painted on wood, floral patterns, and silky decorative fabric. It’s work that takes certain signifiers of the past and reanimates them in a new moment. Attempting to “queer the codes of Modernist design,” as the designers put it, the collection is as conceptually charged as it is materially stunning, and its theoretical considerations can’t be unraveled from personal and emotional ones.

Since founding Formafantasma in 2009, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin – who split their time between Milan and Rotterdam – have brought a thoughtful depth to their creative approach, whether they apply it to their own work or the projects they’ve been doing for brands like Flos, Prada, Cosentino, and WonderGlass, to name a few recent ones. The duo studied at Design Academy Eindhoven so it’s not surprising that their work is grounded in an academic rigor — and absorbing the history of design and the undeniable influence of Modernism is inextricable from that. But what’s also been important to them, with this show especially, is a process of unlearning or relearning and reframing — understanding the gendered ways that Modernism was both practiced and talked about. Rationality became an extension or embodiment of masculinity and therefore elevated, while more decorative, ornamental elements became feminized or sentimentalized and devalued. Other oppositions follow: public versus private, civic versus domestic. Yet those binaries can’t help but collapse, and with La Casa Dentro, Formafantasma pulls beauty from that wreckage. The collection not only recognizes the domestic as a realm of warmth and care but dignifies it and gives it a significance – culturally, aesthetically, and even politically – that it hasn’t historically been granted (because, of course, it’s been coded as feminine).

We couldn’t wait to know more about it. Farresin, speaking on behalf of the studio, was kind enough to offer some insight and catch us up. 

Have the ideas for this collection been percolating for a while for you or did something specific prompt these pieces? A good deal of research often goes into your projects – is that the case here?

This work is extremely personal. Many times, our works originate from in-depth research, and we have been investigating ideas here, too — reading papers related to Modernist ideologies and how architects such as Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier communicated and talked about their ideas of rationality and modernity in terms related to masculinity. We’ve also been reading feminist theories related to the ideologies of modernism. But the work actually originated from something much more personal. In the last years, we have been through some difficult moments with our families, especially me. I had to deal with my family’s house and the objects that I’d grown up with and thinking of what to do with these objects, and I realized they don’t have, somehow, space any more in my life. They no longer represent the way of living that I feel comfortable in. Nevertheless, these objects and spaces, I deeply love them. I lived there until I was 18.

This strangeness of loving things but at the same time feeling they do not belong to your life any more is something that made us reflect a lot on why that is. Of course, there’s many reasons. But it also made us think that the process of education and becoming designers was inevitably also process of distancing from things that we had been loving, and there’s something slightly traumatic about that. When you study design, a lot of the understanding of good design is influenced by Modernism. And because of this we started thinking about modernity and how this idea of rationality connected to Modernism has been theorized. And the work is trying to deal with both of these understandings of the interior environment: the personal one, connected much more to memory and sentimentality, and the other side of the story which is how we came to be trained as designers and being influenced by Modernist ideologies.

You’ve said that this work is an attempt to “queer the codes” of Modernist design. It beautifully interrogates ideas about masculinity and domesticity, or traditional notions of both of those. I’d love to hear more about that. What does “queering the codes” mean to you? Does it mean materially, or conceptually …or both?

So the idea of queering the identity of Modernism, exemplified in the work materially by bent tubular metal — it comes from a realization that there is a parallel reality to what we loved, growing up, as kids, which often were handmade things, embroidery, things that were made not only to embellish the home, but to create a sense of domesticity, very much also connected to care. We realized that often those things belonging to the idea of taking care of the home and the domestic environment are connected to women’s labor and women’s work, which we felt we somehow belonged to, or at least loved when we were young and growing up queer. Later, re-reading and realizing how, in the words of many male architects and designers, Modernity was described as an extension of masculinity and everything that was decorative was an extension of femininity. The process of erasing everything that was considered irrational wasn’t only a way to remove decoration because it did not belong to the means of production of modern times, to industry, but it was also an ideological attempt to denigrate everything that was considered feminine. And I mean cultural femininity, which can belong to both men and women. But of course, in the house it was more often performed by women.

I think it was also a realization for us that there is a parallel between what is understood as rigorous and intelligent in design and what is considered frivolous. And those clichés belong to a masculine perspective, if not a patriarchal perspective.

So the work tries to find moments of unity between these two internalized versions of the interior environment, which is the rational, almost brutal way of intending modernity and, I would call it almost sentimental, in the sense of feelings and care that we loved. Obviously in the work these two realities don’t come together seamlessly. The two worlds collide and create a hybrid which is how we feel in this moment about domesticity.

Very often, when you grow up as a gay kid, there are things that are accepted as masculine and others that are considered not masculine at all. I have the feeling that those elements of femininity that have been denigrated on a daily basis, they have also been denigrated in the ideologies describing Modernism. Many women saw plenty of value in some modern ideologies, but it was often described as an extension of masculinity against femininity, and we find that problematic. We think that attempt of defining qualities related to rationality as masculine and everything else that is irrational or sentimental as feminine, it’s the same things, the way you grow up as a gay kid, you are told are wrong. Somehow this work also implicitly addresses this, how that culture of disrespect of certain qualities, it extends through certain ways that design performs.

I’d love to get your thoughts on the idea of learning and unlearning, working under the influence of a design canon. Even when you act in opposition to it, it’s still there, right? But this collection seems to transform that binary and go someplace new. Which is a huge feat! How do you do that?

For the first time, we’re struggling a bit to talk about this work because of how personal it feels and because there is a level of intuitiveness in the way we’ve worked on this project. I completely agree with you – even when you act in opposition to it, it’s still there. Absolutely. It was also important that this canon was there. Because we’re not fully opposing it. Our process of learning was also extremely important to who we are today. But it’s the recognition that the process of learning is also a process of unlearning other things and discerning what is right and wrong. At the end of the day, learning, ultimately for us, is a way of understanding what is right and wrong and, in a way, how to behave. But inevitably, discerning what is right and wrong can come through as ideological in a way, when you grow up and decide that’s not how you want to live anymore or you learn methods that you haven’t seen before.

For sure, this is the most intuitive work that we’ve done recently and also the work that, even when we finalized it, we were the most nervous about. Because when you go somewhere new, you feel really uncomfortable about it. We felt really uncomfortable because we didn’t how to read it, in full. And this work is an exploration – we don’t even consider it finished in a way because it is an attempt to explore some specific ideas. What we did not want was to rely on revisiting these elements from the domestic environment from an intellectual perspective, as was done with Postmodernism. I’ll give you examples, for instance, in Postmodernism there has been extensive reference to pop culture and to elements that are considered kitsch, like Formica surfaces or the elements that you can find in petit bourgeois houses and so on.

But here, we’re not trying to address these elements from a perspective that is intellectual and self-aware, from the perspective of irony, but from the perspective of respect and acknowledgment. So, the choices of working with embroidery and hand-painting, it’s because we wanted to have the handmade and the labor element involved because of the sense of care that communicates. Other elements, for instance, the flowers on chairs or the strange use of textiles in some elements comes a lot from personal memories, connected to elements we had at home or personal things related to memories of home. We tried to implement them in the pieces with the idea of dignifying them. To give them a space and dignity that very often they didn’t have in our work and also that I didn’t see around very often.

This collection also has to do with personal identity and collective memory, as well as nostalgia – your notions and memories of home. There’s a haunting quality to it. Are there specific elements or details from your past that you’re referencing or addressing here?

Yes, for instance the chairs with flowers, that comes from a very specific memory when I was a kid, growing up. I changed beds and I had a blanket that I loved. It was black with roses and I didn’t want to give it away. So my mother, because I had a new bed that was bigger, she saw that I was so attached to it, she took textiles and she sewed by hand flowers on the side of the blanket to extend it. So that specific piece is referring to that. And these actions have often been considered frivolous and tacky but in fact they were resourceful and kind and important. All the works are trying to reference this idea.

More generally, what’s your design process like, at this stage of your career, and how has it evolved over the years? How do you two tend to collaborate together? 

Our process of working is actually very similar to how it was at the beginning except we are much more self-aware now. So, we know the way we work, we know each other, how we think, and what to tap for ideas. I think the biggest change is that we work with many other people now. For instance, even this work, it’s the contributions of collaborations in the office being extensively involved in its design, but of course our eye is always there, and we know what we want. Even if a work is so personal, we manage to involve other people in the design, but we have been tightly curating to make sure it says exactly what we wanted it to say.

We’ve become better at working with others and involving others in our design process.

You’ve done a lot of work with high-profile clients and brands. What draws you to those projects you work on? Do they need to satisfy some kind of criteria for you or fulfill a creative impulse/inquiry?

Regarding the way we collaborate, the more the years pass, the more we understand our work, the easier it is that when people come to our office, they have a clearer idea of what to expect. Which makes working much easier. But the way we choose [projects] it’s really based on having a feeling that we can achieve things we feel are interesting.

And we know that when we establish a collaboration with a partner, it takes years to engineer that collaboration, to understand each other. We are extremely proud of what we presented this year and [understand] from the outcome that the collaboration is evolving in a more productive sense. So, it’s about having patience, and being committed to the relationships we establish.