19 October 2020
Laura Fiaschi and Gabriele Pardi are the two leading lights of Gumdesign, the studio that has worked in architecture, industrial design, graphic design and art direction since 1999. Different but complementary in character, they have forged a personal and professional partnership wrought by art, design, irony, material culture, environmental sensitivity and a subtle but powerful civic and social outlook. Every single one of their projects tells a story directly and immediately and helps to shape a world (their production) set apart by their energy, individuality and iconic approach. Their vocabulary is empathetic, emotional, poetic almost. “Solid,” “concrete,” and “regulated” poetry, however, never improvised. Their shapes are simple, primitive, and functional. Research and material optimisation along with an almost philosophical approach are the bases on which their designs rest. As well as collaboration and the sharing of knowledge with people who have always “got their hands dirty” (the scores of Italian craftsmen who know how to “make things properly”) is essential. As well as winning numerous prizes and being the protagonists of countless exhibitions, they also work for a large number of companies, including Antonio Lupi, De Castelli, Friul Mosaic, Martinelli Luce, Styl’Editions and Swarovski Italia. Education and comparison are the cornerstones of Gum Lab, a design laboratory in which ideas take shape via research and experimentation. The objective of the laboratory is to work on concrete themes, aimed at real companies, driven by conceptual triggers and theoretical rules built around the project theme which then give functional form to the idea.
Lets’s start at the beginning. Tell us how Gumdesign came about (and where the name comes from), about your first joint projects and taking part in SaloneSatellite.
A meeting, a progression, a little story made up of words and signs, ideas and solid tales.
TELLING STORIES WRONG ... (GUM)
Tales on the Phone / Gianni Rodari
Illustrations by Bruno Munari
Our earliest projects were presented at SaloneSatellite in 1999. Small spaces with barely-mentioned prototypes, the companies didn’t support young designers then, but the purity of the visualisations was of a rare beauty, precisely because they were unfinished, light. There were errors and the products and ideas were imperfect; we remember that time particularly fondly because it opened the door to an unknown world: design. Plus everything that revolved around it – the journalists, the critics, the entrepreneurs, the masters of international design (we met Achille Castiglioni who – with infinite patience with and time for young people – spoke very kindly about an object we had exhibited, he didn’t say it was terrible – and it was, looking at it now – but he told us a wonderful, fascinating story, which helped us understand where to look for the soul of design … observing, understanding, resolving).
From that period a lamp, Lucciola; an object fuelled by a dream of Laura’s, a lucid dream. A die cut polypropylene sheet, capable of “entrapping an energy-saving bulb and being a light diffuser, without screws, mechanical fixings, lightweight.”
After many years of research, reflection and production, what does “materials culture” mean to you?
A lengthy, not explosive journey, but a carefully considered one; we believe in “slow” processes, that can build solid steps. These days it seems as though everything needs to happen full speed ahead, but speed often leads to short-lived illusions; the world of communication is so fast that there’s virtually no time for checks and controls, and the quality of the project suffers, spawning embarrassing copies in the name of innovation, elevating the obvious to the necessary. Awards follow relentlessly on from each other at the speed of light (we get invitations to take part in design competitions every week) but have turned into financial operations, benefitting only the organisers and the designers’ egos as they share their “prizes” on the social networks, garnered by 1,000 people simultaneously. We have lost our way.
Materials, however, primaeval, unique and inimitable, take us back in time; back into the caves in which man took shelter, lived and grew, slowly. Materials are still the basic starting element – observation, understanding and resolution, as Castiglioni put it, words that have been permanently etched in our minds (perhaps this is what sparks the tears, the powerful emotions that we feel every time we meet Giovanna at the Castiglioni Foundation, the place where Achille observed, understood and resolved). Materials are culture, understanding, an ability to get to grips with temporal, natural and synthetic stratifications; you have to know a material before planning its use, before working with it, before subjecting it to “stress” or “loving it.” Materials have to be studied not just as “materials technology” but as “technology and empathy” because they contain our history, our past, our present and our future.
You’ve been the forerunners of so many concepts that are on everyone’s lips these days. Storytelling in particular. Your work consists of stories, messages, emotions: how does one turn materials and products into narratives?
Thank you. We are glad you’ve picked up on this aspect because it springs from crystallised personal experiences born of reflection, of thought; we believe that “design” should be an “intellectual operation,” not design tout court, not form but essence, not visible but invisible. Narration involves all this, solid narratives that take shape from reflections, thoughts, suggestions and that set up a dialogue between human and object. Sharing and participation are the basis for an unlikely empathy, a search for contact, for a relationship.
There is no recipe, there is no set path, there are no “emotional mathematics;” the ingredients are simply put together. The elements influence and cross-pollinate each other and the material becomes narration, in a design method built on knowledge, experience and sensitivity. The “form” determines the content and functions, identifies it and describes it.
Circular economy and virtuous supply are the values you’ve chosen to underpin your work right from the start. Are they a means of reinventing your work and valorising craftsmanship through design? Would it be true to say that they also represent a way of reconciling the anthropic and the ecological and producing work that cannot harm a world that’s now in turmoil.
Sometimes we rediscover values we’ve upheld for years simply because someone gives them a name; that’s true of circular economy.
It comes under the heading of “sensitivities,” of observations and understanding.
We’ve worked with natural materials for ages and have adhered to their “request” to be used parsimoniously, because they “whisper that they are not infinite.” Observation tells us that many companies have built a production chain composed of artisans and that industrial production of Made in Italy furnishing accessories is not as massive as it is – for example – in the motor industry.
What it comes down to is that it’s a process that’s already been tried and tested, embraced by some of the leading Italian brands; it couldn’t be otherwise, it’s the productive fabric of small and medium-sized enterprise in Italy.
An extremely positive note – then – sparking an informed process, taking care with the materials and the processes; these days design means designing the future, so as to be as enduring as possible. Creating objects triggers an immediate, careful and protective response, and does away – as far as possible – with disposable objects: informed design.
Two different, but equally significant approaches; the Gessati came about through observation (yards of marble workshops, full of pallets of tiles, approximately 1 to 2 cm tiles made up from the “waste” from processing the blocks and the least expensive), from understanding (using unremarkable slabs to generate small workable numerically controlled blocks) and from resolution (creating a new product that will give the material another lease of life, turning it into a countertop washbasin for a company that puts vision first). One moves from an “ephemeral” state to a “solid” state through a visual representation of the object, which can then be reborn through the project (design), know how (artisan), technology and its cross-cutting application.
The slabs – kept for years in the pallets and in danger of being turned into granulate – regain their pride and their natural state, taking on a perceptual and functional value.
This design method has led to expanding the collection to include the Rigati - same process, but laying the slabs differently; a simple rotational movement defines new perceptual levels of the material, new “contours” that bring out a different side to the material.
The Borghi collection, on the other hand, was sparked by a “bet,” a desire to create an environmentally-friendly product using natural and synthetic materials; we’ll never forget Andrea Lupi’s memorable comment on the telephone: “This time they’ll think we’re bonkers.” Behind those words lay his visionary ability to see beyond and ahead of time. We began to think … immediately after another phone call: “let’s go for some new colours,” a journey, a workshop, and over the course of a morning we created a palette together, harnessing the colours of Tuscany: Oleo, Gran Cru and Cerulean. They became the colours for Crystalmood’s Borghi, a freestanding washbasin with a natural cork column. The land makes itself forcefully felt in this project, defining its narration and describing its characteristics (the sky, the earth and its fruits); it is a product that brings “opposites” together and which – nonetheless – follows an informed rationale: in terms of materials: Cristalmood (a patented and recyclable resin, hardwearing and capable of being revived with a simple wipe) and cork (the bark is turned into tops for wine bottles, themselves recycled and turned into the raw materials used for moulds and natural resin agglomerations) make for a genuine example of circular economy. Here too, the design is owed to observation, understanding and functional resolution.
Here’s the axiom: you can reinvent production and valorise craftsmanship through design, anthropic and ecological are reconciled and you achieve informed production sensitive to the values of this earth.
The third thing that strikes one about your work is the ethical value and onus on social values, human beings and artisans. Is it hard to reconcile these values in a market that’s based on a model of financial wellbeing that often exploits rather than valorises us?
We’ve always taken a “humanist” approach to design, made up of relationships, stories, encounters and a desire to meet the men and women rather than the “businesses,” building relationships founded on respect and friendship. We firmly believe that human beings have to remain at the heart of business projects, of life. It seems obvious, but it isn’t … Luckily time reveals the right avenues to pursue, you have to be consistent, hard-headed sometimes, work really hard, but in the end there are the people with whom we’ve built empathy, with whom we enjoy having supper after working together in interminable business meetings.
It is no accident that these entrepreneurs have built up an powerful relationship with their staff, that they have managed to create “families” rather than social levels.
Things that seem impossible and difficult suddenly become easy, immediate, natural; they are the “rules of the game” that change and determine the next step.
It’s truly exemplary the way the “design” blends with the material and neither of the two prevails – how do you achieve this balance?
Respect: only when there is mutual respect can long-lasting unions be created; a condition that relates to human beings but also to sensitive objects. Naturally, you need to know both aspects, understand that design and material go hand-in-hand with care, sensitivity and awareness. Materials require a unique and requisite treatment; it would be disrespectful to design a marble object as if it were in plastic and vice versa.
Our design methodology is also applied to surfaces; for the last two years, our creative direction has been in the hands of Styl’editions, a company specialising in decorative surfaces, based in Sassuolo. It is a manufacturing district with pronounced, local characteristics, “closed” to external influences; we met two brilliant entrepreneurs - Maurizio Cavagnari and Silvia Cerretti – who have enabled us to completely rebuild our business genetic code. We took a “demolition” approach, conscious that we had to break down all the preconceptions that had formed in a region that had been so articulated and structured by time and that clung to us like a dog biting its own tail.
Here too, we had to put human beings at the heart of the project, the project at the heart of the product; reorganise our internal skills into a production chain that includes fine craftsmanship and numerical control machinery; leverage our internal resources to build a new business, at low cost and without any major investments; bring materials back into the spotlight, exploiting them to the full by marrying them directly with the graphic design, with the built design.
Then there are the collections made from large ceramic slabs, the graphic design means that the raw material can be touched, it’s no longer entirely covered; we don’t emulate natural materials but interpret them; we apply the advanced technology employed in other productive sectors to the ceramic slabs, inspiring collections “eroded” by the sand … three-dimensional.
We are continuing to work on our business image, on catalogues with clear, functional graphics, ecological paper, small practical formats that use as little material as possible; we are progressing our business image with a flexible exhibition project, where nothing is thrown away at the end of the fair, but will instead be partly reused for other exhibitions, to define the company showroom … an informed and sensitive project - which when it first appeared, slotted in amongst the top ceramic companies, was awarded the ADI Booth Design Award in the Research category at Cersaie 2019, and thus forms part by right of the Design for Living section of the ADI Design Index 2020.
Of all your many projects, we’d like to talk more about the Stone House. What excites you and what makes you most proud about this project?
The Stone House is an independent project resting on the founding values of constancy and passion. There are numerous aspects that make us happy, anticipating the times by going back in time, realising that there is room for new ideas to grow, run autonomously and without commercial filters.
Then there is “randomness,” putting together a cultural project with innovative theoretical assumptions and seeing it turn into a business project was surprising; but aside from the theoretical assumptions there were also practical ones (creating products with pairs of artisans, physically distant and unknown to each other, to try out new expressive vocabularies thanks to technology, to the materials and to the sensitivities). A complex, structured productive process, devised for an exhibition at Marmomac, absolutely not a business project … yet after the initial results, after realising that it could also be developed in that direction too, after deciding that it was crucial to “steer a straight course” – with just amounts of passion, collaboration and also hard-headedness – The Stone House took shape and has grown over the years, becoming a benchmark for young designers, for professionals/consultants/companies who are looking for catalogue or customised collections, for teaching projects (the Masters in Design – Innovation and Product for Fine Craftsmanship, coordinated by us at IED Florence), for international projects (a year’s work in Tunisia, revitalising the El Jem mosaic production district, supported by EBRD) and for specific projects that are about to take off in Italy.
The Stone House currently encompasses 46 artisans from all over Italy and has created a real dispersed workshop, differentiated according to specificity; there are 68 collections and over 200 objects in the catalogue, and other collections are in the finishing stages. It’s a project in progress that generates relationships, skills, solutions, and that can be available on request; a “design gymnasium” that allows us to learn about so many materials and how they are processed, and about machinery, that can only be achieved “onsite.” Experiences that are also useful to the companies we collaborate with, because they open out innovative vistas.
What does home mean for Laura and Gabriele?
A refuge, a personal, intimate space in which to build our lives; great attention to detail, full of objects, a space that stokes the imagination, a protector of interior landscapes.
Lastly, how would you like to see the Salone del Mobile di Milano in 2021, after 60 years and after the taste of the “end of the world” to which we’ve been subjected?
The Salone del Mobile di Milano has always been an important point of interface, not just because of the business it generates but also as regards keeping physically distant friendships alive; in 2021 we’d like this side of it to be emphasised even more greatly, it’s even more necessary because “design is relationships.” The recent lockdown has underscored the need for enveloping, protective homes even more, but it has also triggered fears and worries that are still felt today; we hope that it will become a liberating opportunity, where we can retrieve that sense of freedom, hugs and kisses.