Controversially topical for us here in South Africa, society’s ambivalent stance toward the ‘foreign’ or ‘strange’ is the theme that Studio Formafantasma has chosen for their solo show at the MAK Museum Vienna – aptly titled ‘The Stranger Within’.
DECO readers may not be familiar with Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin who, together, are Studio Formafantasma. These two talented Italian designers, based in Amsterdam, are 2009 graduates of the prestigious IM master course at Design Academy Eindhoven where their interest in product design developed.
As their website proclaims: ‘Formafantasma has developed a coherent body of work characterized by experimental material investigations that explore such issues as the relationship between tradition and local culture, critical approaches to sustainability and the significance of objects as cultural conduits.’
The ornate architecture of the MAK building, housed in the Geymüllerschlössel in Pötzleinsdorf, a neighborhood in Vienna’s suburban outskirts, is a fitting location – representing Formafantasma’s fascination with the exotic.
This phenomenal structure was originally put up after 1808 as a “summer building” for the Viennese merchant and banker Johann Jakob Geymüller and today, it is one of the few places in Austria ‘offering an authentically original look at the diversity of Biedermeier decorative art.’
Indian and Arabian stylistic quotations in the façade’s ornamentation and the villa’s interior tell of that period’s predilection for the cultures of the Orient.
Of their central work, the duo said, ‘in a globalised world where the concept of the ‘exotic’ is losing its meaning, we invite the audience to take a closer look and…to turn their gazes both inward and back towards the past.’
A centrepiece of The Stranger Within, the Nodus Rug (seen in our header image, above) was designed specifically for the Geymüllerschlössel’s Blue Salon in collaboration with the Italian producer Nodus. This piece, derived from the texture and coloration of the surrounding interior spaces, is reminiscent of an oversized mask and functions as a mystical metaphor of the foreign.
Stood upright in the middle of the Salon, the rug acts like a totem around which the other exhibits distribute themselves through the villa’s adjoining rooms. The combination of this rug with objects made of inflated or hardened pig’s bladders, such as the Bladder Chandelier (2013), evoke associations with folkloric Carnival traditions.
Mechanisms of colonial power structures and of present day migration policy are addressed by the series of objects entitled Moulding Tradition (2009). Starting from Arabian-African influences on European ceramics production, Studio Formafantasma makes reference to present day migration flows from Africa to islands such as Lampedusa and reflects on themes such as national identity and racism.
In a reference to a traditional Sicilian genre of ceramics known as ‘teste di moro’, buoy-shaped vessels bear portraits of refugees.
The work series Botanica (2011) and Craftica (2012), which underwent further development for this MAK exhibition, deal with innovative material developments and their application. At the Geymüllerschlössel, these works developed from animal or plant waste materials — like a stunning bouquet of artificial flowers made entirely of butterfly wings from c. 1840.
Just as the Biedermeier era’s exploration of nature was accompanied by the Industrial Revolution, the present era of digital modernity is accompanied by the search for alternative raw materials and production techniques.
Thomas Geisler, exhibition curator and collection curator of the MAK Design Collection, describes Studio Formafantasma as ‘a materials laboratory of a new industrial era’. With objects telling as rich a story as these, we can’t wait to see what they do next.
Concept, Design: Andrea Trimarchi, Simone Farresin
Development: Francesco Zorzi, Federico Floriani, Morgen Ruben Jansen Op De Haar
Production: Lobmeyr, Nodus Rug, Studio Formafantasma
Curated by: Thomas Geisler