Formafantasma on Designing Exhibitions, Intuition, and Rejecting Clichés

The celebrated duo weigh in on the process behind their contribution to the 23rd Milan Triennale and how design can be circular, spontaneous, and at times painful.

Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi next to Ex-Cinere, refined volcanic ash-glazed tiles. Marco Cappelletti

Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, the founders of Formafantasma, the celebrated research and design studio with offices in Milan and Rotterdam, need no introduction. Their work ranges from product design to environment and exhibition design, research and experimentation. Only this year, among many other projects they worked on, they designed the main exhibition at the 58th Venice Biennale curated by Cecilia Alemani, “The Milk of Dreams,” and orchestrated a multidisciplinary symposium for Prada.

For the 23rd Milan Triennial, the Italian duo designed “Mondo Reale,” an exhibition produced by the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art and curated by Hervé Chandès. This year’s Triennale (at Palazzo dell’Arte until December 11), delves into the unknown, in the macrocosm and the microcosm, but “Mondo Reale” takes a different route and questions the mysteries concealed in everyday life and the enigmas of the world around us, from a more human perspective. If the main exhibition steps away from the Earth to revolve around the notion of mystery in the universe, Chandès’ “Mondo Reale” is envisioned as a landing in our real world, and focuses on the wonders that inhabit it and all the secrets beneath its incomprehensible perfection.

Your text that accompanies the exhibition ends with a question: “what is reality in the context of a fabricated exhibition?”

It is a partly rhetorical question. For us, it is about dealing with “what is real?” For us, it also means “dealing” with reality. The reality of a fabricated exhibition is ephemeral. It means that it will last for a short time, and often what is there is thrown away. It means that, usually, the things that are built are fake. This exhibition tries to do the opposite. We did not build any plastered walls other than those that were already there. Even the one at the entrance was already there but we raised it slightly.

And then we built separators that are visibly detachable and visibly fragile that also challenge the artworks. There is a cacophony of sounds that drops the works into reality, they don’t try to isolate them. They are walls made of paper, of modules that can be disassembled and reused. They are lighter and less impactful than other materials. We also reused existing materials, all the carpets were made for previous projects during fashion week. It means leaving the works to not build walls – leaving them naked and suspended in the void.

The exhibition, produced by the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art and curated by Hervé Chandès, focuses on the mysteries concealed in everyday life and the enigmas of the world around us. Photo by Andrea Rossetti.

Through the work of 17 international artists, “Mondo Reale” explores reality as a reverie, proposing an aesthetic experience around knowledge and its erasure: a direct, emotional encounter with multiple visions of the unknown through the lens of art and science. How did you approach the topic, and how does it tie into your work and projects?

The intuitive part of designing is the mysterious one. To which you cannot give the answers. Then you explain everything. There is a reason for everything, but intuition and imagination are the mysterious part. That, for us, is a fundamental part of the process. Our work always starts with very pragmatic thinking but then develops in a very intuitive and also mysterious way.

How do you deal with it?

It is a pleasant dimension because we know where we start but we don’t know where we end up. We must pursue a path that to a certain degree is unknown. That is an interesting thing about how we approach our work. We are not designers who sit at the tabledoing and wait for inspiration or fall in love with an image and work on that. Sometimes it can be quite complex and tortuous, at times quite painful, but it leads you to discover new things only because you accept the unknown in the design process.

“Mysteries are not merely that of the cosmic darkness, but also that of the diurnal life that surrounds us. And in an exhibition called ‘Mondo Reale,’ we liked the idea to bring a feeling of reality.” Photo by Andrea Rossetti.

The exhibition investigates the unknown by trying to shed light on what is obscure to us. Your design of the space, on the contrary, is incredibly bright.

We wanted it even brighter. We never work on clichés. We always try to make sure that we question them in all the stages of what we do. For example, for “Caravaggio-Bernini. Baroque in Rome” (an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum designed by Formafantasma in 2020) we worked on the concept of challenging the conventions by which the Baroque is typically represented.

The same for contemporary art, although here there is the idea of the white cube. Working on a contemporary art exhibition like this is not easy because often the canons are those of the white cube, of the wall that seems real. Here they do not look real, they are real and they declare it in their fragility.

What was the question? Right… brightness. Dark is a cliche. There is a beautiful film by Malick, “The Thin Red Line,” which portrays war in a very crude way but the most beautiful scenes are those during the day. Malick’s vision appears to suggest that Nature is indifferent to human traumas. He tried to disrupt the myth of Nature narrating the human state, where violence is represented by a complicit and therefore, perhaps, dark nature.

Mysteries are not merely that of the cosmic darkness, but also that of the diurnal life that surrounds us. And in an exhibition called “Mondo Reale” (Real World), we liked the idea to bring a feeling of reality. The fact that sounds overlap each other tries not to hide the works within the security of an ideal dimension. It forces them to create a dialogue, in a kind of brutal way as well. Like right now, we are trying to talk but there is a cacophony around us.

The only isolated space is a screening room created with recycled materials from other projects produced during last fashion week. Photo by Andrea Rossetti.

Often to look forward into the unknown one looks back, at the past. Do you agree?

In our work, there is a fascination for understanding the present through the patterns of the past – which never repeat themselves – but we are always interested in looking back to look forward. We look at the roots of things, the materials, and how they are extracted. Investigating the reason of things also implicates looking at the past.

“Mondo Reale” is on view until 11 December, at Triennale Milano. Read our review of the 23rd Triennale and discover more about the event.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.