Interview with Francesco Barberini & Nina Alexandra Gunnell Translated by Nina
– Tell me about yourselves and your design practice?
It is difficult to describe the way we feel about our design. It is a very personal process in the sense that a lot of memories, stories, and happenings are involved. Our work is the result of two persons with different personalities, also deriving from our different nationalities and backgrounds. My English/Austrian/German background leads to a different way of thinking in our design process, more functionality, but also less exciting. I also like more female/zoomorphic shapes. The Italian ‘modus operandi’ was a little difficult for me to accept in the beginning. In Italy, artisans take their time to start work and an outsider would think they are late, but it is a necessary process, an idea or decision of how to go ahead with a challenging piece must mature over an espresso. They make up for the lost time in the evening and work with passion on a piece until it is done.
Francesco is completely different when it comes to design, for his functionality is more or less secondary, he goes way over the limit when trying out new materials and work techniques. Also when it comes to our ideas, Francesco’s inspiration has a ‘dark’ side, not negative, but raw and daring, often showing his fascination for ‘monsters’, obscure things, mechanics, strength. Francesco also feeds the need of his origin, the Italian sense of aesthetics and beauty. He does not stop to work on a line, on a curve until it is the way he has it in his mind. Francesco trusts in his hand drawings and not the computer.
Working and living together has the advantage that we spin ideas continuously, everyday life, traveling and many other influences lead to inspiration and when we have an idea we sketch it immediately and discuss. We have books and books filled with sketches and ideas. To run out of ideas is something we don’t fear, luckily. The limit is time and budget. Especially for art installations; something we would love to get into. Surely interesting is our multinationality; it is stimulating, challenging and difficult at times when translating from German into Italian into English and back, trying to describe what emotions and ideas one has in his head.
– How did you get involved in design and architecture?
He started off by studying Architecture in Venice and then went to Rome to work as an architect and receive his Masterʼs in interior design. Thatʼs where we met. I started in Florence and went to Rome to complete my Masters. He started off with classic architecture, it was really a coincidence we started making objects. He doesnʼt like architecture anymore, he was searching for something that would give the opportunity to create in a creative way, and that doesnʼt happen within architecture. When Francesco was younger, he always liked to dismantle and create something new, very mechanical. Our sculptures start from the head with an idea of how it develops. Francesco is quite a perfectionist, everything to the smallest detail has to be perfect. Architecture doesnʼt have the same detail focus to us when we do a piece of sculpture or table, we are responsible and can create. Sometimes we create items just for us. But it started as a coincidence because we made custom tables for one of our clients in a huge dining area and thatʼs where we saw we really liked doing this, we made some more pieces and tried to get into the young design fair in Milan. We tried to be like everybody else entering, but what we saw was that we were completely different, not like the industrial or Scandinavian designs present. We had one chair, made of stainless steel and leather, its really more of a sculpture. We wanted to hide it, we thought we really couldnʼt exhibit it here, but we couldnʼt find storage in time. In the end, someone came up to us and really liked it and it went into action and that’s how we discovered our success for more limited edition design or art furniture. Our passion is really in the art furniture.
– So how would you characterise your design works?
We would call them sculptural works. We try to use characteristics of the material to its maximum – origami glass tables – cutting it on an angle and structural gluing – challenge with the works.
– What was the inspiration for Cloud?
Francesco comes up with these mad ideas, as you can often hear him say ‘monstrousʼ to describe his works. We put in every project something than can be remembered, a memory, an inspiration, behind every project there is a story we can tell. Cloud inspiration comes from using the cloud. There is a double meaning behind it. Though the shape is similar to the actual cloud, we like to combine the story of good and bad together. Transforming something that is normally very light and sweet, but kidnapping it. There is a dark side to the piece. We try to hide the cloud once its cut up, hide it in onyx and tie it down with brass bangles to the floor. So that the cloud can never leave or float away, it will stay in your house. Similar to this, Golem is inspired by ancient legend. There are two meanings that stay together, the good and the bad, this is constant throughout all the works. Often it is a combination together. The light air of the cloud paired with the huge, heavy, raw, material (this inspired by Francescoʼs life working on motorbikes or on the port). We start off with these stories and transform into something positive.
The ‘Cloud’ project was designed to be ‘sellable’ if we are honest. Something more ‘normal’. Artworks like Golem, Mangrovia, Chained Up, Get Lost, Cosa
Nostra or Ferrari 312B are eye-catchers, talking pieces, much more challenging to make and to sell. ‘Cloud’ was meant to be ‘normal’ until we started off to work with onyx marbles!! It became a real challenge to work with such a fragile, but extremely beautiful material and not making a compromise on the design at the same time. The design/pattern was ‘fragile’ in the sense that the ‘clouds’ and holes between the clouds make any marble or stone weaker. This is why we decided to put a brass or steel plate under the onyx in order to strengthen it. This leads to an unbelievably high weight though and this is when the idea of making more smaller tables come along. This ‘forced’ modification brought a cool new aspect to the project – the fact that the client can choose various materials (brass, steel, marbles, onyx, etc.) in one and the same object and overall can compose the smaller tables to the shape of coffee table one needs. ‘Cloud’ can be assembled in a more rectangular or rounded shape or be distributed in single tables/parts – just like a real cloud!!
– How does that translate into executing the design? Anything specific of the process of creation – techniques used?
The first thing we focus on is the materials. Of course, then we sit down and draw our concepts after talking about it for a long time. The inspiration is not planned or calculated, it comes first and then the plan to execute it comes next. The material informs the work, informs the techniques we can use. We have a love for material. We like to work with our hands, not only machines or tools. Often we create little prototypes to see how it works with each proportion, again focusing on detail. The material transmits the piece and its meaning. We wouldnʼt have used wood for Golem because it wouldnʼt have offered the same meaning. Marble is strong, cold, big, heavy, monstrous, the opposite of a cloud. We prefer to work with real and natural materials, we donʼt use plastics, we are very engaged in the making process. Often we like to use this juxtaposition of material and idea, for instance, Origami is seen as lightweight but we paired it instead with heavy glass.
– How is your works unique compared to other Italian designers? How would you define your style?
We donʼt want to compare our works to anyone else. Francesco refuses to look at what other people do, doesnʼt want to. He wants to stay pure to himself. I think we have our own unique way, very different than others. Our style is difficult to describe, but it certainly is important based on the material choice, with careful detail, we believe quality is of utmost importance.
Francesco and I are quite unusual when it comes to comparison with other designers. Many people think all designers MUST live in Milan or large design hubs to get somewhere, we don’t agree. We are very individual and do not compare our work with others. Francesco refuses to actually see what others do as it does not interest him. I like to see what others do, but don’t try to be like them.