Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Formafantasma Craftica Review, Gallery Libby Sellers, 1 - 28 February 2013

For the love of leather, I had to visit Craftica, a curious craft x design project commissioned by none other than Fendi

Perch Stool and Perch Fish Hot Water Bottle

The Baguette, the Spy, the Hobo... Italian fashion giant Fendi is famous for its coveted handbags, but what about salmon-skin furniture and cow-bladder water bottles? No, this isn’t a radical Flintstones-inspired collection due to hit Fendi stores anytime soon, it’s the London debut of Craftica at Gallery Libby Sellers, a Fendi x Formafantasma (two Italian product designers working in the Netherlands) collaboration for Design Miami/Basel 2012. 

Fendi’s annual Design Performance programme invites contemporary designers to create an interactive exhibition repurposing production leather off-cuts from that would otherwise go to waste. Previous designers have included Simon Hassan, who displayed his bespoke boiled leather mannequin (an ancient technique known as ‘cuir bouilli’) at the Craft Council’s Added Value exhibition during London Design Festival.

Craftica, a contemporary design exhibition at Libby Sellers consists of crafted stools, lights, vessels and tools. Formafantasma’s Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin have created visually curious and tactile objects exploring our historical, diverse relationship with leather. 

Wolf-fish-pig Stool, Studs Stool and Salmon Stool

Needless to say this is not one for vegetarians. Ethically-sourced industrial animal by-products, from cow and pig leathers to less conventional perch, wolf-fish and trout skins (vegetal-tanned, mind you) are made into well-designed, modern items whose domestic functions have changed little since prehistoric times. No matter what your ethical stance is, it’s hard to refute leather’s primitive symbolism − enabling human survival as a source of food, fuel and shelter. We still very much depend on animals/plants above and underneath the sea, albeit perhaps in more sophisticated ways. The installation is, the duo admit, a modern-day “holistic view of leather as a material”.

Exhibits are placed around the main gallery space (which makes rather interesting viewing for outside pedestrians walking past its floor-to-ceiling window), on plinths, tables, isolated corners, with ample space for navigation − a bit like a minimal showroom home. The walls are white so the objects, in various neutral grey or brown hues could easily be mistaken for the products sold by its nearby up-market Oxford Street retailers. No detail is spared as each item is custom-made – from scallop shell spoons with hand-stitched fish-skin and leather handles to individual engraved brass tags that list every product component. Although there’s a definite primitive feel in the selection of animal hides, the finished aesthetic is surprisingly refined, leaving little trace of the human hand. After all, Formafantasma are product designers first and foremost. 

Water containers - Cow bladders, glass, brass, cork

I found myself unwittingly scrutinising every object, guessing how and what materials were used, like the seemingly two-part, mouth-blown glass vessels (a funnel shape inserted into an organic blob), joined by a broken, giant cattle bone. What it truly is I’ve yet to fathom, but all the exhibits are intriguing bizarre but somehow familiar at the same time.

Knife: Vegetal tanned cow leather, cow bone

It would be tricky for any visitor not to be tempted to touch the tactile, contrasting textures, a stool combining soft pig leather and scale-patterned fish skin for example. Ever wondered what’s it like to sit on a sea-sponge as a cushion? Or squeeze a silicon-coated, inflated cow bladder complete with visceral frozen veins? Although visitors are sadly not permitted to touch, I’m told that despite its delicate appearance, fish skin is surprising supple and strong, which is why it is increasingly developed as a sustainable fashion alternative to leather. What’s more, all exhibits bar the cow bladder water containers (for health and safety reasons) are fully functional.

Fashionable interior-loving types will love the graceful bell lights, dangling from Fendi leather covered straps. Personally I was drawn to the fish-skin water bottle because the slouchy pouch shape most closely resembled my imagined ‘caveman version’ of a water carrier, with the added style bonus of looking a bit like a handbag. It is almost unbelievable that such beauty completely derives from nature.

Bells-lights - leather, glass, leather-covered hooks, leather-covered electric wire

Any remaining doubts on the versatility of leather will dispelled by artist Francesco Zorzi’s witty drawings (on hairless goat skin parchment) illustrating a wide range of historical and current uses − medieval body armour, waterproof tepees to baseball mitts. In addition to Craftica there are pieces from previous Formafantasma collections displayed in other rooms − Botanica, Colony and Moulding Tradition. Although these share a connection of nature and human heritage and delivering unexpected results through exquisite craftsmanship, their contexts are not nearly as coherent as those in the main series. Given the limited space available for display (typical of premium rent-paying private galleries in Soho), I would have preferred more Craftica artefacts rather than showing too many different themes at once. A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions, large-scale highlights like the leather room divider and weighted table omitted from its London outing.

Craftica brings a new light to the age-old conundrum of humans depleting natural resources faster than they can be replenished. In a world where a booming population and most demand for cheap goods disregards environmental impact, it makes a rather profound statement, perhaps even questioning one’s stance on the issue.

On the other hand, you might suspect the motive behind a green, craft revival project sponsored by a global company known for making its millions from luxury consumption, but there’s no doubt ‘craft’ is the new marketing buzz-word embraced by all brands. Whether companies adopt its values remains yet to be seen. Lingering traditionalists may call it selling out, but the association of high-profile fashion house can only be a good thing (including a personal endorsement from Silvia Fendi, the head of accessories and craft champion), because it will bring much needed publicity and commercial appeal to the image of contemporary craft. It’s about cool, creative experimentation of ideas, materials and techniques – not knitted jumpers drowning in hearts and drooling puppies. 

Formafantasma's next UK exhibition Lava will open at Gallery Libby Sellers in September 2013.

All photography by Luisa Zanzani

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