As guests of honour at Stockholm Furniture Fair, GamFratesi took ‘balance’ as a theme – an apt concept for a studio that pairs Scandinavian craftsmanship with Italian boldness, and marries tradition with innovation
Everyone likes a story about the nerdy kid who becomes the coolest. For GamFratesi it’s a story that came true at this year’s Stockholm Furniture Fair. The couple, Stine Gam (Danish) and Enrico Fratesi (Italian), first exhibited in 2007, among the bright young things at the show’s forum for new talent, the Greenhouse. Seven years and a string of successful products later, the show’s organisers invited GamFratesi to be 2014 guest of honour. The title encompasses far more than mere ceremonial duties. Guests of honour are obliged to create the showpiece installation that marks the entrance to the show, and past invitees have included Japanese super-studio Nendo.
Installations like these often reveal much about the psyche of a practice. Like many of its products, GamFratesi’s effort was visually striking, subtle and deceptively hard to realise. Essentially a showcase of work past and present, animated by multiple hanging mobiles that twisted gently with the movement of passers-by, it was an oasis of calm far removed from the trade-show treadmill.
When onoffice met the pair, the installation was filled with people meeting, working and in some cases even sleeping on one piece of furniture or another. The mobiles were a strong nod to themes of balance explored by American artist Alexander Calder, but GamFratesi explains that the idea was to develop the concept beyond art and create a more rigorous industrial object with the potential for mass production. “We started to look back at our work and we found that balance was quite an interesting topic, both in terms of the material, texture and shape of a product, and the way we work and live together,” says Fratesi. “People pass by this area all day so we wanted to emphasise the movement. It was an honest and poetic way to react to the space, instead of making a very straight statement in the middle.”
As a metaphor, the mobiles could not be more apt. Gam – fighting not to lose her voice – explains how even mild inaccuracies sent the pieces spiralling into a tailspin: “It is a little bit like an email or a phone call that comes and just ruins your day.” There were 11 people involved in the making process, which stretched the notoriously stringent studio to its limits. “We were on the phone ten times a day, and that is how it’s been for the last six months,” says Fratesi.
This kind of rigour belies the aesthetics of GamFratesi. Often, the studio produces designs that appear to have just, well, happened. The forms and materials are soft and appear very simple. What makes the work interesting is its marriage of Scandinavian craft with tinges of Italian flamboyance and not a little humour. The results vary from the childlike trolley-table Chariot for Casamania, with its goofy oversized wheels, to the sophisticated Danish mid-century classicism of Gubi’s Masculo chair.
“As designers it is always a pleasure when patience pays back”
A steady resolve and endless reserves of patience are GamFratesi’s key strengths. At the Stockholm fair, the studio worked with old collaborators Swedese, the company that took a chance on them when they launched at the Greenhouse seven years ago, to produce a high-backed version of its popular and playful Cartoon chair. When Swedese picked up the design in 2007, it dismissed the idea of a high-backed version, and in the interim period, a number of furniture brands approached GamFratesi with a view to making it. However tempting it must have been, the studio resisted the urge to let someone else take it on, instead gently nudging Swedese every now and again. The furniture company relented seven years later. “It is very nice for it to be on the stand with its brother again. It still looks contemporary and as designers it is always a pleasure when patience pays back,” says Fratesi.
GamFratesi has a knack of persuading companies to persevere with its designs. For office furniture company Offecct the studio was set the loosest of briefs – the product needed to screen sound. Reminiscent of the hula-hoop drawing that Tim Robbins’ character makes in The Hudsucker Proxy, GamFratesi sent back a sketch of a simple circular object. “We had been designing products that were expressive, but then we said, ‘Why don’t we do something iconic?’” says Fratesi. “They said: ‘We don’t know what it is,
but we love it.’” The company eventually launched Wheel – true to the original drawing, a large felt disc – at this year’s show, but not before months of adjustments to mould the fabric to the frame. Like a Weeble toy, the product rocks gently before righting itself thanks to weights at the base, its form lending a curious quality to the space it inhabits. Visitors to Offecct at the Stockholm fair seemed unsure whether it was part of the stand or part of the exhibition. It didn’t really matter. “If you are going to play with an object within a space, it should be as simple as possible,” says Fratesi.
It was a similar story with the eccentric Baffi broom, a good example of the studio’s willingness to subvert convention. Taking the hole where the handle meets the head on a traditional broom, GamFratesi made this the defining feature of the product, resulting in a moustachioed stretched O-shape. It is quirky, fun and utterly pointless: after all, brooms have been working incredibly well for centuries. In truth, it would probably never have been made but for the strong bond between patron and designer. It took Swedese and GamFratesi three years to nail down a reliable production method.
Gam and Fratesi are traditional designers. That is to say, all of their products begin with conversation between them while sketching. Computers, they say, block the spontaneity that is a lynchpin of their working relationship. CAD etc features much later in the process, when the limits of materials and shapes warrant further investigation. “The hand has limits,” says Gam. “Of course, we are very intimate, and even if I was to do one doodle, Enrico would understand it. One of us can draw on top of the other. It is a good medium for us.”
Though it seems increasingly irrelevant to define design in nationalistic terms, GamFratesi holds on to the notion of design heritage. Culturally, the couple’s backgrounds are very different. Gam grew up in cosmopolitan, secular Copenhagen, while Fratesi’s early years in Pesaro in Italy were coloured by the ritual of church and tradition. “They still have the same furniture in the shop windows as they did 30 years ago,” he says. Design education, particularly for Gam, further cemented ideas of national identity. She recalls studying how Poul Henningsen’s PH lamp diffused its light, believing in the wisdom that the source of illumination should never be revealed. “Then you go to Italy and see a naked lamp right in there in your face, and you think ‘What is that? I need to study that.’”
“Even if I was to do one doodle, Enrico would understand it”
Fratesi thinks that they are likely to be the last generation that will feel the pull of heritage in such a manner and it is hard to disagree. The production and dissemination of design is a global business.
Organic movements, although they are present, incubate for much shorter periods before the world discovers, copies and then discards them. Fratesi feels it has ushered in an era of mediocrity. “I think it is more challenging now. Even if you have more tools than before you could be making something completely wrong or completely right. Now, everyone is making something ‘quite’ right,” he says. If you subscribe to the idea of national characteristics, the Italians are the first to try something new, regardless of whether it is the done thing or not. Clearly, the current homogeneity irks Fratesi somewhat, but his partner is almost wistful. “We are not even that old, but we have felt the change in a generation.”
Trips to Pesaro provide some respite from the design world. Steadfastly 20th century, the town possesses anachronisms like a working high street and a traditional fish market.
It might seem odd to seek refuge from the design world in Italy, but GamFratesi also uses the trips to meet with suppliers. They explain how at least four of their old collaborators have shut down for good since Europe’s economic crisis. The economy is only half the story, however. The new generation has set its sights further afield than the artisanal pursuits of its forefathers, and the knowledge gleaned over years of making is in danger of being lost.
Potentially, this presents a greater problem that first thought. China’s ability to construct cheap furniture is well documented, but the country’s economic ascent has brought with it a lust for authentic (and expensive) European furniture. In this way, the old skills can play a role in securing an economic future in Italy.
In November last year, the Chinese Culture Promotion Society invited GamFratesi to co-curate Danish Pulse, a Shanghai exhibition of Danish design in a cavernous industrial building on the Huangpu river. “They were very curious to understand the product and they also wanted something quite impressive in the space,” says Gam. The studio hoisted reams of bright fabric into the air, creating a kind of giant heart monitor, while in the folds at ground level, Danish craftsmen hand-stitched the fabric. The aim was to challenge the ‘fire and forget’ culture of consumption. Fratesi says that the Chinese “are very open but they are behind in understanding some things. We wanted to show why certain products had such a high price, and what was [meant by] quality. Environment is a big question there so we wanted to make something that would not just be thrown away afterwards.”
In a gesture intended to honour their hosts, the duo exhibited an ancient Chinese chair, a move that backfired somewhat: “They were annoyed it was there.” It seems that some in China are still not ready to acknowledge their own design heritage. “It was very complicated. It is clear they are in a moment where everything will start to change, but they don’t know the direction yet,” says Fratesi. “Their tradition is even stronger and longer than ours, but they rejected it for a long time. There is such a long line, but there are points where our cultures connect in terms of quality, because that [Chinese] chair was extremely difficult to do.”