Renewable Matter # I-01 / Urban Mines of Aluminium

The Role of Design in New Matter Scenarios

Interview with Marco Ferreri

edited by Marco Moro, Mauro Panzeri, interview with Marco Ferreri

The catalogue of economic ideas evolves rapidly but this is not the case for economic practices, which are still linked to operating models that have clearly shown their limitations. The circular economy and the bioeconomy represent the most promising development trajectories for their ability to provide answers to the various crises underway. Over the last decades, when engaging with sustainability issues, recycling, reusing, recovery, as well as the fourth “R”, for reduction, are words that have been widely employed. Nevertheless, figures, with due exceptions (as is the case with aluminium), reveal that we are far from an across-the-board adoption of such practices.

Equally, as we have heard it many times before, design plays a crucial role in transforming the way products – from the simplest to the more complex – are conceived. A specific EU directive is devoted to ecodesign, thus identifying it as one of the key strategies to achieve the 2020 energy efficiency target.

Such “ecologic” efficiency concept must necessarily be extended to the use of materials, a scenario where the industrial culture seems to have grasped, before politics, the urgency of a change.

We talk about this with Marco Ferrari, an architect, designer and artist, who has lived side by side with generations of great masters of Italian design. He is also one of the most gifted contemporary interpreters.

 

Aluminium is a ubiquitous material in the “everyday material scenario”, as suggested by the still-life image portfolio, enriching this publication, as well as other sectors. In your opinion, what is the role of aluminium in the construction of our material imagery?

“Thanks to its lightness and resistance, aluminium is a material for modernity. Inconceivable results have been achieved thanks to this: suffice it to think of the development of the aviation industry, which was born with materials such as wood and canvas. 

Then, the fantastic thing about aluminium – as the images show – is how research is always looking for best performance. Already light weights, thanks to the thinning of matter, become almost impalpable, always in search of the minimum filter between user and content. The first printed cans, for example, had a certain weight: over the last twenty years, such weight has been reduced by almost 20%, down to the current 12.5 grams.

The portfolio photographs are fascinating because they omit graphic design, thus letting the object identity speak and not that of a brand, which in reality overwhelms the image of the material. In these iconic figures, therefore, their essence as minimalistic objects emerge, which is a focal point in my research. In this gallery of images, aluminium shows its ability to be exempt from any contamination of luxury ideas, with a tendency towards ornate, extravagant and expensive styles.

Aluminium luxury is democratic, it means hygiene for all (think for example of packaging and containers). Such characteristics are intrinsic to the material. The energy necessary for its production is also a luxury, this is why it is important to educate people to recycling, for example, screw caps on wine bottles, normally not considered suitable for recycling.

If I had to describe the role of aluminium in our material landscape, I would highlight its versatility and the associated research in using less and less material. As if efficiency were a characteristic of aluminium, a distinctive feature that sets it apart from other materials and metals.

In other words, it is a material with a natural high performance that technology and human know-how – since it is also a material that does not lend itself well to DIY compared to other materials – develop and create ageless and functional objects. This is its greatest intrinsic asset. If I had to make a staircase I would use iron, because it can be found everywhere and does not require specific knowledge for welding, for example. Well, aluminium is noble in this as well: it demands knowledge. 

This is all the more fitting in our contemporary era, it is the right challenge: doing and saying things because we know them.

We should bear in mind that the project – and this is a typically Italian characteristic of design – is something that combines technological and humanistic cultures.”

 

What is the role of design in this scenario?

“Design can play a crucial role, if it understands the challenge. One of my teachers was Elio Cenci, who, 40 years ago, published the magazine Design whose subheading was ‘a means to improve the quality of life’. In this, we already have the manifesto of design. Just to make things clear, the solution is not in the chair you design but in the suggestions you can make through that design. Today is really the best time to rethink the meaning of this profession. Due to a lack of real criticism, this represents a huge problem, we live in a treacle of information in which we are all happily driving into a ravine like Thelma and Louise.”

 

You have always worked on everyday objects, simple objects such as brooms and dustpans for instance...

“Yes, that’s true, projects that try to understand how the relation between people and the objects they use can change. A relation that inevitably changes, because our ways of socialising change. Your project must take into account the evolution of society, it is the evolution of society that dictates new needs. For instance, as for living, you should no longer concentrate on objects, but on the new types of community, increasingly diversified. Do we all sleep in the same way? Do we all cook in the same way?

Design’s greatest challenge is to be able to find the lowest common denominator. Objects can be enriched, changed by users.

When designing things, we must bear in mind that then people make them theirs changing them. At the moment, I’m dealing with agriculture and I can see that tractors are all the same when they come out of the factory, but once farmers get hold of them they are changed and modified in order to make their use more effective and add a personal touch. Design must carry on taking care of this.”

 

Tell us more about this “farmer’s design”.

“It was my way of going back to designing for the real world. If you think about it, today’s agriculture, if carried out to the highest level it can become a scientist’s job, has always more than one parameter that must be taken into consideration: time (necessary for a crop to grow) and seasonality; and then you have other variables, such as climate, that make the whole process very similar to gambling. Despite all these uncertainties, you can be certain that if you do your job well, in the end you will achieve a result. Well, in my job, these aspects have nearly disappeared, that is why I felt an almost physical urge to deal not with clients who don’t know what to ask but with the real world.”

 

In your working career, you have had the opportunity to work with some masters of Italian design such as Angelo Mangiarotti, Bruno Munari and Marco Zanuso. Designers working within a culture in which the variety of materials they used to express their designing creativity seemed endless, in the 1980s there was even a so-called “hyperchoice of materials”. How has the design culture changed in a context where the material limits of our actions are becoming increasingly defined with each passing day?

“Some of these top designers made beautiful things, but sometimes with limited awareness of technical aspects. This means that there was an industrial fabric (even if in certain contexts ‘industrial’ is too big a word) that chose designers, believed in them completely making available to them all the resources they need to realize their dreams.

It is true that nowadays we are confronted with increasing ‘material’ limitations, but it is also true that we are able to imbue the materials at our disposal with the characteristics and functions we need. Obviously, this can create recycling problems, but our knowledge of things and of what they can do has improved tremendously. This is why designers can no longer work in isolation as problem solvers, but they must integrate their knowledge with other fields of expertise.

All this clashes with products still and too often conceived to become obsolete in no time, in net contrast with the value embedded in them. If your computer’s case is made of aluminium, its potential life is extraordinary. What’s the point in using such material to clad a product destined to ‘expire’ probably within a year?

Companies must change their attitude. I wonder whether they are, but also if consumers are, ready to take the leap. As I said before, there is a basic education problem.”