BY Alice Rawsthorn in Features | 15 OCT 17
Featured in
Issue 191

One Take: Studio Formafantasma's Ore Streams

Alice Rawsthorn on the Italian design duo’s response to ecological and political concerns

BY Alice Rawsthorn in Features | 15 OCT 17

It is a rubbish bin – rather a fetching one. What else would you expect of an object coated in gold leaf, which was painstakingly applied using a centuries-old technique by the skilled artisans working for one of Italy’s finest gilders? The delicate layers of gold look exquisite, yet they were salvaged from unwanted computers and other digital devices that had ended up in recycling plants.

The gilded bin is one of half-a-dozen products designed by the Italian duo Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi – who work together as Studio Formafantasma – for their research project Ore Streams (2017), which explores design’s relationship with the gargantuan, partially illicit global trade in electronic and digital waste. All of the objects were designed for use in an imaginary office. They include a table, chair, desk, cabinet and computer screens, each of which was made from salvaged materials and components constructed from recycled digital junk. Not that you can tell at first glance: only on closer inspection do you notice that these sleekly refined objects, subtly glimmering with gold plating, contain the corpses of discarded electronic products. The SIM card and circuit board of a phone are embedded in the seat of the chair, the innards of a microwave oven in the desk and computer cases in the cabinet. 

Ore Streams was initially commissioned in 2015 by Ewan McEoin, a senior curator in the department of contemporary design and architecture at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne, where it will be exhibited in the inaugural NGV Triennial of Art and Design, which opens in December. The office objects will be accompanied by a video installation of the interviews Farresin and Trimarchi conducted over the last two years with recyclers, manufacturers, scientists, designers, recycling specialists at NGOs and the Interpol officials responsible for policing the electronic waste trade. The work also includes animated digital renderings, which illustrate their assessment of what designers should – and should not – do to ensure that their products can be recycled as easily and efficiently as possible.

Studio Formafantasma, ‘Ore Streams’, Chair and Cubicle 1, 2017, preparatory rendering, anodized aluminium, metalized paint, digital print on aluminium, electronic waste components, gold-plated aluminium

Design’s ecological and political responsibilities have been defining themes of Farresin and Trimarchi’s work since they graduated from Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands in 2009. They have produced successive collections of objects, which, like those in Ore Streams, appear exquisitely composed and fabricated, yet are laden with coded references to polemical issues, including the depletion of natural resources, the rise of racism, the refugee crisis, rural poverty, the legacy of Italy’s brutal colonial history and its craft heritage. The development of new materials has been the focus of several of their projects, including a biomaterial they formulated in Autarchy (2010) and a natural polymer they devised in Botanica (2011) as well as their De Natura Fossilium (2014) experiment, in which they constructed objects from the volcanic lava from an eruption of Mount Etna in Sicily. At a time when design is becoming increasingly politicized, Farresin and Trimarchi have proved to be unusually eloquent and incisive in articulating their concerns in both conceptual exercises and practical interventions. In May, they ran a design and fabrication course for a group of mostly Syrian refugees at Villa Magni, a 17th-century farming complex near Ragusa in southern Sicily, where the humanitarian design group Architecture Sans Frontières has established a training centre. All of Farresin and Trimarchi’s projects have been grounded in intensive research, though Ore Streams is by far the most ambitious in scale.

Recycling is an ancient industry and one that can be immensely lucrative – for which reason it has always been tainted by exploitation and criminality. By the mid-1800s, hordes of pickers, searchers and sorters were scouring the huge dust heaps and dunghills that towered over London’s slums in the hope of spotting something sellable, such as rags to be recycled into paper or animal bones to be turned into soap. Most notorious of all was the mammoth Great Dust Heap between Battle Bridge and the Smallpox Hospital in Kings Cross, whose contents were shipped to Russia in 1848 to be crushed into building materials for the reconstruction of Moscow. Charles Dickens described the squalor and brutality of the Great Dust Heap in Our Mutual Friend (1865), and mounted a campaign to purge London of its dumps and crack down on their noxious trade.

Environmentally aware designers have championed responsible recycling ever since the late 1920s, when the maverick US designer and activist R. Buckminster Fuller raised the alarm about the design community’s duty to conserve, rather than squander, natural resources. The waste industry has since been subjected to an arsenal of legal and regulatory constraints. Yet, there are still lapses and abuses. These range from the erroneous claims made by manufacturers for the ecological impact of their products to the contemporary equivalents of the Great Dust Heap, like the dystopian Agbogbloshie dump near Accra in Ghana, where thousands of desperate people pick over the toxic remains of smartphones, computers, fridges and television sets.

As well as probing the human and environmental devastation caused by such hellholes, Farresin and Trimarchi have mapped the labyrinthine global industry of legalized electronic disposal and recycling in Ore Streams. Currently, less than a third of all digital devices used in the European Union are responsibly recycled. In Ore Streams, the duo set out to identify ways in which design can be deployed to correct the flaws in the current system and to make it more productive and sustainable. As their research progressed, they became increasingly convinced that an attitudinal change was required within the design community. During the industrial age, designers tended to focus their time and energy on the manipulation of materials into finished products. Farresin and Trimarchi believe that, in future, they should be equally absorbed by the origins of those materials, just as craftspeople are by the provenance of the woods, metals or yarns they use in their work.

The Ore Streams research flushed out examples of apparently innocuous design decisions that impede recycling to greater and lesser degrees. Covering copper wire in black rubber prevents the optical recognition software in recycling plants from identifying it. Black plastic packaging suffers from the same problem, while mixing metal and concrete makes it difficult for recyclers’ magnets to detect the former and to separate it from the latter. Another increasingly common and damaging obstacle is for the waterproof seals on smartphones to be so strong that it is impossible to open them up to remove the batteries and any recyclable components.

Studio Formafantasma, ‘Ore Streams’, Table and Cubicle 1, 2017, preparatory rendering, metalized paint, digital print on aluminium, electronic waste components, gold-plated aluminium 

Ore Streams also identifies models of good practice, such as Fairphone, the Dutch social enterprise whose smartphones are designed to be robust, durable and made from responsibly sourced materials, many of them recycled. Miele, the German domestic appliances manufacturer, is praised for the rigour with which it has integrated recycling into product development and manufacturing, notably by designing its washing machines so that individual components can be removed for repair or replacement, while the cases remain unchanged for several years. Farresin and Trimarchi also analyzed the cottage industries that have emerged to service the electronic waste trade, such as the new genre of ‘end of life’ consultancies. Among them is Close the Loop, an Australian company which specializes in waste recovery and recycling and advises manufacturers on how to adapt their design processes to maximise the use of recycled materials and the possibility of reusing and recycling them again.

Despite such advances, there are frequent abuses, including breaches of the Basel Convention’s ban on the shipment of hazardous waste from developed to developing countries by unscrupulous dealers and shippers. Even lawful developments can have unexpectedly malign consequences. Take the railway constructed in Mauritania to transport iron from mines in the interior to the coast for shipment to China: no sooner was it completed than human traffickers started using it to smuggle people.

Farresin and Trimarchi believe that the same factor which fuels such horrors – the lure of profit – may also help to encourage the tech industry to step up its efforts to ensure that, in the future, more of its products are recycled. The rationale is that the contents of electronic and digital waste can be extremely valuable. Take computers, which contain gold in their chips and printed circuit boards, silver in keyboard membranes and cobalt, platinum and palladium in hard drives. If computers are designed from the outset to facilitate it, it should be possible for those precious metals to be ‘mined’ faster and less expensively from discarded electronic products than from the ground – just like the gold leaf on the Ore Streams rubbish bin.

Studio Formafantasma was co-founded by Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi, who are based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Their work has been acquired for the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA, the Art Institute of Chicago, USA, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK. Studio Formafantasma recently completed its first industrial project for the Italian lighting manufacturer Flos. Ore Streams will be displayed at the NGV Triennial, Melbourne, Australia, from 15 December until 15 April 2018. 

Main image: Studio Formafantasma, Ore Streams, 2017, video still. Courtesy: the designers and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Alice Rawsthorn is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life (2013) and Design as an Attitude (2018). She lives in London, UK.