As part of his first Triennal, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne recently presented a new collection of objects. It was composed of two cubicles with a chair, a desk, an aluminium table, some NASA-released pictures of Mars’ surface, a trash basket plated in gold and a cabinet. Apart from being delicious pieces of office furniture, combined together in a poetic and minimalistic workspace, these pieces are a stimulating essay on how to recycle materials from our discarded appliances, laptops and cell phones – which are in fact what they are made of. Computer keyboards, microwave grids, iPhone components and mobile phone outer casings unveil their presence in the furniture embedded as precious details.

The name of the collection is Ore Streams and it is the very last project of Amsterdam-based Italian design duo Studio Formafantasma, alias Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin. As always in their works, you get close to each piece attracted by the essentiality and the elegance of the visual language, by the appeal of the materials, and then you find out that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and that the aesthetic is probably just the last thing to appreciate in their design. In this specific case, some 8-channel video interviews and a 3D rendering animation included in the installation tell visitors how far this work has come from, and how many paths it may follow to develop even more.

Ore Streams is the outcome of over two years of research, that began by approaching the theme of mineral extraction and then focused deeply on above ground mining, e-waste and digital debris. During this parabola, it brought up to light some of the more neglected and the more urgent environmental issues of our time – i.e. the compulsive growing of e-waste as a consequence to the overproduction and planned obsolescence of technological devices, the illegal exportation of discarded electronics in dumps in developing countries and its implications for health, the one-way innovation in tech industry, and the role of the designers in all this scenario.

Through Studio Formafantasma’s usual investigative, collaborative, and interdisciplinary method, this project involved different kind of realities, such as companies, research institutes, NGOs and e-waste recyclers, then ended up in a museumtaking the shape of a piece that is rather intended to raise awareness and provoke reflection than to be sold. Ever since the beginning their practice has been to question the relationships between design, culture, tradition and sustainability, and the multiple narratives hidden in the materials.

Opened up in 2009 at the Design Academy in Eindhoven with their Master thesis Moulding Traditions– a study of North-African immigration and cultural cross-flow in Sicily since the 17th century until now, approached by revisiting teste di Moro traditional ceramics production – their body of work now can claim, to name two more: Botanica, a research on bio-plastic and natural polymers from plants and animal-derivatives, embodied in a series of vessels, and De Natura Fossilium, a collection of pieces made of volcanic lava shaped and moulded like glass.

After being awarded designers of the year 2018 by EDIDA – Elle Deco International Design Awards during the last Milan Design Week, I reached out to Andrea and Simone to know more about Ore Streams, the findings of this research and its future developments.

Federica Fontana: As you have repeated on many occasions, research is fundamental in your work, so I would start from this point and ask you to tell us how it worked for Ore Streams, what were the steps that led you to address this topic?

Simone Farresin: Ore Streams is a commission of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, which organized the first Triennale this year with about a hundred artists and designers; we were asked to develop a work that the museum would then acquire, and the curator Ewan McEoin was interested in our approach to materials. What seemed interesting about Australia to us was that it is one of the few developed countries with an economy still very focused on the extraction of minerals from the subsoil, so that was where our research took the start.

As designers we are often called upon to design the future of materials, to transform them into more or less desirable objects, but it seemed more interesting to us to try to understand the implications of production, what happens before these materials reach manufacturers, producers and designers, where and how they are extracted from. Then we embarked on a couple of years of research on this topic, that from the underground mining led us to focus on the “above ground mining”. We have read several papers in which it was estimated that by the end of the century most of the metals in our products and in our architecture will be recycled.

We were interested in focusing on this issue because, although mining has a tremendous impact on the environment, the economy and the policies that circulate around recycling are just as complex and worth to be looked at closely. We have decided to focus on the electronics industry specifically because metals and in particular precious metals in circuits can be recovered from electronic waste. We made this choice not so much because the electronics industry is the one that produces the most amount of waste, but because it is the stream of waste that is growing the fastest at the moment, and also because most of our office work is based on these objects and technologies. We wanted to start from there, from the tools we use every day, and try to understand how the relationship between production, recycling and design works.

Federica Fontana: This is an aspect that is poorly addressed nowadays, there is a lot of talking about innovation but not as much about the recycling of these devices and about its implications …

Simone Farresin: The concept of innovation is very important, the very way we define it is part of the debate. Every time we talk about these products, innovation is conceived only in terms of needs and requirements of users, but if we considered recycling as one of the parameters for judging the innovation, I do not believe that electronic devices would be in the forefront. For a long time, many of these products have been dumped in developing countries, which are still used as open-air recycling centers nowadays.

Andrea Trimarchi: During our research we spoke with manufacturers and recycling centers and it came out that most of these electronic products are not designed to have a second life. While it was easy to access the inside of old-fashioned devices to recycle components, all the new generations of iPhone, iPad, but also of household items are difficult to dismantle, precisely because the various companies do not want the user to have access to the inside of these objects. This is a gigantic problem especially in developing countries, as components are recycled in there, and in most cases, these objects are not designed to be disassembled.

To give an example: in any latest generation of mobile phone it’s impossible to reach the battery, which is one of the most dangerous parts in a device: this means that when this object has to be recycled you have to break the screen in order to remove it. In most cases the screen contains mercury and materials which, if dispersed into the environment, are harmful to human health, in particular to the health of the people who are handling them. Talking to all the subjects involved in this project, we realized the lack of links between the designer and the recycling processes.

Federica Fontana: Building on your researches: are these difficulties in the recycling process of electronic devices mostly a design problem, or do they also derive from, for example, a lack of legislation or a simple lack of interest by the companies?

Simone Farresin: As Andrea already said, we contacted several producers and recyclers here in Europe, but Fuji Xerox was the only one who opened up its doors and invited us to visit their recycling center in Thailand, and they have an incredible recycling program. Finally, we spoke with NGOs based in Central Europe – between Belgium and the Netherlands in particular – which are responsible for organizing workshops on the correct recycling of these products in developing countries. Since these items are produced for a global market, our research has attempted to identify not only the problems facing the Western world in recycling these products, but also to understand what happens when they end up in countries with lower technological tools.

To answer your question, the situation is complex: this is certainly a problem that concerns producers, while designers only in part, because designers work on commission, so it depends a lot on what they are requested: in many cases the problem is that designers are asked the wrong questions and therefore they could not interpret the project from a holistic point of view. Clearly, the problem is that in order to optimize the work, these very large companies separate the departments – so we have sustainability, finishing, design and so on – but fragmenting the project into all these segments precludes the possibility of having an all-embracing perspective. In addition, when a project is carried out, priorities must be set, and in the field of technology now they are innovation and user fruition.

Instead, there’s a Dutch telephony brand called Fairphone that has tried to create a product guaranteeing the production chain of the metals used, so to not being involved in conflicts that – being precious metals – often generates between countries, especially in Africa. Fairphone is trying to build modular smartphones so that you can replace only one component – i.e the battery or the camera – and not the whole phone. This company has decided to give itself priorities concerning innovation that are different from those of Apple or other competing brands.

Federica Fontana: Seems the awareness towards these issues is left to the companies, the producers are not subject to any particular legislation…

Simone Farresin: Exactly, in fact we have spoken also with Interpol – the international police agency that collects information on various crimes, including environmental ones, and therefore electronic waste and their flow into developing countries also. Actually, there are some laws in Europe like, for example, the one that states producers are responsible for recycling their products. Similar laws are often extended to other countries: in general, the United States and Australia are a little less accurate, while the European Community is quite active in this regard. The problem is that designers are never involved in this field, and e-waste management legislation does not include precise guidelines on how objects should be designed.

Ore Streamsled to a number of reflections on the strategies we think could be applied and should be implemented in the legislation, at least to make components of electronic devices more accessible. An example could be the extensive use of fire retardants, which are applied even where they are not actually needed. This is because companies producing these sprays create lobbies to ensure that they are applied more and more extensively for safety reasons, but this means that plastic becomes unrecyclable. The question touches a lot of aspects concerning design, but also politics: our research has taken into consideration both. Then of course we also produced some objects, along with a series of videos explaining the work in a more intuitive and aesthetic way.

Federica Fontana: What is your relationship with the industry and product design in particular?

Andrea Trimarchi: We have activated collaborations with various companies, like for example Flos and Florim; we have realized some installations for Leuxus a few years ago, and we have worked with the fashion industry to create catwalks also. We approached product design in the last two years and we have done it by choice because we have never felt the need to produce as much as possible with everyone, but we want to do it with the companies that we felt were more suitable, considering the ethics of production and so on. Since the beginning we were perceived as product designers but this is not necessarily what we want to do, for us it is more important to select and find the right interlocutor.

Since we opened the studio we have been contacted by most of the furniture companies, but the proposals were not interesting, they always asked us for a design, but this is not the way we work. We are interested in working with companies that can have an impact because their large scale of production, or a relative impact, as in the case of consultancy. We have some consulting projects in progress, for example we are working with a very large electronic company at the moment.

Federica Fontana: Concerning your relationship with art and creatives instead: I was looking at your Instagram profile – which is like a tiny encyclopaedia of ideas in which you collect and share everything that inspires you – and I was wondering: is the final product the only channel you use or do you search for other ways to share all the different steps of your researches?

Andrea Trimarchi: Most of the designers and artists are using Instagram to show their work, which is the final result, instead we prefer to use it to show what led us to the final result. We create a form because we are designers, but for us the research is as important as the finished product. The way we reach the user is not so much the purchase of the object or the projects, but it contemplates a different type of fruition, through other channels. For example, we often give lectures, we teach, we participate in many exhibitions and conferences, where we talk like an open book about the discoveries we have made and the strategies that could be implemented in the design of electronic objects. On Instagram we share the research and the ideas everyone can make their own and carry forward in his work, therefore yes, for us open sourcing is very important.

Federica Fontana: The narrative is another fundamental aspect of your work: your design tells stories and the feeling is that the form is just the means you use to let the material speak. In Ore Streamsor De Natura Fossiliumfor example, the decorative details, while certainly having an aesthetic appearance, seems to be there to tell us much more. Are these details the way you use to ensure the material convey its history, its production context?

Andrea Trimarchi: Of course, actually even our name comes from that: Formafantasma means “with no form”, because for us form is just the result of the process. You mentioned De Natura Fossilium: when we started that project we would never have imagined that the collection would have took that shape, and the same goes for Ore Streams. It is quite a magical moment when all the research that we have done is transformed and configured into a form that in the end is completely unexpected.

Most of the time we let the material speak itself: for example in De Natura Fossilium first we imagined a very organic form, conditioned also by the materiality of the lava, which is a very unpredictable material. Then, during the production process, when we made the various material samples, we understood that the only way to control the lava was by casting, in fact the finished objects are very brutalist, very squared, and this actually comes from the process. So you said very well: the form does not depend on a pre-conception but it always comes at a later time, during the translation of the research into the object.

Federica Fontana: Following your idea of a conscious design – which is another common fil rouge in your work since the very beginning – in March you talked at the Domus Design Academy appearing to be one of the first outcome of a collaboration with Paola Antonelli for Broken Nature Triennal 2019. What role will you play in this occasion and what are the future projects you are working on?

Andrea Trimarchi: The project for next year’s Triennal will still be focused on Ore Streams; being now presented only in Australia, we would like to develop and show it in Europe. The work will be carried out in two steps: during the Triennal, where we will extend the project with a series of prototypes and a documentary, and then in London, where it will move in early 2020 to be shown in another institution in a much broader and contextualized way, on the occasion of our solo show.

Plus, we are also working on many other different projects at the moment: we have started another collaboration with Flos, a series of furniture for Cassina that will most likely be presented next year, plus some interior projects under construction. In general we have a lot coming up, but the research projects we do care the most about are precisely that of the Triennal and the English institution.