Profile: John Smth

Italian designer Matteo Oliverio pursued his passion for play at college in Rome, and now develops toys under studio name John Smth. Anna Richardson talks to him about his sunny disposition, his refusal to grow up and a new collaboration

During his industrial design studies in Rome, most of Matteo Oliverio’s projects were playful – and colourful. ’Friends and teachers seemed to prefer this approach more than my efforts to make serious designs,’ he says. Oliverio secured his first design placement at Ludiko, the research and development laboratory of Italian toy factory La Nuova Far, where he realised his creative skills were nudging him towards toys.

Oliverio is currently studying for an MA in toy design at the University of Central Lancashire, and consults as toy and concept designer at the Lego Concept Lab in London. His studio name John Smth derives from that most common of English names. Take away the ’i’, Smth is also the abbreviation for ’something’. ’I liked the idea that my work could be signed with this – smth can be anything,’ says Oliverio. ’It’s a way to avoid creative limits – names can really do that.’

Oliverio takes inspiration from many directions, from his dad’s stories to old video games and cartoons. Italian designer and artist of the 1970s Bruno Munari is another inspiration, as is contemporary design studio Friends With You. ’Those guys created a fantasy world that really speaks to people,’ he explains.

His own work includes Multipups, a collection of soft shelving modules for Ludiko. Each of the products is composed of two shelves – the original shape and its negative. The Maybeings are a set of characters inspired by the phenomenon of imaginary friends that can be customised by children and joined together in different ways.

Avoiding the pitfalls of growing up – with all the seriousness it entails – is what drives Oliverio. Being Italian also informs his approach in a general way, he says. ’From the southern sun and warm air I take a positive feeling that I channel in my creations,’ he reckons. But despite this sunny disposition, he gives some serious thoughts to play and playfulness entails.

There are two different toy industries, Oliverio points out – traditional children’s toys and kidult toys. The former is affected by the ’licensing sickness’, he says. ’Most of the products are simple objects with famous cartoons as decorations. Originality and playful activities are secondary to the marketing rules (that have really no benefit for children).’

The kidult toys industry, meanwhile, is fun and coloured, its objects designed by great designers with creativity and attention. ’Despite this, many of its products are self-referential and sometimes pointless,’ says Oliverio. His ideal is a world where designers invent quality objects that ’provide playful activities and stimulate children’s intelligence’.

’In this imaginary world these two markets are one and people don’t see you as a nerd if you give names to your puppets when you’re 30,’ he adds.

Driving towards this toy utopia, Oliverio has started collaborating with French textile designer Amélie Labarthe, whom he met in Florence at the Toys for Good exhibition. The duo discovered a common mission and shared a vision of what children and adults need to feel good. Both appreciate the influence of vintage toys and agree on the importance of characters as a means of emotional communication. ’We instantly knew there was so much to do together,’ says Oliverio.

They have since worked on a toy design research and development study Designing for Children, and decided to set up The Smths Lab, a playful research studio. They are currently finishing work for the Designersblock exhibition at the Milan furniture fair. The Smths Lab exhibit is a collection of nine soft toys featuring original patterns and fabrics using Luminex, a luminescent material based on optical fibres. There will also be a fabrics collection, toy-jewellery made of laser-cut waste, a toy hunting vintage collection and customised children’s clothes.

Beyond Milan, Smths dreams of ’bringing our practical research to many fields, from toys to fashion, graphic and furniture design’, according to Oliverio. ’We don’t want to design “cute” objects, but want to work for both children and adults trying to give them a positive feeling. There is a lot of love in what we do.’

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