Soft-spoken, mild-mannered, Sicilian-born architect and industrial designer Mario Trimarchi is as unassuming as the work produced by his Milan studio Fragile. He co-founded the multidisciplinary consultancy, whose projects span industrial design, packaging, visual communications, corporate identity, interior design and exhibition design, in 1999, with designer Michele De Lucchi – with whom he worked at the Olivetti Design Studio from 1989 to 2000 – and now runs it with his wife Frida Doveil. Trimarchi’s product design is normally pared-down and unfussy.
Take his cutlery for Serafino Zani and computers co-created with De Lucchi for Olivetti. His graphic design – for example, for Poste Italiane – is characterised by simplicity and clarity. His forays into branding, as for Poltrona Frau in 2004, usually involve subtle tweaks, not dramatic overhauls. ‘For Poltrona Frau, we maintained the historical trademark – the old logo – while introducing a slight, but significant change, namely shifting the corporate colour from brown to tangerine,’ he says.
Trimarchi even has a name for his understated aesthetic: ‘Fewism’. Despite smacking of the 20th-century avant-garde art tradition of ‘isms’, the term seems to be used without irony. ‘Fewism lies between the minimal and normal,’ he explains. ‘It is the most intelligent thing you could do without lapsing into indulgence or style for its own sake’. He gives as an example his 2006 Iodo lamp for Artemide which, super pared-down and all white, is so inconspicuous as to look ghostly.
Yet his latest project, the La Stanza dello Scirocco range of stainless steel bowls and tea lights for Alessi, represents a departure from his previous work. Sculptural, playful, irregularly shaped and almost Baroque in their exuberance, the pieces represent a shift away from his austere, functionalist, even rather puritanical Fewist principles.
He appears to have thrown caution to the winds – literally. The pieces resemble scraps of paper tossed by a gust with gusto, then frozen in time, mid-trajectory. They are inspired by childhood memories of the ferocious sirocco wind that pounds Sicily mercilessly for about three days, forcing its inhabitants to shut themselves away in windowless rooms until it subsides. So by contrast with the designer’s normally neutral, impersonal aesthetic, the collection is autobiographical and has a narrative element.
‘My Sicilian origins is essential to this work,’ says Trimarchi. ‘As a child, I stayed in an old country house near Messina in the summer holidays. When the sirocco blows, children just have to wait. They do homework or play with cards, building up marvellous, unstable, fragile castles. I tried to reproduce all these sensations in this collection.’
The pieces embody Trimarchi’s current obsession with what he calls ‘unstable geometry’. They were initially inspired by about 50 paper models of precarious houses of cards, which he and his studio cohorts created last year. ‘At this point, I was sure something interesting was born. I showed [Alessi chief executive] Alberto Alessi these models in September last year. He understood the potential of this vision and, with his staff, verified the feasibility of my idea, the production technique and the cost of the collection.’
Yet the range accords with Trimarchi’s normally restrained, avowedly timeless aesthetic in one respect – in its palette of black, white and steel, which, in his words, makes it ‘pure, beyond fashion trends’. He also opted for black and white when designing the graphics for the main exhibition of the 2006 Venice Biennale (Cities: Architecture and Society).
This taste for the monochrome further reflects his fascination with shadows and the dichotomy between the positive and negative. One influence on the Alessi pieces was Hokusai’s Great Wave, which Trimarchi says represents the ‘opposition between energy and calm’. They also recall artist MC Escher’s Surrealist manipulation of geometry and the perpetual motion beloved by the Italian Futurists.
What is ultimately interesting about the pieces is that they convey a sense of impatience with functionalism. As such they represent an interesting turning point in Trimarchi’s career. Like the unpredictable twists and turns of the sirocco, his design philosophy seems to be going down a more wayward route, begging the question of where it will take him next.