Profile: Sam Baron

As head of product design at Fabrica, Sam Baron is in the ideal environment to experiment and subvert expectations. Lynda Relph-Knight looks at the role this young Frenchman plays at the Benetton research group

‘Vous et moi’ is the phrase that greets you when you open Sam Baron’s blog, and this inclusive sentiment just about sums up the spirit of his work. As head of product design at Fabrica, Benetton’s research centre in northern Italy, the role of the French designer includes creating products and installations that draw people in.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Fabrica’s contribution to this year’s Milan furniture fair was a welcoming domestic scene entitled Cordially Invited. ‘People were invited to share an experience,’ says Baron, who oversaw the project.

Visitors to the showcase, set in a ‘typical’ Milanese villa, were drawn in through an indoor garden space, with ceramic ‘vegetables’ created by Baron with Nicolas Cheng – one of the young designers working at Fabrica – growing in the plant beds and benches wrapped in straw.

This led through the lounge to the grand dining area, festooned with glass and ceramics products ranging from clocks to chandeliers and furniture, all created by Fabrica folk. ‘The idea was to create an event through a concept,’ says Baron.

But nothing in the elegant space was quite what it first seemed. The Freebird clocks, by Becka Citron, feature a bird that has escaped the confines of the cuckoo clock. And while the smoked cork fruit bowls, designed by Baron with Carine Damon, are conventional in all but the choice of material, Valentina Carretta’s ceramic Tea Time Collection, with its teapots melting into the tray, is not.

Back at Fabrica’s headquarters in the Italian town of Treviso, the story unfolds. Baron is responsible for three main activities in the airy studio, housed in a classic Venetian villa with an equally stunning extension by Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

Apart from pure research into ideas, experiences and processes, his team creates products for the Fabrica Features collection of everyday items, sold through Fabrica shops and other selected outlets, and take on external commissions, often from manufacturers wanting to push materials or processes beyond the usual bounds.

There is a hint of the thinking of Dutch design collective Droog behind the Fabrica work, which is not surprising, given the Benetton facility’s experimental base. While Droog was born out of the Eindhoven design school, so Fabrica engages with young designers, under the age of 25, but they are not students per se. Each of the 40 to 50 ‘residents’ from across the world has been selected to work together on projects for up to a year, with the aim of learning by doing.

But there is greater diversity in the Fabrica experience. Residents, who get a bursary for their stay at Fabrica, can work across various disciplines during their stay, not just product design. Baron and his team collaborate with British interaction designer Andy Cameron, Fabrica’s creative director in interaction design, on interactive installations for shops, galleries and the like, and there are also musicians on the team

Baron is keen to emphasise the practical aspects of the Fabrica experience. ‘Research has to be useful,’ he says, ‘and not carried out for its own sake.’ One of his great contributions, he maintains, is to introduce manufacturers to the mix, for Fabrica Features or for paid commissions, including Portuguese companies Olfair for the Garden Collection and B-Silque for the smoked cork bowls.

His own background is in ceramics, having studied at the Art Decoratives School in Paris and the Fine Art School at St Etienne. Since graduating in 1999, he has worked for a French design group and done his own stint as a ‘resident’ at Fabrica. He continues to work with the likes of De Beers and Moroso, and to be involved in projects such as this summer’s Vitra Workshop, working with porcelain at the Fine Art School in Limoges.

This double take on traditional materials is indicative of Baron’s work. And it’s that challenging approach that makes Fabrica a great fit for his talents.

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