In 2012 in conjunction with a major retrospective on Gerrit Rietveld at the Vitra Design Museum1, the curator, Amelie Znidaric, invited five designers working in the Netherlands to join a partner from the region in developing a design proposal.
For this project, Formafantasma was paired with Ms Doris Wicki2, one of the last people dedicated to the tradition of producing charcoal by the slow-burning (5 – 7 days) of wood. The activity, deeply rooted in Swiss tradition, was economically important when charcoal was produced as a metallurgical fuel but was banned in the twentieth century due to deforestation and CO2 emissions. Despite the negative connotations, a few charcoal burners are still operating today.
The passing of time has transformed this elaborate production process into a nostalgic ‘happening’, often relegated to festive folk events. In other parts of the world, charcoal burning is still a reality. In the Congo, for example, charcoal burning threatens the Virunga National Park, one of the nation’s most significant nature reserves. Formafantasma drew inspiration from the tension between the dystopian connotation of charcoal, causing pollution and destruction, and its beneficent use in healthcare and water purification.
Historians have found evidence that carbon filtration was used by the ancient Egyptians, while in Japan it is still common today to use a few simple charcoal branches to purify tap water. In collaboration with a glassblower and woodcarver, the designers produced a series of jars and wooden ‘filters’. Over the course of a few days spent with Ms Wicki and photographer Luisa Zanzani in a forest in the surroundings of Zurich, the customized wooden pieces were left burning and deteriorating while the process was documented.
The charred remains were further sculpted into a series of elements and added to the glass jars. In addition, a small glass bottle was blown into a hollow carbonized log: the resulting glass becoming opaque and textured where it came into contact with the charcoal, yet maintaining clarity in the rest of the body. Alongside the design pieces, black charcoal bread (baked following a traditional recipe to aid digestion) and purified water were served during the days of the event. Participants were invited to ‘raise their glasses’ to this tradition and experience what this meant in the past: twelve hand – made charcoal drawings made by designer Francesco Zorzi portraying trees burning, polluted cities, fumes and black rain, were on display at the exhibition to highlight the misuse of charcoal throughout the ages.
Notes, References and External Links1. The Vitra Design Museum numbers among the world's leading museums of design. It is dedicated to the research and presentation of design, past and present, and examines design's relationship to architecture, art and everyday culture. In the main museum building by Frank Gehry.
2. Doris Wicki, one of the last people dedicated to the tradition of producing charcoal by the slow – burning of wood in Switzerland.
– Vitra Design Museum, Confrontations. The exhibition “Gerrit Rietveld – The Revolution of Space” presented by the Vitra Design Museum in summer 2012 shows the continuing relevance of Rietveld’s oeuvre. Against this background, a special exhibition called ‘Confrontations’ in the Vitra Design Museum Gallery was dedicated to a number of innovative designers whose experimental methods are similar to Rietveld’s.
ContributorsCONCEPT, DESIGN Andrea Trimarchi, Simone Farresin
DEVELOPMENT Francesco Zorzi
PRODUCTION Doris Wicki, Massimo Lunardon, Atelier F
DRAWINGS Francesco Zorzi
PHOTO CREDITS Luisa Zanzani, Formafantasma
LiteratureDomus, Primitivi contemporanei
Designboom, Formafantasma: charcoal for the vitra design museum
The Tree Mag, Charcoal by Formafantasma
Phaidon, Vitra showcases new design talent
Australian design review, In profile: Studio Formafantasma
Trendhunter, Charcoal by Formafantasma is Artistically Sculptural
Frame, Formafantasma in Fetishism in Fashion
Inhabitat, Formafantasma’s Stunning Glass Containers Use Charcoal to Purify Tap Water
Frizzifrizzi, Formafantasma: of design, utopia and other foolish things
Charles Stanley, Distance and Proximity
Disegno daily, Formafantasma’s Findings
The Guradian, Meet the Italian designers who have a way with wood
Experimenta, Charcoal, Studio Formafantasma para Vitra Design Museum
Fast Company, Sculptures tell an unfiltered history of Charcoal
TL Mag, Futur Archaïque at CID Grand – Hornu
Dezeen, Charcoal by Formafantasma at the Vitra Design Museum