Issue Nº 8 - The Desk

Mining Above Ground

Ore Streams, a study of e-waste by Studio Formafantasma, includes a range of office furniture assembled from salvaged materials and components that expose the complex relationship between time, industrial production and the musealization of design.
Text by Delany Boutkan and Mikaela Steby Stenfalk
Ore Streams, video still ‘Disassembling’, 2019
Design museums, or museums with a design collection, have grown to become sites of design production instead of simply places for conservation and display. Most such museums engage with production either by offering residencies to designers or by commissioning new pieces. Within this institutional framework, the Ore Streams project by Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, two Italian designers based in Amsterdam who operate under the name Studio Formafantasma, is an interesting case study. The project uncovers the complex relationship between industrial production and design collections.
In addition to reflecting on a more responsible use of scarce resources, Ore Streams culminated in a range of office furniture consisting of two cubicles, a cabinet, a chair and a desk. These objects have been assembled from recycled iron and aluminium and from electronic components. The desk features an aerating grid from a microwave as well as two piles of mobile phones underneath the table top. Incorporated into the other items of furniture are computer cases and keyboards.While these components hint at products from the past, the collection itself seems frozen in time. As a museum piece, the desk will never be subject to the ravages of time. It will not deteriorate, corrode or change colour. Desks in a workspace are part of efficient bureaucratic systems and determined by labour and work schedules, and by the rules and regulations of the modern office. But such factors do not affect this desk because it is part of and created for a museum collection.
One stipulation of the commission given to the studio by the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne was that Ore Streams had to result in a series of furniture pieces. Though the studio is familiar with this type of commission, it contradicts its current way of working. Instead of envisioning an end result early on, the studio now focuses on unpacking the production process that precedes the creation of things — in this case, the process of electronic-waste recycling.Occurring naturally in rock and sediment, ore contains minerals with economically significant elements, especially metals, which can be extracted through mining. Mining is the process of excavating valuable geological matter from the earth. The impure metals are then purified, often by applying heat to ore. Studio Formafantasma analyses the expanded scope of the production process, in this case through the mineral ore. It questions not only where and how minerals continue their life after products become waste, but also where raw materials come from in the first place. Minerals are extracted, refined and transformed into half-finished products such as metal rods, sheets or ingots and delivered to manufacturers before they are shaped into products by the design industry.
Ore Streams goes all the way back to the moment a meteorite shower hit earth, about four billion years ago. This meteorite strike is believed to be the reason for the abundance of gold and other metals on the surface of the planet. The studio follows the transition of this matter — from the natural forces that shaped it, to today’s commercial forces that turn it into electronic products. Moreover, the project analyses the decay of products before their minerals are re-mined and re-shaped during electronic-waste recycling.
Formafantasma coveys its findings through a visual essay, videos, interviews with experts, and finally, a set of office furniture specified in the original commission. “The most valuable aspect of the commission was that it gave us time to delve into these material streams,” says Simone Farresin. “We knew that an end result was expected by the museum, but we also knew that our own interest lay in gradually understanding what a production process actually is.”In other words, the project introduces time as a key aspect of design. The designers considered the definition of an object’s shape to be less important than understanding its material lifespans. They also recognized that time is of much greater importance than an object’s length, height and width. This attitude differs from the modernist design perspective that focuses on efficiency and functionality. In addition, industrialization has rendered production processes invisible to both its designers and consumers.
Ore Streams therefore urges designers to extend the timeframe of design and production to beyond the human manipulation of semi-finished goods and to follow the timeline of the natural and unnatural forces that affect raw materials. What would happen, Formafantasma asks, if we acknowledged that a mountain is as much of a labourer as the manufacturer who turns its minerals into products? A more contextual understanding would result from investigating the different infrastructures and timelines that minerals were and are part of. “How fast can we [the design industry] go in prototyping and producing when using materials that take billions of years for nature to produce?”
While Formafantasma analyses material processes within industrial production to propose interventions, its research-driven commissions often come from museums and galleries. Once its designs have been collected by a museum, however, they becomes disconnected from their ‘natural’ context and function and placed in an archive. On occasion, they are put on display as part of a curatorial ambition to communicate a particular message. After the exhibition, they return to the archives, safe for future generations.
Commissioned by a museum, the Ore Streams objects were never designed to be part of the material streams they set out to expose. This contradiction is not uncommon in Formafantasma’s work, but they do argue that objects are what grab attention and invite people into a story. “It is through objects that our ideas are preserved,” Farresin explains. At times, institutions have acquired only the pieces, while the studio has had to donate its documentation of the process. Ultimately, the critique raised by the project never reaches the industrial production sites they are aimed at. Instead, the critique becomes a narrative, added as content to an aesthetic object.If anything, Ore Streams makes clear that it is in the design industry’s interest to preserve ideas in the form of conceptual objects in museums. But to influence industry in any meaningful way, the ideas explored here need to move beyond the confines of the museum and challenge the economic and production-driven streams of large-scale industrial manufacturing. Moreover, a sensitivity to time and an expanded view of production processes must be considered when design is commissioned by institutions. These methods need space to develop within the context they are addressing. They should not end up as thoughts captured in the shape of a desk.
Studio Formafantasma, Ore Streams – Cubicle 2, iridescent car paint on CNC milled and folded aluminum and stainless steel, aluminum outer casing of a portable computer, 2017
Studio Formafantasma, Ore Streams – Table, metalized car paint on CNC milled and folded aluminum, aluminium mobile phones outer casings, gold plated mobile phones outer casings, steel microwaves