Fendi: Fatto a Mano

by Carlo Prada

photography Peppe Tortora

Issue V

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Imagine a little medieval workshop. Inside it, artisans at work. Selecting materials, working them with dedication and manual skills, intriguing the passersby. With an incredible time leap, Fendi proposes the same situation today, transforming (for the Salone Internazionale del Mobile) its Milanese store on Via Sant'Andrea into a laboratory of ideas. Born from the desire to reconnect with tradition—in this case through the project “Fendi Fatto a Mano For The Future”—the fashion house declares the wish to rediscover its history with the help of contemporary designers. The designers perform live, creating pieces with Fendi's discarded materials. “In a world where many fields are dominated by opposing realities, hanging in the balance between the past and the future, there emerges the will to rediscover life in something archaic, anchoring us to the past. This way the future is less scary,” declares Silvia Venturini Fendi, head of the design department of the Italian Maison founded in 1925. “More and more often there is this almost physical necessity to restore contact with matter, maybe because we spend the vast majority of our daily life handling technology.” 
    More than ever, the new generation of creatives—who paradoxically are also more inclined to have an obsessive relation with technology—manifest a desire to discover the past. As Mrs. Venturini Fendi points out: “There is a return to rediscovering realities which were considered vanished only ten years ago. No one would have imagined that there would be such a strong return towards manual skills. Perhaps it is a reaction. There is a will to know more, to understand that objects also have a soul and that behind them there is always human intervention.” 
    But in Fendi’s project there is nothing nostalgic. If anything there is the desire to project oneself into the future, with the awareness that without the support of tradition, there is nowhere to go. “We have the desire to recover the value of something and, moreover, having to consume less, we want to consume better. There is an internal need to rationalize consumption. The exasperated consumerism didn’t solve our inner problems. So we wish to give a human touch to the products of our everyday lives. And this, I hope, will lead to more conscientious choices.” 
    Profoundly attached to the fatto a mano (handmade) tradition, Fendi has for quite some time collaborated with the universe of design. This handmade spirit continues today with the works of Rowan Mersh, Nicola Guerraz and Sandro del Pistoia. “Fendi is approached by young designers who find in the brand a valid support for their growth and creativity. The selection doesn’t follow well defined rules, but is connected to the emotions each individual gives us. Moreover, we are impressed by the dimension of human simplicity we sense in their ideas. What binds us to them, is the balance between yesterday and tomorrow.” 
    The young Englishman Rowan Mersh has struck a chord very close to the heart of the Roman Maison with his macchina punzonatrice (riveting—or literally, “punching”—machine), which sublimates the relationship between art and handcraft. The heartbeat of his collaborator is measured in real time and transmitted to a special machine—designed by Mersh—which punches upon leather stripes the rhythm of the heart itself. These are used by Mersh to create a sculpture that, as defined by the artist, is nothing short of “a map of human emotions.” The sculpture continues to grow, its spiral shaped torsion calling to mind DNA renderings. “I had this idea while in Florence, where I had the chance to visit Fendi’s factories and delve into its history,” explains the artist. “On that occasion I could see artisans at work who exclusively used their hands in order to manipulate materials. So I thought that there could exist a mechanical system capable of simulating, at least approximately, that painstaking work.” 
    Reflecting upon the two aspects, the human and the mechanical, Mersh questions the role of man within the industrial evolution. In the case of Fendi, the artisan remains the firm starting point, the cuore of the process. And no matter how much technology may progress, it will never be able to substitute the experience of the craftsmen themselves. “The machine is the result of a project of mine. It registers the heartbeat of a colleague wearing an elastic band, like those used for running. It transmits the signal to a computer that transfers the input to a punching machine. If the heartbeat is relaxed, the distance between the holes in the leather stripe is greater, and vice versa. As a consequence, the volute obtained is more or less nervously curled.” The sculpture presents itself, indeed, as the aforementioned geographical map of human emotions, a cascade of undulated movements which form the surface of a modern tapestry. “This way,” explains the artist, “I want to reinforce above all the importance of handcraft and, secondly, create a work of art which places itself halfway between tradition and future; merging figures which both correspond to today and tomorrow, man and machine.” 
    The color stratification which comprises the sculpture has a generational significance. They alternate between Fendi’s beginning—black and yellow (which dates back to 1925)—and more recent, brighter ones. The sculpture grows and lasts over time, sustaining an idea of beauty shared by the designer. “Beauty is something completely personal. Something which strikes chords, which thrills when finding oneself in front of the new. But above all it lasts over time and never gets boring because it is as beautiful today as it will be one hundred years from now.” 

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Just as timeless are the “Scribbles”—or “Three-Dimensional Scribbles”—of Nicola Guerraz, a conceptual artist from Rome who contributed years ago to the production of the Baguette bag. “Mine is indeed a performance derived from the artistic world, but with a function and a goal,” declares Guerraz. “The circle shaped base is made of copper while the surface is covered by a sheath of selleria Fendi leather, entirely hand sewn. The function of these three-dimensional satellites is that of a container. In this case they contain a tillandsia, a plant of Central America origins that doesn’t require roots or soil in order to survive. They feed off fog, humidity and, they say, tears of joy. They symbolize man and his adaptability to any environment.”
    The scream of the artist is that of an optimist. 
    Here the synergy between craftsman and designer is revealed. “In five days I will produce a scribble a day,” he explains, “made of five tubes five meters long. Each scribble measures twenty five meters.” Behind the multiples of five, lies a subtle mathematical homage to the Maison, founded in 1925 and whose name is composed of exactly five letters. “As with everything sophisticated, it’s better to construct secrets which are not shouted out loud, but held inside,” explains Guerraz. His work, normally vehement and impulsive, was forced to adapt to the slowness of the artisan. “I learned to make the typical double stitch, and to complete a scribble it takes twelve to fifteen hours. For me it’s sort of an alchemical process, of transforming copper into a selleria vase.” 
    At this point one might ask: Are we in front of art pieces or objects of design? Nicola sees the point: “In the twenty-first century the isolated figure of the artist locked up in his studio doesn’t exist anymore. It’s about finding new synergies with like minded people who have compatible sensibilities. And with Fendi this becomes possible.” Design, in fact (as opposed to contemplative art), always has a use. The Scribbles themselves for instance. On one hand they belong to the “aerial” tradition of Alexander Calder and Thomas Rauschenberg, on the other hand they have a specific function, that of containers. On this, Signora Fendi adds: “Fatto a Mano has the peculiarity of dealing only with unique pieces. Therefore the boundary with art is very faint. When we speak of prototypes, for instance haute couture, the boundary with art is subtle. There is an absolute creative phase when both things are very close together. The industrial process arrives only in a second moment.” When the Baguette bag, for example, became the “it bag,” Fendi hadn’t studied a marketing strategy aimed at increasing the desire for the bag of the moment. “There really were few of them!” explains the designer. “We didn’t care about the industrialization of the object as long as we made it as we liked. The creative moment of Fendi has always been high and still today you can feel great freedom in the air.” 

Occupying the surrounding space are the sculptures of Sandro del Pistoia, the Tuscan sculptor who collaborates with craftsmen covering wood sticks with leather in order to create the soul of a Fendi artisan module. “In the beginning my work involved joints (flat hexagonal shapes with side slots) made of silicon, but later came the idea of proposing them in natural leather. This way my work evolves in an environmental plane. Fendi produced eight hundred pieces and with one thousand two hundred wood sticks I created a sculpture.” The structures allow the creation of different forms to be further developed; in the field of design, in forms closer to furniture which can have a practical use. “Although basically I am a sculptor,” adds del Pistoia, “I feel very close to design and architecture. The forms are susceptible to modifications, beginning by hand and progressing wherever you wish.” The form in front of us is a “half” bag resembling a Fendi shape of the 90s, but doubled like a mirror image. “The sculptural process doesn’t refer to a finished object,” adds the artist. In order to complete a piece such as this it takes around twenty hours of work until, finally, the signatures of everyone who has contributed to the project will be collected and the sculpture will remain a sort of memorial piece to the participants. “Co-partnership is, in fact, fundamental. An aspect which can be seen in many artifacts of mine.” (One of his archived performances consists of large nylon bags opened by children during windy days by the sea.) “The creative process entails I originate an idea which is later developed by others,” he adds. Regarding the project, Sandro becomes the spokesperson of a thought shared by all the artists involved because “to have professionals of such high level at one’s disposal means constructing a very stimulating collaboration.” The idea was born in London in 2005. “I had no money,” recalls del Pistoia, “to make the sculptures I used Starbucks wooden stirrers and Royal Mail rubber bands. I sculpted in parks, such as St. James. I assembled during the day and disassembled at night after photographing them. This way I build a portfolio with a series of different pieces.” Returning to Italy, the Accademia di Belle Arti di Carrara included him in the Biennale of sculptures with a giant artifact consisting of four thousand pieces. In a future project he will “transform the patent in an applied architecture: a portable dome two people and a pack animal can carry in a context, perhaps of poverty, where it is difficult to obtain skilled labor and transportation is problematic.” 
    Other than paying homage to another time and walking the tightrope between the worlds of art and design, the creations of the three artists have another element in common: they are all three-dimensional, invading space (but gently). In their apparent and complex naivety they enclose the secret of emotions—a treasure Fendi knows well. And now put aside your iPad and switch off your Blackberry. Now is the moment to enjoy the beauty of fatto a mano and rediscover the authentic emotions which the hectic vanguard will never concede.

translated from the Italian by
DANIEL AREA WAKAHISA 

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