Formafantasma’s Cambio: exploring a new paradigm for design


The Italian designer duo exhibits a 360º research on the implications of timber exploitation at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

Simple in its approach and complex in the reality it poses. Pleasant to the eyes (and to the smell!) and interesting to the detail. Collaborative and generous, honest and radical. This is Cambio, the third design exhibition that the Serpentine Gallery has produced in its fifty years of existence (although they promise we won’t have to wait that long for the next). Commissioned to the duo of Italian product designers Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, better known as Studio Formafantasma, and curated by Rebecca Lewin and Natalia Grabowska, the exhibition takes wood as a starting point and dissects the material in all its dimensions.

Cambio, from the Latin cambium, not only indicates change or transformation. In botany, cambium is a membrane of woody plants that each year produces two layers of cells, one inwards, forming what is then recognized as growth rings, and one outwards that allows the passage of the sap towards the roots. Basically, the existence of the cambium is what gives the tree depth and allows it to grow and positively affect its environment, and in some way, Formafantasma has been inspired by this in the conception of this exhibition. This is an in-depth investigation of the subject to try to make design advance under a paradigm of sustainability and not as it has grown mostly since the industrial revolution, at any price and without paying too much attention to the consequences of this neverending growth.


Formafantasma, stills from Cambio: Visual Essay, 2020. Green screen in Bosco del Chignolo, Montemerlo, Italy. Courtesy Formafantasma


In this sense, Cambio is not a typical design exhibition as their predecessors were: the retrospective of Martino Gamper (2014) or the collective show curated by the designer Konstantin Grcic (2009), mainly concerned with the form and function of design. Its visitors won’t find the experimental collections of the Italian duo either, one of which we exhibited here at FAD in 2015 within the exhibition Out of Place. Formafantasma has used the exhibition to start a new research more to do with the policy, production conditions and environmental implications of design than with the creation of new objects. This aspect is for them the seed of good design, and they believe that it is difficult to navigate within the current production and consumption paradigm: “We don’t have the solutions, but the more people consider the need for a paradigm shift in the design, production and consumption of design itself, the more we will move towards it”.

Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin of Formafantasma.


Simple and complex

The wood industry is one of the most important in the world, both in terms of income and the scale of its impact on our day to day. Clothing, furniture, paper, tools, musical utensils, fuel and fertilizer are some of the uses derived from trees, many of which come from ecosystems with great biodiversity and fragility. With Cambio, Formafantasma seeks to expand the definition of design beyond the finished object, to include all the disciplines with which it interacts: “forestry techniques and laws regarding the exploitation of wood are tools to design a better future for our forests, scientific and environmental knowledge also go hand in hand to fight against illegal logging, and the transnational geopolitical balance is redefined by a constant conflict between conservation and consumption”. In this sense, the project tries to connect the relationships of contemporary design with science, conservation, engineering and policy creation, adopting a multidisciplinary approach and demonstrating the complexity of the system.


Formafantasma, Cambio (Installation view, Serpentine Galleries, 4 March – 17 May 2020) Photo credit: George Darrell


Visual and detailed

Although the exhibition focuses more on the communication of their research than on the exhibition of design projects, it is obvious that Trimarchi and Farresin are product designers because the design of the installations and the exhibition route are a delight for the senses. The perfume of a forest welcomes us to an exhibition that can be enjoyed visually, but beyond its visual aspect, it is the content that each installation communicates that makes up the bulk of the proposal. It is worth stopping to read each label in detail and watch the audiovisuals in full. The installation titled On the anatomy of trade, for example, presents a series of everyday objects intervened in customs in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands for being made of illegally sourced wood. The objects are displayed along with a forensic report that identifies the exact wood species with which they are made. According to a study, 30% of objects entering Europe from abroad use illegally sourced wood.


Collaborative and generous

To demonstrate the connections of design with the environment, industry, politics and technology, Formafantasma has had to create a collaborative network, the results of which are surprising and revealing. This exercise, apart from its complexity, denotes a collaborative and generous philosophy on their part. Instead of opting for a retrospective show of their projects, which all revolve around the ecological and political responsibilities of design and test the industry on their consumption of natural resources, the Italians have chosen to make joint forces with other disciplines. Thus, they demonstrate their close ties with design and present a more powerful appeal to the sector, the industry and citizens to make these interdependencies more sustainable.


Formafantasma, stills from Cambio: Visual Essay, 2020. Green screen in Bosco del Chignolo, Montemerlo, Italy Courtesy Formafantasma.



Despite the complexity of the scenario posed by the exhibition, Trimarchi and Farressin insist that their goal is not to point fingers at anyone but to make visible the process behind the design, the consequences of each decision and how it operates at different scales from a material very close to people’s lives. They also make it clear that they still have no solution, that their will is to share knowledge and that in order to reach sustainability solutions, more commitment and more public policies are needed, but especially, long-term relationships between designers and companies and a more holistic vision, with a greater exchange of knowledge between disciplines. That is why the entire process and research carried out for the exhibition is accessible not only by visiting the gallery physically, but also by consulting the virtual archive in which they have made all their research available: 


Formafantasma, stills from Quercus, 2020. Courtesy Formafantasma



In the last section, dedicated to exposing current international policies on forest protection and timber trade, two key questions stand out: should forests have rights? If we consider trees as what they are, living species that contribute a lot to economic and ecological development, shouldn’t we compensate them for their services?

In an intimate final piece, Quercus, made in collaboration with the philosopher Emanuele Coccia, a tree addresses the visitor personally suggesting a shift in perspective. Perhaps we have to find more radical ways to live with and protect these ecosystems, understanding the inextricable connections between humans and trees.

In this search for a new paradigm that recognizes our environment as an equal and not from a perspective of dominance, Formafantasma, both as designers and design educators, have just launched a new department in the prestigious Design Academy Eindhoven that they have called Geo-Design. Its objective is to explore the social, economic, territorial and geopolitical forces that shape design today. In other words, trace the important interactions of design with other disciplines and the need to redesign these interactions to make them more sustainable. Another design is possible.


Text: Sol Polo