Design Design according to (AB)NORMAL
Designset design

Design according to (AB)NORMAL

Giorgia Massari

When it comes to design, the possibilities become truly infinite. Despite this, there are few figures and realities that are open to these ramifications, often choosing one of them and pigeon-holing themselves into a specific field. This is not the case for (AB)NORMAL, an interdisciplinary architecture studio based in Milan. Although the three directors, Mattia Inselvini, Davide Masserini and Luigi Savio, are architects by profession, they have not confined themselves to their field of expertise but have gone further by embracing different disciplines and aiming for experimentation. Indeed, interdisciplinarity seems to be the key to this new decade. Designers, creatives and artists find themselves responding to the demands of an overstimulated environment, on the one hand to meet ever-increasing expectations and on the other to keep the public’s attention focused. This is why realities like (AB)NORMAL become necessary for brands, institutions and, in general, for all those activities that need aesthetic communication to represent them. From exhibition layouts to set designs for fashion shows, (AB)NORMAL’s project has intrigued us precisely because of its ability to take different types of output and put them together, generating solutions that are always relevant. From the recent set design for Camper x SUNNEI to the set design for The Vogue Closet, in this interview the three founders explain how their ‘formal obsessions’ became their work.

(AB)NORMAL – Studio Skate Market, New York Pop-up

How was (AB)NORMAL born? We know you are all architects, how come you took this more hybrid direction?

(AB)NORMAL began as a collective project, a shared diary in which to collect ideas, formal obsessions and projects never completed. We felt the need to use the methods of architectural representation learnt during our university years and during our professional career, as a language to convey messages unrelated to Architecture.

We started by producing images that generated meaning through the juxtaposition of objects. These three-dimensional whims, became an expression of instances and interests that concerned our personal perception of contemporaneity and incorporated it into the complex and layered geometries we constructed. Architecture was thus a mode of expression rather than an end. It was precisely through these early experiments that we developed a distinct propensity for interdisciplinarity and experimentation, characteristics that distinguish us even today and that we find in many other creative fields. Being ‘hybrid’ helps us to remain attentive and responsive to what is happening around us, giving our works a special communicative capacity.

What is your method? What do you start from when working on a new project? What are your inspirations?

We are convinced that it is impossible to create something truly new. All we do is reinterpret, even unconsciously, everything that crosses our retinas, reconfiguring videos, images, objects, works of art and sounds into a habitable form, into a narrating space, wanting to give it a definition. Architecture that speaks is by no means our invention, it is a definition we have stolen from the History of Architecture textbooks, copying methods and expressive aims from the French neoclassicism, and in particular from the three architects who most of all used architecture as an expressive vehicle: Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Étienne-Louis Boullée, and Jean-Jacques Lequeu.

Ledoux, Boullèe and Lequeu’s projects are conceived and designed to express the spirit of the times, they are architectures with a strong narrative impact, abandoning all ambitions of efficiency and feasibility and concentrating on generating astonishment and at the same time a mysterious familiarity in the observer. Pure geometries, easy spatial allegories and the surreal use of the figurative as an ornamental device are employed in their designs like letters in an architectural alphabet. Coming back to us, the projects are the result of the natural intersection of references of varied character. Often where architecture does not reach, cinema or figurative art arrives, occasionally even geopolitics and very often technology. All these themes are dosed and used to sew around the client’s requests, powerful and strongly comprehensible projects, because they are made of common things and references in popular culture.

Like everyone else, we saw your recent project for SUNNEI x Camper at Cassina Projects. How did the collaboration come about and how did the design phase develop?

We have known and appreciated SUNNEI for a long time, I would say since its inception. Right from the start we found the same propensity for storytelling that distinguishes (AB)NORMAL in all aspects of SUNNEI’s products and communication strategies. We have actually been mutually trying to find a way to collaborate for a few years now, and the presentation of the new SUNNEI X Camper trainers was the perfect occasion. It’s a very special product, a shoe that doesn’t have a right-left distinction and challenges the history of footwear. The set-up of the pop-up was accordingly designed to entice visitors to try the shoe on, and to dispel any reticence about such a non-conformist product. We therefore proposed a pure and simple geometry, a pyramid of boxes as a device to showcase the chromatic variables of the shoes, placed in the centre of the Cassina Projects spaces. The rest of the rooms were scattered with signs on the ground suggesting a choreography to visitors made up of gestures and paths.

Two references were very useful in this project. The pyramid of boxes is a replica of Cyprien Gaillard’s Recovery of Discovery installation for the KW Insitute in Berlin, a simple and informal gesture inviting visitors to appropriate the work of art, a pyramid of beers, transforming its geometry over time. While for the drawings on the floor we drew inspiration from Bernard Tschumi’s famous series of diagrams The Manhattan Transcript. As in Tschumi’s diagrams, we wanted to design not only a space, but also the event, and the actions that would bring the space itself to life. Working with SUNNEI was very stimulating, and being very satisfied with the end result, we would be more than happy to replicate the collaboration on other occasions.

Speaking of brands, how do you choose the ones you collaborate with to build a solid identity?

We are open to any collaboration if we see potential. With fashion brands we certainly have obvious affinities, and this proximity allows for a strong sharing of intentions in the project, which is difficult to find in other sectors. But we in no way disdain collaborations with brands that promote other types of products. We usually try to collaborate with realities that are not afraid to experiment with extreme spaces, and that have an interest in advancing direct messages and cultural positions.

How do you adapt to the brand and the institution you work with?

We try as much as possible to establish a relationship of affinity with the people we work for. We like to start the design process with a document of intent, which immediately defines a common ground made up of visual references, possible material combinations, colour and texture choices. We also try to respond creatively to their needs, working closely with the artistic directors and the brand’s in-house production departments. It is often the case that we actively interact in structuring the communication strategy, in some cases even taking care of the creative direction of the event. If the client allows us to do so, we propose our vision of the brand through scenic design.

(AB)NORMAL Italian Radical Design – Stand Salone del Mobile 2024 – Ph.Tiziano Ercoli & Riccardo Giancola

We know that your personalities are also very different in terms of interests. How do you reconcile these differences within the team?

It is precisely our shared interests that bring us together. From the beginning, it has been a relationship based on artistic affinities and the common urge to propose projects rooted in deep aesthetic research. It is not easy to reconcile character differences and other idiosyncrasies, but we have learnt over the years to use our differences to bridge each other’s gaps. At the end of the day, architecture is a team effort, the result of which is always shared between a variety of professions, and it is precisely as architects that we have learnt from the outset to accept, respect but also enhance differences.

(AB)NORMAL Portait Piercarlo Quecchia DSL Studio
(AB)NORMAL Polimoda Anthos ph. Tiziano Ercoli & Riccardo Giancola
(AB)NORMAL Polimoda Anthos ph. Tiziano Ercoli & Riccardo Giancola
Designset design
Written by Giorgia Massari
Listen on