Interview by Anna-Giulia Caradeuc
Photography by Cary Whittier and FMS
Originally published in Issue No. 5
Known for his natural forms that reference sand dunes, melting icebergs and mountainous landscapes, Fernando Mastrangelo creates works “for the city dwellers who want to escape.” His pieces a well-balanced combination of form, content and material often trigger a primal sense of belonging, or tranquility in their viewer.
Delving beyond the work of the typical melancholic creative, Mastrangelo uses unconventional materials to highlight environmental issues within the elevated sphere of collectible design. His unending efforts to tackle change in an industry that still relies on a outdated system (meanwhile spearheading a 360° design studio and content production house) prove that disruption is truly the golden thread that runs through his practice.
We caught up with the Brooklyn-based design maverick to learn more about his vision and latest projects, which include building a cement and recycled glass tiny house in the heart of Times Square, and co-curating an exhibition of emerging talents in American design with Milan-based gallerist Rossana Orlandi.
Anna Giulia Caradeuc (AC) — With your work being at the crossover of art and design, depending on the sources, you are referred to as a sculptor, a designer, a furniture maker. How do you introduce yourself and the work that you do?
Fernando Mastrangelo (FM) — I say I’m in the luxury goods industry, haha. I usually say that I’m sculptor, and I make furniture, and sculptural furniture.
AC — In your work you often use commonplace materials – I’m thinking of salt, coffee, sand, glass or cement – to create highly desirable and collectible pieces. Is it purely functional or is there an underlying reasoning behind the use of such materials?
FM — I worked for Matthew Barney right out of grad school and I was always a huge admirer of his work, which often used materials as a metaphor, it’s part of the same line of thinking as Joseph Beuys. Material as Metaphor. I’ve continued this tradition as the focus of my practice, so I always try to have three elements in harmony: form, content, and materials. It has been the central thesis of my work since. So the materials always help carry the conceptual aspect of the work.
AC — The pieces you create have a very balanced, almost meditative energy to them. What do you hope to trigger in your viewers?
FM — The reason I make the work is because of my deep personal desire to escape as much as I can from the grips of contemporary life. We’re so tightly wound these days between politics, climate change, and the constant bombardment of information, our jobs, debt, and all the mayhem that riddles our lives today. I find that people, including myself, want to free from these grips, and we find solace in the experiences we engage in. Art and design are part of this solace seeking and I make work that hopefully transports people to places where they can feel some harmony with the objects. The objects express this harmony through their connection to nature, which I try to imitate in order to create the feeling of the sublime.
AC — You’re at the head of a whole studio – which is by the way impressive both in size and available resources – and you have a team of makers who work with you. How much is FMS a collaborative process and what do you look for in your collaborators?
FM — Any artist that has reached the scale and means of my studio can no longer operate as an autonomous being. I primarily act as the creative director, but also spend a great deal of time as CEO, CFO, marketing director, and project negotiator, along with making sure operations are smooth and quality is at the highest level. It’s a lot of responsibility, and so the team you build becomes the bloodline of the studio. I collaborate with my team on everything, but most of the time I focus on the designs, collections, and new large-scale installations, while my team figures out how to make it all happen. My creativity has now had to expand into maintaining and growing an art studio into a formidable entity with influence and sustainability. What I look for in my team is the energy to push themselves beyond what they thought was possible. People who have this drive do very well in my studio environment.
AC — In the design world, you’re (sometimes) perceived as an agitator – particularly since you’re a big advocate of the “cutting the middle-man” philosophy. You have no gallery or publicist representing your work, and you do not participate in trade shows. Can you tell me a little bit more about what drove you to make such decisions and what system you are building as a result of this very DIY approach?
FM — With the advent of the internet, e-commerce and the power of social media, artists are facing a new paradigm. The powers that currently control the art market have consolidated the top-selling talent to their stables while opening more and more spaces across the globe to preserve artists markets and secure their investments. The cost of entry to this market-place is getting harder and harder to bear, especially as we see the mid-level galleries almost completely vanish from the scene while high-cost global art fairs continue to fuel the growing demand for this valuable cultural asset.
AC — So how does an artist make it into the market? How do they get their work shown?
FM — My career started during this consolidation period in the art world and I’ve had to adapt to keep my studio growing and expanding. I’ve had the galleries, the full-time PR, and I’ve participated in the art fairs for over thirteen years, but today, I’m seeking alternative ways to get exposure and that requires rethinking the traditions and being realistic about the cost of the alternative. About five years ago, as we see the rise of social media and the ability to reach a global audience through our smartphones, the conversation starts to tilt, and that’s exactly when I started walking an alternative path. Once I knew that everyone I needed to reach was online, and mostly being housed on Instagram, we started to pay close attention to how online attention could influence real-world interactions. So once we have the ability to reach an audience without the traditional gallery system, artists can build their brand and careers through attention that leads to real-world events, and then the paradigm starts to go from a tilt to a full shift. It puts the artist career in their own hands. If you have to try to break your way into the consolidated art world, it’s nearly impossible. I like to relate it to the 1980’s IBM failure: no one thought that the largest computer company in the world could get squashed out by some renegade computer makers that had no capital or distribution. It sneaks up on the big guys and they’re so big, they can’t move the ship fast enough to catch up with the newer, faster, and more nimble systems that become quickly adopted because they clarify the nebulas aspects of many industries who want to protect their markets because they are making a bundle of dough that seems endless. Well, it’s time to disrupt this and I’m willing to take my chances on the next generation of buyers who I relate to and who relate to how I present and sell my work. And that is not in the halls of a convention center.
AC — One of your latest projects was building a tiny house made of cement and recycled glass right in Times Square as part of Times Square Design Pavilion — a design project set to bring in ideas for public space during NYCxDESIGN. The installation was in collaboration with Brook Landscape and was thought as a way to bring forward the urgency of environmental matters, in particular, the consequences of climate change on how societies have to rethink the spaces they live in. Can you talk a little bit more about this project and how it aligns with the rest of your work?
FM — Tiny House became an exercise in taking my work to the public and making my ideas reach an audience that is not just high-end designers or design world scenesters. I have been making work about climate change for five years and so I’m always seeking moments to further the conversation as much as possible. At this stage in my career, I want to use the platforms I have to speak about my concerns with how the world works today. It’s not too dissimilar from what artists have been doing for decades, the difference is that I’m using collectible design not to solve the issues, but to bring attention to the issues, and do what I can as an artist to further the sustainability conversation. Tiny House represents the future, it’s somewhere in the space between the virtual world and the physical world and it uses recycled materials to create this fantasy. It aligns with my other works very well, it just widens the scope of my ideas and allows me to create materials that perhaps have never been thought of to create interiors or exteriors, that would allow us to create more of a cyclical economy.
AC — Bringing societal issues into the high-end design sphere is still fairly uncommon, though things are slowly changing – for the best. What feedback did you receive from the tiny house project and is it inspiring you to take on more bigger-scale endeavors?
FM — Tiny House has been the single most successful exhibition we have ever done. We captured the largest audience both on social media and in real life due to its location the press attention it received. Coupled with that attention, our content team FMS Presents, created the entire social media campaign, which broke all of our records for impressions and reach. So the feedback has been great, the project has been invited to Dubai, so we’re working on trying to make that happen.
I will continue to put on these event-based exhibitions and my ambition won let me think small at this point, so we’re going bigger and bigger…
AC — In addition to developing your own collections and projects, you are also a big champion of the design community. Within FMS you have created FMS Presents, a full in-house production company that develops original video content and podcasts, showcasing the work of other designers, artists, and businesses in the industry. What was the idea behind FMS Presents? What types of stories are you looking to tell? Is being a peer to the individuals you choose to feature (vs a journalist) allowing for more freedom in the conversations you have with them?
FM — FMS Presents was originally designed as a way for me to continue to bring everything I do in-house. I’m always striving to be a fully vertical, self-sustaining studio and so bringing production and marketing in-house was not only more cost-effective but a great way to be able to better control my brand and digital storytelling. I believe all artists should keep those things close to them because an artist’s brand narrative is only going to become more and more valuable in the future. It’s important for artists to tell their stories their way, and not get lost in anyone else’s ideas of their work. Unfortunately, not a lot of artists and designers, especially in the emerging community, have the bandwidth or resources to create their own production and marketing company. For those cases, FMS Presents has worked to help amplify those artists and their stories. The company has not only showcased other works in my own videos but has also taken on outside partnerships with other designers in the community looking to strengthen their brand in the digital realm.
AC — For the past two years, you have hosted In Good Company, a group show displaying the work of the next generation of American talent in the worlds of art and design. You’re about to host the third iteration of the show, this year co-hosted with the prestigious Milan-based Galleria Rossana Orlandi. How important is it to you to support young talent? Have you yourself been mentored when finding your path as an artist? What do you hope to bring to these emerging creatives?
FM — Supporting the emerging collectible design talent through In Good Company has become one of my deepest passions, and the reason is that I did not have that when I was coming up. I realized early on that I was going to need to move the needle on my own success, but there was no help out there. When I reached some small glimmer of success, I decided to share that with the community of emerging artists so that they could perhaps be inspired by an alternative path to success and sustainability. That’s what I hope to bring to these emerging creatives.
I also just love early-stage artist careers, it’s before the work is branded and exploded. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s constantly changing. I’m also an avid collector of emerging art and design, my apartment is filled with the works of young artists I have connected with. My artistic life is now merging with these new and developing passions, and it’s been a wonderful extension to my life personally and professionally.
AC — Last but not least – the BACCALÀ audience is very much into fashion so I have to ask you this… Who makes the best hats?
FM – JJ Hat Center in Manhattan. I only buy there 😉
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