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Interview by Anna-Giulia Caradeuc
Tellurico White Volcanic Porcelain Photography by Op-Fot
Tellurico Visual Research Photography by Alessandra Finelli
Cast Iron Photography by Chris Mottalini
Untitled 1A Series Photography by Amir Farzad
Other Photography Courtesy of the Artist

Originally published in Issue No. 8

After graduating in 2017 with a Master’s Degree in Contextual Design from the Design Academy of Eindhoven, Netherlands, Italian artist and designer Francesco Pace founded Tellurico, a multidisciplinary studio specialized in objects, spaces and installations.

The name tellurico – “of the earth” in Italian – directly relates to the love that Pace has for his native hometown, Pozzuoli. Historically, geologically and socially-speaking, the small village located outside of Naples and perched atop a dormant volcano, naturally presented itself as a fertile ground for Pace’s artistic exploration. Over the years, the region has been a motor to his overarching vision for the studio, where the relationship between context and content, nature and nurture, are the focus. 

With his practice, Pace brings design back to its fundamental identity. Beyond its purely esthetic qualities, it is first and foremost a toolkit that helps him understand the world he’s surrounded by ; through a variety of projects and channels, he investigates how the characteristics of a given environment inform the way people live.

While artists have often confessed a lack of inspiration and creative impulse during the pandemic, Pace focused the past year on developing his woodworking skills – a way to stay offline and sane amidst the global uncertain times – and remotely engineering the making of a monumental cast iron throne for Emma Scully Gallery’s Cast Iron exhibition in New York City – his first ever show in the United States.

Anna-Giulia Caradeuc (AGC) — When looking at your body of work, a lot of the projects (The Right Government, Telluride, Unchecked Chain) take Pozzuoli, your hometown, and the surrounding landscape as a focus point. What was it like growing up there? How conscious were you to be living on top of a land that could potentially wake up at any given time? 

Francesco Pace (FP) — As an adolescent in the first decade of the 2000’s, living in Pozzuoli was quite rough. It wasn’t a good moment for the city of Naples and the outskirts were very affected by it. The city was run down and certain things that now are obvious were lacking attention. A lot was happening all at the same time, particularly the waste management crisis and the Camorra wars, and these factors put together made it not so easy to be a boy at that moment in time. 

Pozzuoli is a beautiful place with a vast history, just think that it was founded before Rome. Now it is flourishing but at that moment it had lost a lot of its natural splendor. It was tough, but it gave me a lot of material that still influences my design approach to this day. It is as though at that moment I developed an alphabet that now is used in my projects’ language. It gave me the possibility of looking at things from different angles in order to develop an ambiguity which helps me find beauty in something that is not beautiful in the obvious way.

The volcano is the perfect representation of this ambivalence, on one side you have the amazing and powerful nature which gives you everything you can imagine, from the prosperous hills to a beautiful bay, and on the other side that same volcano can wipe you and your house out in a few minutes if it awakes. You learn to live with these anomalies, it makes you see life under a different perspective. We could say that you learn how to live more in the present.

AGC — I imagine that the life and facts of Pozzuoli/the region stay quite local – just like it is for most small villages. With your work being in the public eye, do you feel invested in a mission to tell the story and the issues pertaining to your region? I’m thinking of a project like Unchecked Chain for example. Generally speaking, do you think – now more than ever – it is the artist’s duty to enlighten society about important matters and spur change? 

FP — The reason why I felt the need of developing the project Unchecked Chain was somehow related to the way the media talked about the issue (i.e. the waste management crisis in Naples). Often the topic was narrated in a superficial way and summarised with the stigma of ‘’Neapolitans are dirty. They do not know how to recycle.’’ That is a hurtful rhetoric that not only creates prejudice toward a population and a city, but it is far from the reality of facts. 

That being said I am not sure I am ‘’invested in a mission.’’ I just believe there are certain things that need to be told. I use design as a tool for understanding the reality I live in, and through this process I tell stories about different topics. It can be a place, a specific craft, an architecture or an event like the topic of the Unchecked Chain project, which permanently changed a landscape and the community that lived on that territory. 

What I want with my practice is to give relevance to the discipline. In order for that to happen, design needs to grow up and start talking about topics which go beyond the merely aesthetic aspects of an object or an interior and instead begin to tackle much more complex topics. For example, in Unchecked Chain, I used a video-installation to talk about the underground economy behind the waste management business.

I do believe that design and art have an advantage in comparison to other disciplines like journalism. They can communicate facts in a much simpler and more direct way and can be powerful tools if used properly. They can shine a light on matters that were previously unknown.

AGC — Just this past spring you participated in Cast Iron, a group show in New York City, put together by gallerist and design curator Emma Scully. Emma commissioned eight designers around the world to create works in cast iron. By materializing the digital files she got from each designer into the quintessential symbol of the 19th century industrial revolution, she married the material origins of industrial making to the current digital hyper-connectivity of design ideas. Your piece is a monumental three-legged chair called Aesthetics Follows Process. What was the process like? I’m guessing it must have been quite surreal not to be able to see your finished piece? 

FP — It was a long project with a huge process behind it. It took us almost a year to complete, but I believe the result is exceptional. What was very complex was to engineer the process to produce the piece. In my case we did things a little differently than the other designers. Emma did not materialize a 3D file for my piece, but we divided production in two main phases. The first one was the creation of the wooden positive mould in my workshop in the Netherlands and the second one was casting the iron in the foundry in Virginia.

One of the characteristics of my work is that there is always my hand on every piece I make: I design and produce almost all my pieces so in a way we wanted to keep this element for this project as well. For this reason, I came up with the idea of what I called ‘’transmigration material”; to transfer certain characteristics or certain elements from one material to the other. In this case, we transferred the carving textures, the veins and the knots that are typical of the wood, in a cast iron piece creating a sort of visual dissonance within the object.

The project was very challenging and I needed to really plan and think beforehand about all the steps of the production process before producing the piece. Nothing could be left aside, because each step of the production influenced the next one. 

It’s true that I could not see the final piece in person but from the pictures and videos that I have seen, I think the result is quite impressive and in a way, unexpectedly good.

AGC — The relationship between craft and environment is central in your work. As we’ve discussed previously, your homeland occupies a big part in your practice, but you now live in the Netherlands and have also done projects in other cities and countries. For Visioni Opposte, you conducted a multi-disciplinary visual research of the city of Beirut and created a collection of objects using marble and glass that explore the relationship between the city’s past and present. Are there other places that you would like to creatively explore as well in that same way? 

FP — There are so many places that it is impossible for me to name only one. What I did for that specific project was to create a system that could have been applied in different places, and yes I do see myself working with a similar approach but in a different city. If I need to name a place, I would have to say I am really intrigued by the American Continent right now ; I would love to carry on a similar project in a local community in New York or in some huge metropolis like Buenos Aires. They both are, in a way, cities built by immigration and when people migrate they bring with them traditions and aspects of their previous life and adapt them to the new place where they settle down. I think it would be interesting to see how some traditions evolved.

AGC — For a lot of the projects that you do, it seems that there is a prompt, or problematic to be solved, whether it came from within or was commissioned by an institution. From there you develop your own research and produce the work. I’m curious to understand what your creative process is like? Do you respond better to a prompt? Do you work on multiple projects at the same time or have to start and finish one before moving on to the next? 

FP — We often forget that design is a discipline born from the need to solve problems. So I believe design must respond to problematics or prompts, otherwise it becomes decoration.

It might sound weird but my design approach is always the same, whatever the project, be it commissioned or self-produced. My approach does not really change. As a first step I analyze the context in which I am working: “which is the story I have in my hands? Which side of this story is relevant and which others can be left behind? Who is the client? Who is the final user of my project? What is the motivation they bring along to develop such a project? Which materials do I have available in a short radius?” and so on. I always develop a series of questions that accompany me along the whole process and through answering these questions the project takes shape, creating the backbone of what will be applied in the design afterwards. The output is often unknown until the very end because it is the research that tells me what are the right choices to make when it comes to design decisions. 

Nevertheless, I do work on multiple projects simultaneously, sometimes because commissions overlap, some other times because often the research for one project can become inspiring for the output of another one. Design is not a linear process and often it needs to be contaminated by factors that supposedly have nothing to do with it.

AGC — Telluride seems to be a unique project because it is ongoing. Can you talk a little bit about it? Where are you at with it currently? 

FP — Telluride is a material investigation which looks into the possibility of using lava as a compound element in a porcelain mixture. It took me a little more than a year to arrive on a satisfying and stable recipe that I called Volcanic Porcelain.

Conceptually the research originated by observing the volcanic activity of the Phlegrean Fields, a region in the outskirts of Naples in the south of Italy. In this area there is a very particular geo-magmatic activity called Bradyseism which is a constant uplifting or descent movement of the earth crust, a perpetual earthquake caused by the filling or emptying of an underground magma chamber and/or the hydrothermal activity, particularly in volcanic calderas. In a way it is like the earth is breathing.

By observing this phenomenon I also started to study the chemical structure of the lava stone and through experimentation I discovered that the silicon oxide present in the rock has a similar structure to the kaolin of the porcelain, so I tried to combine the two materials together. Having a similar chemical structure the two elements bond creating a new and stronger material, the Volcanic Porcelain.

Right now I am working on expanding the typology of mixtures and trying to diversify them, working on the percentage of lava within the porcelain and working on pigmentation. 

Together with that, I am developing new applications for the Volcanic Porcelain and will soon present a collection of new objects.

AGC — I was surprised to learn that woodworking was the latest craft you picked up and it was prompted by a need to spend less time behind your desk and use your hands. How is materiality important to your work? 

FP — I would say Tellurico does not exist without materiality, the things are inseparable. I started to work with woodcarving almost as a need after a long period of workshop inactivity. At that moment I was working on Unchecked Chain which was a project that happened in a very short amount of time. From the time the project was approved to the final exhibition I had a little more than three months for putting together the entire project. This meant working nonstop for over three months, more than 14 hours a day, no weekend, in a hot Italian summer. I had to watch and classify hours and hours of interviews, documentaries, social media video, Facebook posts, reading an uncountable number of documents, articles and parliamentary investigations, shooting hours of drone footage and editing all the six channels of the video-installation to give a coherent perspective to the whole project. Of course I received help but I needed to be present and coordinate all the steps of the project.

After that I was exhausted and I needed to do something which could take me far away from the monitors and step aside from all the planning and scheduling of the previous project so I bought myself wood-carving tools and started from a massive block of solid wood to carve a few objects. The practice is quite tiring and repetitive. It is almost like a mantra, it helps me to dissociate myself from everything around me and it is relaxing – one could say it’s like a dusty sport activity. With time this practice evolved into a collection of furniture that still today is expanding.

AGC — Last year, you were commissioned by the 5 Vie organization to create a piece of furniture for Milano Design City 2020. The project is described as a “performance.” Would you have made the same piece or worked the same way had the production process not been publicly attended/recorded? Do you think it would be beneficial to designers and artists if audiences had access to their production processes? 

FP — I think the medium of the performance is by definition unique. That piece can only be done in that context, in that amount of time, in that location, under that commission. That was the whole point of the performance in itself. 

However, one of the motivations which brought me to propose such a project was to show the complexity there is behind the production of a wooden bench. The fact that even after eight hours of uninterrupted work the project was not even close to being finished, shows to the audience what is behind the accomplishment of a piece. I believe showing this behind-the-scenes effort is always positive as it creates a bridge of understanding between the viewer and the work itself. 

In a way the performance investigates the importance of time for an independent/young designer. Time is simultaneously the sole thing I really own and the only unit of measure for valuing my work. 

That performance was the first of a series which I want to carry on in different locations around the world and during which I partially produce design objects. For that specific performance we are now working on a book which will be presented in September, probably in Milan, in the same venue where the event took place. The book contains a series of thirty analog photos shot by the OP_FOT photo agency and have the contribution of two amazing curators, Annalisa Rosso and Joel Valabrega. 

AGC — What is design to you? If you had not been a designer, what would you be doing? 

FP — As I said before, for me design is a tool for understanding reality. Through design I try to tell stories related to my surrounding environment. I have no idea what I could have done if I was not a designer, most probably something related to the sea. I love to spend hours by myself on a boat, I think I would have tried to make a job out of it. Like a sea-diver, a biologist or a fisherman. 

AGC — Going back to the terminology associated with your studio: I read on our website that people call a ‘tellurico population” one that does not act or follow rational thought but is pushed by an inner strength. What inner strength pushes you to do the work you do? 

FP — I believe curiosity is my door to personal and professional growth. 

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