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Campo Base marks a moment of reflection and controversy at Fuorisalone 2023
‘Ammonite’ by Giuliano Andrea dell’Uva
Image: Courtesy of Giuliano Andrea dell’Uva

Campo Base marks a moment of reflection and controversy at Fuorisalone 2023

At Milan Design Week 2023, Campo Base presents a manifesto for interiors, signed by six Italian architectural studios and curated by Federica Sala.

by Sunena V Maju
Published on : Apr 19, 2023

Curtains have been raised for Milan Design Week 2023, and the city has been bustling with designers, brands and design enthusiasts. Amid the many attractions at Brera Design Week, Tortona Design Week, 5Vie Art and Design, Alcova, Milano Design District, Isola Design District, Triennale Milano, Euroluce, and Salone del Mobile, the design week is nothing less than an overwhelming flow of creativity. Between the stirring energy of various events, exhibitions, and launches at Fuorisalone, Campo Base becomes a pivotal platform to reflect on the design principles of six renowned Italian designers, marking a moment of reflection. Curated by Federica Sala, Campo Base is a manifesto on contemporary interior design, signed by six Italian architecture studios. It is self-produced and self-managed by studios: Massimo Adario, Giuliano Andrea dell’Uva, Eligostudio, Marcante-Testa, Hannes Peer and Studiopepe. In the hypothetical non-place, the six studios have explored the concept of domestic intimacy through challenging shared exercises in design.

“Campo Base is a village. It is an encampment. Most certainly, it is a micro architectonic community whose sparse shared spaces become the backdrop for a diversity of designs in individual settings, all of which aim to explore the concept of domestic intimacy. By crossing the thresholds of the hidden entrances behind the folds of the common scenery, which act as a watershed between our existence in the outside world and our domestic selves, we enter the individual universes,” states the official release. At the exhibition, Rome-based Massimo Adario interprets the concept of intimacy in a room called Il Collezionista (The Collector). The setting is an abstract design where the weather unfolds among a selection of objects that mirror the personality of the collector. Turin-based Marcante-Testa envisioned a heterotopic space in which the furnishings and spaces have been emptied and given a different context to find a new ritual, becoming devices to protect our intimacy. Hannes Peer’s Atelier des Nymphéas creates a temporal journey highlighting the creative, by revealing the personal side of the painting to the public, prompted by the designer himself.

Eligostudio focuses on the importance of domestic conviviality as a supreme moment of intimacy and createsOmaggio a Renzo Mongiardino (A Tribute to Renzo Mongiardino). The design of which plays upon illusion, along with featured works by artist Lorenzo Vitturi. The project by Studiopepe, Omphalos, meaning ‘navel’ in ancient Greek, embraces the visitors like a ‘psychic skin.’ With a series of archetypal elements, the project imparts visitors with a sense of protection from intimacy and defends them from the exterior. Giuliano Andrea dell’Uva’s Ammonite reflects on the possibility of inhabiting emptiness, a functionless space.

“These six projects can be discovered by venturing down the pathway through the common scenery, a sort of fabric placenta that houses all of the studios, each with its own distinct differences. This fabric tunnel was made possible thanks to the collaboration with Elitis and accompanies us through a cocooned universe—a temporary perceptual labyrinth where we can set ourselves free to explore the studios’ interpretations of the concept of intimacy. In the background, an olfactive rug reminiscent of a fire becomes an unmanifested symbol of collectively shared intimacy. An acoustic installation curated by artist Norma Jeane features ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) audio technology to arouse a state of spatial and sensorial disorientation. The live sonorisation of the central island area reproduces familiar sounds in an abstract, nearly metaphysical context, aligned with the concept of the installation in the exhibition space,” adds the official release.

(Article update on April 25, 2023)

Though Campo Base raised much anticipation among design enthusiasts prior to its opening, post the show, there have arisen controversies on the collective presented by Massimo Adario titled Il Collezionista (The Collector). Concerns have been raised against the racist representation in the glass figurines presented by the architect in a glass case, which was a part of his work. The objects displayed were gathered by a hypothetical collector, Kaspar Ulz, the custodian of a vast collection of Meissen porcelain, the protagonist of the latest novel by Bruce Chatwin, published in 1988. Following the talks on the insensitive display of racist figures, global PR company, Hello Human, released an Instagram post and statement bringing to attention the problematics of this exhibit.

Instagram post by Hello Human, and Stephen Burks Man MadeImage: Courtesy of Hello Human, via Instagram

Supporting this, Stephen Burks stated, “The racist figurines on display during the Milan Furniture Fair last week at the Campo Base exhibition curated by Federica Sala and collected and presented by Massimo Adario are a reminder to us all that design does not exist in a vacuum. Design is popular culture and our actions shape attitudes and opinions that reflect where we are as a society. The unfortunate message this exhibition has sent is that people of non-European origin do not have the right to exist outside of a Eurocentric, often racist, frame of reference. We must acknowledge that the historical objects on display in the exhibition originated from violence. We must understand how their creation in the 1920s was derived from an unequal system of cultural exploitation borrowing directly from European colonial practices of dehumanizing ‘othering’.”

Talking about the problem such representation outlines, Jenny Nguyen, founder of Hello Human stated, “After seeing the installation I talked with a number of European people tied to the show and many of them did not fully understand why the figures were so offensive or deemed racist. It’s true that the topic of racism is not discussed as widely in Europe as it is here in the US, and while the US is far from perfect I do believe that by talking about these forms of racism, we understand what’s so offensive about it. Without spelling it out, the figures depict minority races as sub-human. For example, their features are distorted and made to look foolish (re: Blackface) or nefarious (re: Yellowface), which is not only demeaning and hurtful but it reinforces white culture’s notion of superiority. And in this case, placing these figures in such a rarefied context as Milan Design Week, which is so celebrated in our design industry, it sends a damaging and negative message (which has been amplified by the media).”

(Article update on April 26, 2023)

Following is the official statement STIR received from Federica Sala, the curator of Campo Base and architect Massimo Adario in regard to the controversy following the glass figurines presented by the architect as a part of his Il Collezionista (The Collector) presentation.

Federica Sala, curator of Campo Base:

“These last few days we spoke intensely internally about the subject to have an open and constructive conversation about it and to learn from what happened in order to avoid such situations in the future. We regret what happened and we apologise for the discomfort this has caused. It was by no means intentional to offend anyone and we don’t want to minimize this. These pieces are from 1920-27 and are from the personal archive of Massimo Adario’s, that had an Italian historical contest in mind. We didn’t perceive these pieces on a global scale and that is our mistake. We absolutely stand against racism and other forms of prejudice. It is our intent to listen and learn from this experience as our objective was not to create division or conflict. For us Campo Base was created to build community and with a positive spirit. We hope to open a path that leads to discussion clarification, and a better understanding of cultural, historical, and social relevance."

Massimo Adario, designer of Il Collezionista (The Collector):

“First of all, I would like to apologize to all those who have been hurt and offended by my project. It was absolutely not my intention to inflict harm nor offense. I invite anyone who has suffered to engage with me to help me understand the different worlds and cultures from which each of us comes in the belief that only knowledge and empathy are the true antidote to racism.

I think dialogue should always be the basis for problem-solving. Raising ideological barricades, in my opinion, may help a single individual feel like he / she / they is / are taking a stand and contributing to solving a problem; when in reality it does not help arrive at a collective, shared understanding of an issue. And racism is a big problem, which - in my case - also needs to be framed culturally.

I was born and educated in Italy, and I feel intimately part of a culture where, constitutionally, everyone is protected regardless of sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity. These are the values I believe in and bring to my work.

From my perspective as an Italian, racism is not fought by destroying works of art. Our artistic heritage has such historical depth and breadth, which fortunately helps us to give context, and not to judge only with the eyes of the present moment.

The problems of our society - including the scourge of racism - are not solved by censoring or obliterating works of art that have since become questionable, or even offensive; but rather by continuing to believe in and guaranteeing the right to engage in vigorous debate about what originated them, the historical context to which they belong, and how today’s fuller knowledge, understanding and appreciation can and should re-elaborate their meanings and significance.

This is the cultural context in which I would like my work to be framed. Because cultural differences exist. They matter. They must be celebrated and protected. Maintaining and nurturing diversity of cultures is crucial to the well-being of humankind.

Regarding the glass sculptures that formed part of my recent installation in Milan, here are some facts:

- the glasses were made in Murano (Venice) in the late 1920s, sometime between 1927-1929.

- the glassworks factory where the works were produced was called I.V.A.M. (Industrie Vetraie Artistiche Murano) and as its very name suggests, it was an extremely experimental, albeit very short-lived, exercise in creating a purely artistic glassworks, which made “objects” that did not have a specific function. It ceased its activity in 1931, due to the recession / depression that overwhelmed much of the western world at the time.

- the most likely artists to which these sculptures can be attributed are Giovita Vitali or Flavio Poli, or perhaps a joint work of theirs. The documents do not make the attribution 100% clear.

- these are works of art that are now historicized.

- there are 7 figures (but the cycle may have contained as many as 12) in hand-blown glass, some also with wooden ornaments, most of which are now lost. The ones I own are representative of 7 ethnic groups identified by the colour of the glass and the exaggerated somatic features. The artistic language is the same for all the figures, including the one that would appear to indicate the Caucasian ethnicity, since this figure is made in transparent / whitish glass. Also for this reason, it’s my opinion that there was no intent to caricature only one, or some, particular ethnic group(s), but probably all groups.

- these artists are known to also have produced masks, and so it’s no surprise that these sculptures have mask-like qualities to them, with exaggerated features and colours. As is well known to us Italians, Venice is the capital of the carnival. Masks (which have a profound, rich meaning to almost all cultures) not infrequently have grotesque features, sometimes making them offensive, even repulsive.

- for my installation project, I designed a display case for my own home, working closely with an Italian contemporary artist in sculpting the “feet” / bases of the vetrine. The artist decided to name this vetrine - a work done together - as “The Collector”, based on an 1988 book by Bruce Chatwin, titled Utz, a hypothetical collector of porcelains in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. I chose to display these newly acquired sculptures because both volumetrically and chromatically they related to the selection of other sculptures made by the artist, which we chose for this installation.

I hope that this text will help provide a more articulated framing of this work of mine. Above all, I hope that it will make clear that there was no racist intent in it.

I am not racist. I hate racism. This affair and the false accusations made against me are especially troublesome and difficult for me because they convey an image of me that is totally, diametrically opposite to who I am.

Again, I am deeply sorry that this project has hurt the sensitivities of communities from other countries and other cultures, surely including some also here in Italy. That was absolutely not my intention.

I would only add a personal request that this matter concern only me and my work; and it not involve my colleagues, namely the other studios of architects and designers who participated in the initiative of 'Campo Base'; nor, for that matter, should this matter touch or tarnish the work of the curator.

For the record, despite having written an email, providing my cell phone number, and soliciting an open discussion with the person who first labelled me a racist, to date he has avoided this exchange. (I’ve had no reply to my email).

I take full and total responsibility for my work and for my words. Everyone else should not be involved or tarnished by my actions.

I embrace the opportunity to learn from my mistake, together with anyone of those in the wider design community who share an ideal of open, transformative dialogue, so that racism and its roots be confronted and rejected wholeheartedly.”

STIR’s coverage of Milan Design Week 2023 showcases the best exhibitions, studios, designers, installations, brands, and special projects to look out for. Explore Euroluce 2023 and all the design districts—5Vie Art and Design, Brera Design District, Fuorisalone, Isola Design District, Tortona District, and Milano Design District—with us.

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