Luca Molinari: Let’s start with the term happiness: does it exist for you? If so, what does it mean to you?
Elena Salmistraro: I found happiness in my work, first of all because by drawing I learned to exorcise my fears. When I was a little girl, I was a bit scared and shy, so I used to take refuge in drawing, where all the monsters that distressed me came to life, trying to overcome my fears, as well as my dreams and aspirations, until I understood that I could express myself through drawing. Then, over the years, those monsters became more and more my companions and helped me give shape and soul to objects that began to be part of my journey.
L.M: Speaking of your path, where does Elena Salmistraro come from?
E.S.: I am from Milan and we are all Milanese in my family, even though my surname has obvious Venetian origins. Which is a rarity. My dream was to become an artist, to express myself through drawing, and since I was a child I wanted to go to art school to discover that world of colours and canvases. But then I decided to enrol in high school to study architecture and design, because the course was experimental. So I have been studying design since I was 15. When I was 18, the year I applied to university, I was uncertain whether to go to the Brera Academy or to follow a different path from the one I had followed up to that moment, so I enrolled at the Polytechnic, in the Fashion Design course in Como. Initially I thought that choice had been a mistake, but only with time did I realise that this experience contributed to widening my point of view enormously. The course was very focused on fabrics, on the creation of patterns through the use of the computer, which are all things that can be found in my work today. When I finished the course, I realised that the fashion world, with its rules and its times, was not for me, so I started again, I got back into the game by re-entering the first year and then graduating in Industrial Design. And it was there, at the Polytechnic, that I started to deal with the first ‘series’ productions. I remember that I had the happy idea of making terracotta jars for a design workshop. As soon as I saw them lined up on the university table, I thought that they would also look great in a house, and I realised that this was what I wanted to do. I have never been content simply with the formula “form follows function”, I have always sought something more, my aim was to unite the world of art with that of design, because I am convinced that design solves problems and deals with people’s needs, while art denounces, communicates, caresses people’s emotions.
L.M: Have you never had a reference person or teacher, someone to inspire you?
E.S.: Not at first, especially in the world of design, but I have always adored Basquiat in art. During my years of study at the Polytechnic, which gave me the rigour and mental shape that I would not otherwise have had, I was able to delve into the history of design, from the Bauhaus to the 1960s, but only afterwards I had the good fortune and pleasure of meeting and getting to know first Alessandro Guerriero and then Alessandro Mendini, two undisputed masters who have certainly influenced my way of understanding design. Still talking about art, it is said that my works have a Pop style, but in my opinion, more than the style, my works are Pop, because they try to convey a message that has the strength to reach everyone. And for me it is very important that the culture of my work reaches everyone, even and above all the non-experts. With my objects I try to give life to something that does not need an explanation, but simply speaks for itself, for what it is. Creating is a therapy for me. And it is the only way I can communicate, because I am not very good with words. My objects are me, they are an expression of myself. It’s important for me to feed my vivid imagination and have a language that is always fresh.
L.M: What does having a fresh language mean to you? What is needed to be able to speak to the new generations?
E.S.: I’m a person who observes a lot, I’ve learnt to watch and listen and above all to decipher what I perceive. It’s important for me to understand what the dreams and needs of young people are. For example, if you see what people of my generation post on Instagram, you realise that they have an unbridled need to emphasise perfection, with glossy, immaculate shots. Whereas younger guys aren’t afraid to show their flaws, their imperfections and to reveal how they really are. I really like this attitude of theirs, and I try as much as possible to tell my story with simplicity and sincerity, without artifice, I constantly try to make my work seem light, which doesn’t mean superficial, even though it is actually hard and demanding work.
L.M: This lightness can also be seen as a form of honesty…
E.S.: Yes, that’s very true. I always look for honesty, because what you see in my work is me. A lot of people try to create a character, a well-defined identity, whereas I show myself as I am. You only have to look at me and my work to understand that there are no superstructures or filters. We resemble each other.
L.M: So we could make an autobiography of you through your objects. If you had to choose three or four pieces that somehow represent your growing portrait, which has changed over time, which ones would you choose?
E.S.: One of the first is this sofa: it is called Deux ames, which means “two souls” in French. This one is a sort of self-portrait, my alter ego, and it’s called Alla, which is my nickname since I was little. Whereas that one was a self-production of mine, entirely handmade, and had been selected by Giulio Cappellini and Gisella Borioli for Superstudiopiù. It is a pleated seat with a metal core, which you can still sit on today, because papier-mâché is really resistant. This product marks my entry into the world of design. Here we come to the other object, which are my monkeys, and which – these too – fully reflect me. Finally, my ‘mature’ work is the one I made for Cedit Ceramiche d’Italia Gruppo Florim. It is a serial production called Chimera, a mythological monster made up of several parts, exactly as I feel. The work consists of four plates: Empathy, Rhythm, Roots and Colour, precisely the ingredients I put into my work. I started drawing freely until, together with the company, we realised that each of them, in its own way, spoke about me, so we decided to gather them all together under one project.
L.M: Where did this passion for monkeys come from?
E.S.: I had seen this beautiful documentary about monkeys. I saw their colours and was amazed at what nature was capable of doing. I kept drawing them without really knowing what to do with them, until I went to Sicily. There I saw the Moorish heads and I finally realised. These monkeys were my luck, I expressed myself freely without constraints and I was very happy, also because I found a company on the other side ready to support me and believe in the project…
L.M: When did you do the first series?
E.S.: They came out in 2017, but I drew them between 2014 and 2015. It took us a while, also because it was a really strong project, which also needed a lot of courage. We were all afraid, because at that time the market was very attached to clean, minimalist shapes. But then the company was far-sighted and decided to release them anyway. These works are very complex to make, because translating all my two-dimensional textures into well-defined shapes and bringing them into the third dimension without debasing their meaning, is really hard work. It was also very nice to be able to use the ‘machine’ without getting carried away by the flow that often takes over designers. I managed to convey the tool to achieve what I had in mind, and I am very satisfied with the result.
L.M: What interests me is talking about the interiors….
E.S.: More than interiors, which for me is a private home, I would call them installations or exhibitions. At a certain point I needed a change of scale and to give space to my objects: I wanted to see them all as inside a container. So, if at first I drew in 2D and then extrapolated my objects to the third dimension, now I have decided to dive into my drawings at 360 degrees, trying to create my own world, my own dimension. Just think that one of the first projects was for Vitra Italia. They asked me to imagine the Vitra world through my eyes and to tell it with the filter of the city of Milan. So that’s what I did: I tried to get into my head, into the world of my imagination and give voice to the city that raised me. Then I got calls from monsters like Nike, Ikea… and I would never have imagined that, it was really exciting.
L.M: How do you explain this? Why is a client looking for you?
E.S.: I often ask myself that. When they call me they usually give me complete freedom, they tell me that they are not afraid of my strong language and that they know perfectly well what awaits them, they are usually tired of the standardised and repetitive language, they need to see the personality in the project and they want it to be understandable to the users as well. It is not a simple search for the wow effect – also because I don’t deliberately look for it – it is a request that goes beyond, that deals with codes, languages, messages and communication.
L.M: I’m thinking a lot about the word wonder: that it’s not the astonishment of consumption, but it’s something that cheers you up and slows you down. So what does it mean to you, if you don’t look for it?
E.S.: I’m thinking about how I express wonder, because for me what I do is so spontaneous that I don’t think much about it. I produce because it makes me feel good, thinking that an empathic process can also work for others.
L.M: Have you asked yourself why all this generates so much attention for you?
E.S.: Maybe it’s the storytelling: I always tell stories, that’s probably what people are interested in. My approach to design is more artistic than technical, and much more like the work of a painter; over the years I have learnt to match colours and balance their weights within the composition, trying to generate something that is pleasing to the eye, to anyone, even a person who is not in the industry. Through drawing, I tell stories that tend to involve the viewer. It is the story that becomes an experience, an emotional one.
For example, entering into one of my installations is a total experience, where the object and the installation merge into a single story. Which then are probably the words I cannot say.
L.M: Compared to your early works, how has your way of working in an interior and your relationship with space changed?
E.S.: Perhaps I have always felt freer to experiment: by gaining a little more confidence and realising that I knew and could control the space, I have lightened up a bit more with some constraints, trying to surprise myself every time. I realise that I have matured and that over the years my eye has also changed completely. Now I am no longer afraid of my monsters; on the contrary, I court them, I love them. My approach has probably become more conscious. For example, I’ve become a quality freak; for me, the important thing today is to pursue excellence, and that goes beyond the size and prestige of any company.
L.M: In addition to quality, can we use another uncomfortable word: luxury?
E.S.: It depends on what meaning you want to give to the word luxury. For me, it is certainly not synonymous with excess and opulence, but it is synonymous with excellence, know-how and uniqueness. The value of an object is not strictly linked to its price, but is more connected to its strength and ability to establish a bond, an affection with its owner. If you care about an object, you don’t throw it away easily. Sometimes I think about it, and that’s an advantage I have: you get attached to my pieces and don’t throw them away.
L.M: What collaborations can you talk about that are stimulating you?
E.S.: For example, the one with Natuzzi, which comes out in September during the Salone, which I’m very happy about. Pasquale Natuzzi contacted me and asked me to collaborate, “Elena, can you re-modernise the sofa recliner?” It was really a challenge for me, because it’s probably not the sofa I would have thought of designing, but it was an adventure that stimulated me a lot. It was another step into the world of industrial design. The collection is very large and is composed not only of the sofa, but also a swivel armchair, a bookcase, a low table… there will be more or less 17 different pieces. It is a project for a complete environment with all its elements: another wonderful opportunity to bring my world back to reality.
Text by Luca Molinari
Captions and Photo credit (from top to bottom)
– Elena Salmistraro photo by Giulia Riva – Paper chair Deux Ames – Bosa Primates plates – Bosa Primates vases – Elena Salmistraro @ Hotel Chimera by Cedit