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Understanding Nature Through Design at the Lake Como Design Festival

The fifth edition of this Italian festival explores nature, inspired by a two-thousand-year-old book

by Paolo Ferrarini

One of Europe’s most exciting design events, the Lake Como Design Festival (running now through 24 September) has returned for an illuminating fifth edition. This year it coincides with celebrations honoring Pliny the Elder, the great philosopher born in Como exactly two thousand years ago. Pliny authored the majestic work Naturalis Historia and, for this reason, he is considered the inventor of the encyclopedia and the first naturalist. The festival’s creative director, Lorenzo Butti, extrapolated from this coincidence and chose nature as the event’s key theme—but from a conceptual point of view, rather than an ecological or ideological one. “The Naturalis Historia teaches us to observe nature. It reveals it to us. To observe the world is to look at the stories outside our window,” Butti says. Taking this into consideration, he adds that sustainability is an inevitable point of discussion for the festival but he wanted to hone in on “ecology as a reflection of design.”

After visiting the festival around the lakeside city, we’ve selected the following five events as highlights.

Courtesy of Robert Mawdsley

The Other Animals

The title for The Other Animals comes from a phrase by Pliny that concludes the volume of the Naturalis Historia that is dedicated to human beings: “Now I will go on to talk about the other animals.” For the exhibit, at the central Piazza del Duomo, the curators selected designer items, works of art, prints and handicrafts from different eras. Everything is arranged on three tables according to three categories—air, earth and water—and where the animals live. Among the artists on display are René Burri, Andrea Branzi, Enzo Cucchi, Mario De Biasi, Michele De Lucchi, Aldo Londi, Formafantasma, Enzo Mari, Steve McCurry, Ico Parisi, Martin Parr, Ettore Sottsass and fashion designer Thom Browne.

Courtesy of Robert Mawdsley

In describing the exhibition, the curator and president of the Accademia Pliniana, Massimiliano Mondelli, explains, “This exhibition has various levels of interpretation. One is playful—it’s a simple and fun way to approach the exhibition’s themes of nature and design. Second, you can read into it with much more depth, interpreting every passage. You too will come out with an irrepressible desire to read the Naturalis Historia.”

Courtesy of Robert Mawdsley

Between Art and Nature

Carla Sozzani began her career as a journalist and editor of fashion magazines. Subsequently, she founded 10 Corso Como, as well as a publishing house, and the Carla Sozzani Gallery (an international reference point for photography). The essence of her work lies in a personal collection that counts thousands of images by famous, emerging and forgotten photographers. For the festival, Sozzani exhibits a selection of nature-related works entitled Between Art and Nature. Photographs from the Collection of Carla Sozzani in the magnificent Ex Convento Orsoline San Carlo.

Courtesy of Robert Mawdsley

“This is a very personal collection,” curator Maddalena Scarzella tells us, “because it was not collected according to a typology or a chronology, but almost by instinct and experience.” Within there are 78 images by 21 photographers on display. These photos range from botanical documentation by Karl Blossfeldt and Edward Sheriff Curtis to the visions of Francesca Woodman and Max Vadukul, concluding with the colorful fantasies of David LaChapelle.

Courtesy of Robert Mawdsley

Contemporary Design Selection

For Villa Salazar (built in the 1700s, and now open to the public for the first time), curator Giovanna Massoni went in search of designers experimenting with ideas and materiality. She grouped them into the exhibition Contemporary Design Selection. Within, the ceramics of Alice ReinaArianna de Luca and Edgar Orlaineta surprise with color and material that looks like paper. The “Giraffa Alta” lamp by Jonathan Bocca – J.o.b Studio occupies an entire room, as does the “Eruption” lamp by Francesco Maria Messina, inspired by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79CE and made of cement, resins, metal and mineral stone. Pieces by ccontinua+mamt, a ceramist and a tattoo artist who decorate vases with organic shapes as if they were leather, and Coco Brun, who switches seamlessly from metal to salts that grow naturally above the vessels, also impress. The works on display here can also be purchased via auction on Catawiki.

Courtesy of Robert Mawdsley

Back to Nature

For the first time in the history of the Lake Como Design Festival, design installations are taking place at Villa Olmo, one of the city’s architectural symbols. As part of Back to Nature. Explorations of nature through the lens of design and art, we encountered “The Second Song: Falling to Earth,” a site-specific installation by Kris Ruhs that’s a waterfall of 30,000 handmade flowers. In the majestic surroundings of the villa, original drawings from Ken Scott‘s archive, rarely seen in public, are displayed. Further, the Brazilian company ETEL presents reissues of objects by Oscar Niemeyer. Galleria Rossana Orlandi is also stationed here, with a bed/sculpture by Draga & Aurel with Giuliano dell’Uva.

Courtesy of Fòlia Næssi

Off 2023

In addition to the institutional exhibitions, Como is currently alive with independent artistic initiatives. Among them, we were struck by De Curiositas at Galleria Ramo, where Benedetta De Rosa selected designers capable of crafting rather unusual pieces. This is the case with Fòlia, a small collection of objects designed by Naessi. Starting with panels drawn from the scraps of the rice industry, subsequently coated with briar, the Roman duo conceived of a curvaceous console and two tables. Elswhere, at WIP Studio, the photo exhibit Corrispondenze presents Mattia Vacca‘s powerful “A Winter’s Tale.” Across 10 years, Vacca documented the carnival of Schignano, near Como, a unique event that reenacts stories of migration.

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