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‘Upcycling’: An interview with Silvia Ramalli

Much is being said lately about the way we use and dispose products in our everyday life. We recycle cardboard and paper, change incandescent light bulbs for energy saving lights and try, as much as possible, to change our consuming habits. However, -and I might add, ironically enough- the lifecycle of products shorten as fast as technology evolves.

Do we ever wonder ‘what if we gave the products we dispose a second chance, instead of destroying them just to reuse those parts worth recycling?’ While you search deep into your soul for the answer, let me introduce you to Silvia Ramalli, and Italian industrial designer I had the pleasure to meet some time ago. Silvia asked herself that and many other questions and founded UNWASTE, her upcycling industrial design project.

Silvia, tell us a little about yourself.

Well, I graduated last year in Industrial design at the Florence University, but sometimes design bores me a lot. You know, at the beginning design was something to solve problems with beauty, but now it seems like it’s just all about marketing, and to make people appear richer or more cultivated. So I started researching into something more interesting; working with craftsmen and the philosophies of mending things to make them last longer, and focusing on a different kind of creativity, not necessarily linked to “style” as we mean it.

Which are your influences in design?

My design heroes are Charles and Ray Eames, Bruno Munari and Enzo Mari. They are all people with genius minds and hands, and the late ’60s italian Radical Architecture, which introduced poetry and strong communication values in design.

What is your approach to design?

Mine is a multidisciplinary approach to design, with a particular attention to environmental and social matters, which are not something “extra”, but sort of… let’s say, default setting. With “default setting” I mean my basics; my ethic approach to my job, and to my personal lifestyle.

What made you start Unwaste? What’s the concept behind it?

UNWASTE starts officially in 2009, when I was working in an art gallery for young artists in Berlin, a city where everything is very practical and simple. A lot of people there use what they already have to make new stuff, just because they don’t have enough time to go shopping and instead prefer to spend their days off playing with their children in a nice city garden. There’s a different idea on how to satisfy a need and buying something new is almost at the end of the list. In the country where I grew up there’s a harder pressure for shopping; the “made in Italy” is all about style, so the creativity becomes something that you can express just in your creative job, if you have one. In everyday life, people don’t think enough: got some problem or need? Go shopping! So, the German experience is the base for the birth of the UNWASTE project, as it gave me the right motivation to run something that, intellectually, was there since… mmm… maybe from the start, of my adult life, I mean.

As for this summer, UNWASTE has doubled! In fact Luca Binaglia, a talented interior designer, winner of several design prizes such as Toscana Design Competition (2008), AlcantaraLAB (2008), sunlab (2009 and 2010) and a publication on the youngblood annual 2009, decided to join the project and become an active member. I’m really excited about it because ours is a very crafty, amusing and challenging collaboration.

Do you feel your project can be linked somehow to sustainability or is it more about giving certain objects a different afterlife?

Everything we do is straightly linked to sustainability; we choose to work with re-used objects because we believe in human creativity and because we love taking care of things, just what the old values teach. Taking care of them implies thinking on the actual production system, which is quite the opposite, or at least not based on a sustainable standard.

How is your design process like? What makes you choose a certain object to work with?

Firstly I’m attracted by its charm, there are a lot of used products that look perfect as they are; with time impressed on their surfaces, and a lot of human vicissitudes that makes them appear eternal. So, in that case, I do my best to cure and not to ruin them, while other used objects have a great potential in communicating something else; something different from the aim and functions that they had been designed for. Products that have a very short life, like bottles and packaging in general are the most interesting ones; the shorter lives they’ve had, the more you can operate with them, because they are actually new! It makes me wonder why we always complain about environmental and economic matters. We produce/use/dispose them and then, complain… but we still go shopping everyday…

Sometimes it can be funny to play with functions and its archetypical shapes. For example, the shape of a table matches the function to hold, or to place, and changing that function into contain, store, creates a smart rhetorical effect, just like “Giovanna era piero”, one of my latest products. Very often it’s the owner of the product who asks for a redesign, and knows exactly what he does or doesn’t like of it.

Overall, I have an emotional approach in choosing which used objects to work with, it’s something about turning the negative into positive, or something like that. Like feeling the “sadness” of an umbrella forgotten in a corner because it just stopped raining, and turn it into a nice pair of rain shoes.

You work a lot with the ‘upcycling’ concept. What is upcycling? What’s the difference between an upcycled object and a recycled one?

Recycling is more an industrial process about materials, while upcycling is more about design and the human approach to things. Actually is something more artistic and maybe also a bit poetical, where you just have to “feel” what a certain object makes you imagine, or what concept it suggests by itself. You just develop it according to your own sensibility and background.

While in setting spaces we try to choose and elaborate furniture to create a sort of dialogue between them, every object tell its own story, so  the space becomes narrative; a sort of collective tale where you can seat on and read a book while you have breakfast.

Fuzzy vintage seats, reviving objects and furniture from grandma’s kitchen create a dimension of comfortable intimacy, smart and elegantly easy, a place that celebrates the emotional dimension of objects, without nostalgia.

Tell us about your upcoming projects.

At the moment I’m setting up a literary café in Tuscany called Sottobosco, wich is going to open about the end of this year. Meanwhile, we are working with Elisa Fiocchetti, a graphic designer, to renew Unwaste’s corporate image. In the next few months we’ll work on a lot of vintage furniture for private houses and new spaces to set up here in Italy… you’ll see!

Don’t forget to check UNWASTE’s website and the designer a domicilio project, Silvia’s door to door collaboration with Resign.

Unwaste’s website: http://www.wix.com/unwaste/unwaste

Resign’s website:  http://www.resign.it

About the author – Andrea Musso is a freelance designer from Argentina and is currently engaged in the design and production of ceramic ware. You can learn more about her at www.lacabezadelareina.com

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