I met Afra & Tobia Scarpa in 1988. I interviewed them to write Trent’anni e più di design, a book desired by Aldo Bartolomeo, founder of Stildomus, with whom the two designers had made innovative projects. I realized I had met two special people, of great humanity, though Afra concealed her gentle nature behind a mask of apparent rudeness that was easily torn aside.
At the time I wrote: “Tobia, during our meeting, alternating praise and criticism of the entrepreneur Aldo Bartolomeo, reviewed the past of Stildomus, citing fragments of a story he reassembled, each segment in its proper place: the postcard sent from America by Bruno Munari, the letter written backwards to read in a mirror … the pages of a datebook with sketches of joints, the holiday greetings” (Trent’anni e più di design, Idea Book, Milano, 1988).
In the film L’anima segreta delle cose written by Elisa Pajer and Elena Brigi and directed by Elia Romanelli, screened in October at the Design Film Festival in Milan, I rediscovered much of the Tobia I met in 1988, starting with the house in Trevignano, in the Veneto countryside, where Afra & Tobia “were voluntary exiles, in rustic garb that was just an outer shell” (ibidem).
The intense, engaging film “cost us almost five years of work,” Elisa Pajer writes in the introduction to the book that accompanies and completes the project, “during which we peered into the life of Tobia, gaining his trust and the privilege to narrate his story.”
In the film Scarpa allows himself to be narrated, but above all he tells his own story with considered, intimate words, accompanied by drawings that flow freely on paper, and precise gestures with which he caresses the materials he loves and respects, like living creatures, which he investigates to reveal their secrets, and even their sounds.
He even produces a concert of bamboo sticks, cut in the wild garden of the house at Trevignano. As in the film, the words of the book are chosen to reason on the need to give intelligence to the gesture, to learn techniques to make our objects better and to cultivate the vocation for craftsmanship, seen as an element of skill in construction.
The way he talks about design, rather than a discussion of the things needed to live, is a stream of personal reflections “about being in the world, which requires you to remove the armor built to defend yourself, and reveal yourself in depth.”
“To design,” Tobia Scarpa says, “is to pro-ject a thought, a desire, a way of doing things; it means giving while needing everything, a ride through an inner dimension.” He seems to lose himself in his reasoning, studded with erudite citations, memories of poets and musicians he knows personally, like Mario Brunello, physically impaired, who plays wild music that is necessary for him to be in the world; yet he always keeps a grip on the thread that leads back to design.
The insults of life have made him wise. In his words we can hear regret regarding personal relationships, and the intelligence of the workshop, things that are being lost in the race to meet the needs of the market. He confesses that he is not fond of the things he has done, though he does believe that some of his products, like the Papillon lamp for Flos, belong more to the world of sculpture than to that of design.
He is interested in doing things by means of processes, knowledge of materials, the relationship with intelligent entrepreneurs, the expertise of artisans. “I have devoted my knowledge and ability to companies. I make things as I know how and I try to be simple, without arrogance.” He talks about materials and says “we have to treat them in a loving way, letting them indicate the form an object should have.”
He frequents foundries, woodworking shops, glassmaking shops, convinced that design should not be left up to the maker. “If you want to put feeling into something,” he says, “you have to work to make that feeling enter the dimension of the sacred.
When you work on an object, you cannot do it according to geometric schemes; you have to let yourself be led by things that emerge and develop according to nature, not according to your will” (L’anima segreta delle cose, Gli specchi Marsilio, 2015).
“The designer’s aim,” he concludes, “is to make what he desires explicit, creating interaction between the person who thinks up an object and the person who uses it. It is a hard goal to achieve, the will is not enough, you also need the help of fate and the short circuiting of events.” In this compliance with fate we can glimpse the regret of those who suffer from the corruption of the craft, the blurring of ideals, the standardization of cultures. “In the past,” he recalls, “I studied constructive technologies, together with businessmen. Today the companies accept the design, but they forget that it is necessary to know how to produce it.”
His consolation is called Atanor (the name refers to the ancient crucible where, according to legend, the alchemists experimented with matter), a collection of products with simple forms created by Merotto Milani, which offers him the possibility of autonomous expression, away from the traditional channels; for this brand he has recently designed some furnishing complements in solid ash wood.
He still writes on the back of his left hand, and in his eyes there is the lively certainty of someone who knows how to make things, as revealed by the essential exhibition of his iconic products at the Flos store in Milan last fall.
Text by Cristina Morozzi