Better, Faster, Cheaper: A Conversation with Dzek and Studio Formafantasma
Esther Choi: Let’s start with some basic questions. How did the two of you meet?
Brent Dzekciorius: Tinder, er, Grindr, I mean. [laughter]
Andrea Trimarchi: Many years ago, I think, through our gallery in London.
BD: I’m sure we met through Libby Sellers. I was an admirer of Formafantasma’s practice and Libby was representing them. At the time when we met, I didn’t really have the idea of my company or what I wanted it to be. I was still working at Phillips de Pury. I was interested in working with Formafantasma in a gallery sense, if more than anything. I’d had a couple of conversations with Libby about how we could integrate them into the program I was doing at Phillips at the time, but that sort of passed. When I started my company towards the end of 2012, I was, of course, interested in design practices that were…
AT: …more material based...
BD: …more material based, exactly. Obviously, for Formafantasma, it’s a huge part of their practice and lends themselves to what I want to do with Dzek and what I want to do with material development.
EC: Why did you decide to start a material development company? You came from the world of curation and collecting, and it’s quite a different trajectory.
BD: I was in the design collector realm, predominantly. I was really fascinated by what the edition market offered designers: the opportunity to do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to develop under a large producer, in the traditional sense, by working with rarified materials and things that are super experimental that don’t have such a wide audience. But within those projects there are a lot of brilliant ideas that live and die; they just stay in that rarified world of “edition of eight.” I feel like things just ended abruptly in so many instances with so many projects that I was either directly or indirectly involved with. I wanted to create a company that could extend those ideas and have more depth of application. I felt like materials was a good opportunity because it’s the vehicle from which everyone creates something.
AT: It’s also really interesting because if you think about the sixties and the seventies there was a huge discovery of new materials, especially new plastics. Companies at that time were interested in developing these ideas further on a larger scale. This isn’t happening anymore. So there is an entire generation—my generation— that is interested in that part of the design process, but we often don’t find the right people to talk to. Companies are not ready to take a risk. But there is a growing generation of people interested in that.
EC: I’m curious about how both of your practices mitigate the bespoke quality of the things that you make versus the desire for a wider dissemination of them. Take, for instance, Dzek’s first material, Marmoreal: there’s a certain scale of production that the material seems to warrant; it’s never going to reach a mass-market Home Depot level of production.
AT: And, why should it?
EC: Right! But it seems like you hold a particular stance toward industrial production than what is now typical, at least in the fields of design, construction, and so forth.
BD: In some respects, the reason why I work with designers like Formafantasma and Max Lamb is because they have this craft-based practice. They have a real understanding of materiality, of working with their hands with sensitivity, but they are also fascinated by industrial processes. They have the capacity to adapt what they’re doing in the studio to larger and wider industrial processes. I think with what we want to accomplish with Dzek, in making architectural materials that we eventually sell by the square meter or by the slab, we have to scale those things up. So it’s obviously about being really informed about the industrial processes that are available to us, how we can innovate within those, who we can find who has a willingness to cooperate with us to challenge what is preexisting. And that is one of the biggest difficulties we encounter: that is, finding an industrial manufacturer or a process that will allow us to intervene a little bit and try something that isn’t already part of the preexisting manufacturing process itself. We were really fortunate with Marmoreal to have that, and we’ve experienced difficulties in our volcanic explorations.
AT: Yeah, especially our experiments with glass. That was a nightmare. In glass production now, everything is so automated, so engineered that you can’t do anything, especially for flat glass or custom glass. They have this really high standard of transparency and the system is really impossible to tackle.
BD: It’s difficult, and plus, we’re working with a material that is really aggressive; it’s black, and it doesn't lend itself to being used in a process that they already have, because glass is transparent. To clean a kiln or to clean a furnace where they use this sand and this material is next to impossible. So we have to find a facility that understands that we’re basically going to destroy one of their furnaces in doing all of this testing, and that they’re okay with it.
AT: It’s what we experienced the first time when we did our project [De Natura Fossilium] with Libby, in 2014. We had to find a place in Venice that would give us a furnace.
EC: Ah, this is why on Dzek’s website you state that you used a furnace that was no longer in use.
BD: Yeah, that furnace was commissioned for destruction. Otherwise they would have never agreed to do it.
EC: It’s interesting that you’re working with such an undisciplined material that seems to want to destroy its own process of being made. You described the material as "uncooperative." I thought that was such a wonderful characterization.
AT: It’s completely uncooperative! It was such a nightmare. The first time we worked with it, we wanted to shape it, to force it to stay within a mold but it’s really difficult because within the material there are so many other materials: metals, oxides… There are so many other things. So it’s really difficult to understand how to work with it. Eventually, you can do it, but, of course, it requires a lot of time and trying things out.
EC: What I find fascinating is that you’re beholden to what the material wants to do. It’s a different way of thinking about fabrication. Within the digital realm, we’ve become habituated to thinking about production in an additive way, scaling from zero to a finished product. But you’re working with something that has a certain set of resistances, which continually poses challenges. Engaging with materiality is like dealing with animals: you always have to address an animal on its own terms. You can never expect a cat to behave like a polar bear, or polar bear to behave like an elephant. It is what it is.
AT: Absolutely. At the time we produced De Natura Fossilium, we designed specific pieces, but what we ended up having to do was completely different from what we originally thought. The material behaved as it wanted. We wanted all of the pieces to feel really organic but we couldn’t achieve that because blowing volcanic glass was incredibly difficult. So we ended up casting with boxes, because it was the only way we could control the material. I think it’s the same with what we’re doing now with Brent. At the beginning, we had certain ideas. We started with the brick and the brick was really difficult to construct, and now we are exploring other kinds of bricks. I think it’s part of the game. You need to listen to the material.
BD: Yeah, you need to listen to it. But in all of these efforts, of course, the material has its own ideas of what it wants to be, and can be, and it’s always about how can we control this—about understanding the balance between how much we can actually control something, and what we can do to change it. With glass, or even with the glazes, you can introduce certain additives to control it, and add chemicals to increase your working rate in glass.
AT: But then, at a certain point, remember, we had a discussion?
BD: How much are we willing to add—
AT: —in order to control it—
BD: —and dilute the purity of the material? At what point is it no longer volcanic glass? Is it 70%? Or is it 80%? So this was our conversation: what are we willing to accept? That was an interesting conversation to have. When it comes to the glazes, for example, obviously you have to introduce a flux to lower the firing temperature so that we don’t have to go as hot. You add volcanic ash, clay, and salt…to help fire the glaze at a temperature that’s not just going to destroy the body of the terracotta. You have to compromise how many foreign materials you’re willing to introduce into this volcanic ash.
AT: And, of course, we also have considerations such as what we discussed yesterday: where the material comes from. At the beginning, we were interested in the lava from Mt. Etna, and the process of making glass was in Venice, so we were still in Italy. But now we are fabricating in England. So, for us, it was really important to question what locality means and where to gather the material. Indeed, now we are trying to go with materials…
BD: … in the UK, because there isn’t really basalt in Britain, but there is in Scotland.
EC: Can you describe your process of sourcing your material in Scotland?
BD: [Speaking directly into the recorder] IN-TER-NET.
EC: [Laughs] Ah, I expected a romantic narrative about discovering the landscape!
BD: That’s the thing – there’s been no travel, actually. There’s been no direct experience of the landscape on the Scottish side.
AT: In Sicily, there was.
EC: Can we rewind and talk about that moment of discovery? At what point did you think about using volcanic ash as material?
AT: I come from Sicily, so the Etna volcano was a presence since I was a child and I was always fascinated by it. It’s a beautiful landscape. What is interesting about Etna is that it’s the tallest active volcano in Europe, and every one or two years it erupts. What’s amazing is that when it erupts, the entire island—which is quite big, like the Netherlands in size—is completely covered in lava dust. What is also really beautiful is that when this covering with lava dust takes place, people sweep it up with a broom, and life continues. For me that is really fascinating: how people are so resilient. When there’s a volcano eruption, villages are destroyed but people still want to live there and keep going. There is also a material dimension to our interest. We see the volcano as a mine without miners. The volcano is an entity that throws away material that you just sweep up and just throw into your garden most of the time because it produces really fertile soil. There are a few industries around the volcano. Of course, there is tourism because it’s a really nice place to visit. In winter, people go there to ski. There are some companies that work with basalt to make tiles and sculptures. But there is really nothing else.
One of the first times I went to visit the volcano with Simone [Farresin] we became really fascinated by a small souvenir we found. It was an ashtray made by taking the lava when it’s molten and casting it in a metal mold. For us, it was really interesting to see how a material could become an object immediately. It was like a dark image. We started from this fascination and then we went through a series of discoveries. In the eighties, the volcano was effusive so you could get close to it and take the material directly from the mouth of the volcano. Now, it’s in a phase in which it’s explosive, so you can’t get close to it. We were fascinated by the idea that the volcano is almost human, that has its own face. We started to speak with people there. We went to the volcanology center in Catania, the largest volcano research center in Europe, and made analyses of the earth. They had small samples of molten lava as part of their tests to understand its composition. One of those tests involves melting lava, and, of course, as soon as you melt lava in certain conditions, lava becomes glass. From there, we became fascinated by the idea of re-melting lava to make glass and started to make a lot of samples: first, in Eindhoven, then in Murano. It was really an organic process; we didn’t really know what we wanted to do, and it took a long time to do it.
EC: I love the image you conjured of the volcano as a "mine without miners." Your project presents a different idea of what we think of as waste. Typically, waste is regarded as an extraneous byproduct—an off gas, emissions, or trash—produced as a result of often damaging human interventions into the environment. What your project explores, instead, is that nature has its own “waste.” In the 1950s, a concept was introduced by Erwin Schrödinger called "negative entropy" or "negentropy."
AT: It’s like centropy theory, right?
EC: Yes, a self-organizing system that can arise from the detritus of another system. What you seem to be doing is shepherding the self-cleansing system of the earth. You’re working with volcanic ash as an extension of a pre-existing cycle, rather than aggressively halting a process, or trying to engineer something against nature’s will.
AT: I know what you mean.
EC: It’s obviously still a mode of intervention. The material is evidently resistant to "behaving," to a degree. But it offers an interesting model for how we can redefine "sustainability." Our limited vocabulary has limited our imagination of what that concept could mean aesthetically, politically, ecologically…
AT: I don’t like the word "sustainability" because it emphasizes just sustaining a condition. It’s not about changing anything. It’s like having a cup that is biodegradable. You just throw it away, it ends up in the ground, and it eventually disappears, but the gesture stays the same. You are not changing your behaviour. Sustainability is really about that. I think we need to move more towards ecology, which is different.
EC: I understand what you mean. I know that for this specific installation, in order to reach your deadline there was [laughs]…
BD: A lot of travel, a lot of carbon.
EC: But your idea to move the material sourcing to Scotland, it begs the question of imagining what the world would be like if we taught our designers to design regionally, again, through their choices and materials, and develop a meaningful sense of locality and longevity. To build and develop systems of manufacture to deal with local resources and conditions.
AT: It was that way!
EC: It was, but it’s no longer how we operate. It’s a post-globalized return to that problem.
AT: We were in discussions with a contractor here. Most of the bricks are produced by one or two companies in North America…
BD: The American brick industry has been consolidated by two companies, basically.
AT: It’s the same in Europe.
BD: In all of these traditional industries, there were a lot of regional players working with regional, raw materials like the brickyard that we worked with to develop this installation… Everything is on the property: the clay, the sand, the wood that runs the wood-fired kilns. But there are a few big players that bought up these regional brickyards. They either closed them up, or they changed their production so it’s very machine made, mass produced, super cheap brick. And the visual quality and textural quality is so standard and so flat.
AT: [Pointing] Yeah, like the ones used on this building. This is purely created for mass production. There is no character.
BD: Five cents a brick.
EC: Have you done tolerance testing on your glazed bricks?
BD: On this new brick, no. We have not sent it to any kind of lab for any kind of testing yet.
AT: We are still really in the process.
EC: Since you can cast it, could it be a viable substitute for concrete?
AT: Hmmm. In a way, yes. As a sand, yes. In Sicily, they make mortar with lava sand.
BD: There’s Roman concrete. The very first concrete used volcanic material. It outlasts contemporary concrete.
EC: The Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil has presented a now-famous statistic: from 2009 to 2011, China’s cement consumption exceeded the total amount of cement used by the United States in the entire 20th century. If only the construction and design industries were forced to operate differently... Yet, for the most part, designers do not seem interested in this issue. It has been largely a scientific and theoretical enterprise. But given that we are directly responsible for the ecological consequences of building, it needs to be design led.
AT: Well, as you said, it should be forced. Forcing is the only way to make things happen. I was shocked when went to Reykjavik, Iceland. All of the buildings are built with corrugated metal from England, but they have a lot of stone. Why wouldn't you build stone houses? It’s really interesting how, in the last forty years, we didn’t really care about locality. We started with slow food, and, in design and architecture, everything seems to be heading into ideas concerning the typical and vernacular. Since I’ve been teaching a few years at the academy, students are interested in vernacular architecture and vernacular objects. I think there is a return, but, again, I think it should be about regulations, first of all. Lawmakers should make the difference. I mean, how is it possible that we’ve been staying in a hotel that is zero degrees inside and forty degrees outside? There should be a law that states the difference should be a maximum of two or three degrees less. These make differences. It’s about legislation.
We are doing a project now on e-waste for a museum in Australia. What we’ve seen is that the major problem with e-waste is that the products are not designed to be recycled. One of the biggest problems that the iPhone has, for instance, is that you can’t remove the battery and thus you can’t recycle the iPhone. As soon as the screen breaks, all of the chemicals within the screen leak and ruin everything, so you can’t recycle the object. It’s just about making the battery accessible. This is a design problem, but designers won’t do anything unless you have legislation that prevents you from designing in that way.
BD: But legislation takes longer, sometimes, than the technological cycle and product development. So, without defending Apple, I think their plan is to make a phone that is recyclable…
AT: But I think you can recycle existing and previous models. The problem is, how do you recycle it? We’ve talked with the biggest players in recycling in the world and no one can recycle this. So, it’s a design problem. It may be that they will eventually change it, and they are certainly capable of achieving this goal, but I’m curious if they really will do it. They are smart enough, for sure, especially if they want to develop the standard of having this object be waterproof. It will be really difficult to do that. Now, they are building a robot to disassemble all of the parts, but even in a report of their plan for the next twenty years, they can only process 1% of their phone. So, what happens to the other 99%?
BD: Yeah, it’s not much of an accomplishment.
AT: It’s something.
EC: And yet, I still want to believe that design has the power to change things.
AT: Yeah, me too!
EC: I’ve been preoccupied with how the concept of soft power, developed by the political theorist Joseph Nye, could be applied to the design fields. What’s interesting is that soft power is not a model of coercion, like legislation. It’s a force that changes public opinion culturally through seduction. This can have a feedback loop by applying societal pressure to encourage policy making. That’s why I think your project is so compelling: the ethical issues are bound up in the aesthetic. The issue of ecological awareness is, to a large degree, a problem of persuasion. In that regard, I think aesthetics can be an incredibly powerful tool.
BD: I think that when we worked with glass, we really struggled with its aesthetics.
AT: It was too anonymous.
BD: But we are really pleased with the potential that working with volcanic ash as a glaze on standard brick or a terracotta body can offer. It really does resemble the landscape and it really feels like it is quite referential to where it comes from. With the glass, it was such a homogeneous material and we struggled to create a texture that felt like a nod to where it comes from, without it appearing to be false or just a pattern.
AT: When we made objects for the gallery, I think it was different. We really tried to embed the narrative so we included rocks and worked with the shape. But as soon as you get into making a material into a standard object like brick, how do you make it interesting?
BD: Because it needs to be refined to a level where it’s a standard product, right? So where’s the balance between standardization and allowing the organic part of the process and the inherent life of the material to show through? I think we’ve struck the balance on the brick quite well, at this moment where we are with our development.
EC: What has struck me in my discussions with other designers about the general, renewed interest in craft is the arsenal of ethical considerations concerning what it means to make something handmade in this day and age. What it means to be connected to the product that you make, and how it can engage differently with various scales and speeds of economy. Why do you think so many young designers are interested in handmade modes of production now?
AT: Well, I come from a country where we had a lot of craftsmen. It was a really craft-based economy. I think in the last thirty years, at least 90% of that has been lost. I think it’s because we are tired of the idea that things are produced elsewhere, that cities or towns are empty.
EC: In terms of material signification?
BD: And anonymity. I think everything feels anonymous and homogeneous in what is produced for our culture. I think it’s just a backlash, a reaction to the fact that everything that we use in our daily lives is so streamlined; it’s so efficient and so cranked out. Go to most towns and people are content with just having a table and chair from Walmart.
AT: I think we want diversity—that’s the main thing.
BD: Yeah. The things that we surround ourselves with should reflect the culture that we exist in, in a way, and we don’t live in a homogeneous society. The things that surround us should reflect that.
AT: I think it’s also the fact that we are so used to having cheap stuff, to buying things that cost nothing. Of course, as soon as there is a mend in the process, everything costs more. I think that’s good. I think we should have less and pay more. It’s a behaviour that should completely change.
BD: Glenn Adamson is writing a book right now, which, I think, is titled, More Better Things. I don’t even need to read it to get it.
AT: Yeah, it’s self-explanatory. When we work with galleries, I think we are quite unusual as designers because we aren’t interested in making "bling bling" or bold things just for the sake of making expensive stuff. Do you know what I mean? We believe in process, in people…
EC: The work seems interested in questions of economy. Luxury is typically defined as something aspirational that is out of one’s reach. That particular concept doesn’t seem to be driving your larger project as designers.
AT: No, absolutely not. We did a project for Fendi called Craftica. It was really trying to analyze what luxury means. Take, for instance, the use of certain kinds of leather in the leather industry. They’ll use snake because it’s considered exotic, and certain skins to imitate more exotic skins. We wanted to question that. Why is it "good" to use snake, and why isn’t it "good" to use pig? There are lot of problems in labeling. They don't have any problem saying that a small bag is made of python, but they have a problem stating that a bag is made of pig. So we’re really interested in these types of discrepancies in the system. Ethically, I think most companies should be more outspoken about how they produce their products.