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Enter the sculptural, whimsical world of Italian designer Andrea Mancuso

Italian designer Andrea Mancuso creates beautiful work which balances the cerebral and the functional, with collaborations including Hermès, Fendi, Ferragamo, Perrier-Jouët and Nilufar Gallery. The rising star speaks to Effect about his practice and career to date.  

Rising Italian design star Andrea Mancuso’s eclectic work ranges from the conceptual and monochrome to the sculptural, sensual and brilliantly colourful. An interest in and extensive knowledge of 20th-century Italian art, design and architecture movements – from the Italian Renaissance to postmodernism – inform and enrich his projects.

The Roman-born designer, now in his early 40s, did a BA in product design at La Sapienza University of Rome in the 2000s. “It offered one of Rome’s best-known architecture courses and had recently introduced a design course,” he remembers. “But the course was very old-school and rigid. And I found it dully functionalist: the 2000s were an era of dual and multifunctional furniture – a table that doubled as a stool, and so on. On the upside, it had a good art history course. I was lucky to be taught by the late engineer and designer Isao Hosoe and art historian Achille Bonito Oliva. Overall, I was attracted to film-making and made short movies and documentaries.”

Strata Coffee Table from Andrea Mancuso’s Pentimenti, a new collection of limited-edition furniture in marble, debuted at Nilufar Depot during Milan Design Week 2024

Moving to London, he worked for architect Nigel Coates, whose studio was based at the RCA, for five years. While there, he met and clicked creatively with Royal College of Art student Emilia Serra. In 2011, they set up London design studio Analogia Project, initially presenting quirky, conceptual installations. Its inaugural piece, called Analogia #001, was included in an exhibition curated by the late architect Will Alsop during The London Design Festival in 2012. Perhaps Mancuso’s passion for film, a 2D medium, inspired the dematerialised look of Analogia 001. “Our idea was to create an installation evoking a magnified sketch presented in three dimensions”, recalls Mancuso. “We wanted it to talk about design without showing final, physical pieces.”

Our idea was to create an installation evoking a magnified sketch presented in three dimensions.

Andrea Mancuso

Mancuso and Serra’s idea was to create an illusion of an archetypal living room. They stretched lengths of invisible transparent fishing line across an empty, neutral white space, then tightly wound black merino wool around most of the wires to trace skeletal outlines of tables, chairs, a vase of flowers and a coat rack. The parts of the fishing line without wool around them remained invisible, helping to give the simulated sketch an aptly loose, impressionistic feel.

Andrea Mancuso and Emilia Serra created their conceptual installation Analogia 01 as a 3-dimensional sketch, wrapping merino wool around fishing wires

Some might have deemed this installation unsuitable for a design event since it didn’t showcase the kinds of new, physical designs which visitors expect to see. But the idea has proved enduringly popular and the studio has created numerous iterations of it for high-end fashion stores all over the world. The duo’s second installation, Analogia 002, grabbed the attention of Natasha Prihnenko, development director of Hermès window displays worldwide, who checked it out incognito: “She said: ‘Can you recreate this for me in two days?’,” remembers Mancuso. “I replied: ‘Possibly but it will be hard’. She gave me her card as she left and only then did I realise who she was.” The serendipitous encounter led Hermès to commission installations for store windows in Japan, Dubai and Milan.

These seemingly simple installations are in fact structurally complex and hard to pull off. One challenge is to avoid the objects delineated by the black yarn overlapping since this makes them unreadable, so the exact position of each wire strand is first accurately plotted on a computer. While there’s a lightness and economy to these installations, they’re not economical in the other sense of the word – inexpensive – as Mancuso points out. “We found ways to use cheap materials back then. I was 28 and short of money. But these installations are labour-intensive, so not cost-effective.”

Why does he think the idea resonates so much with people? “Its main appeal is the element of surprise it provokes,” reasons Mancuso. “People don’t expect to see a sketch rendered in 3D.”

In 2012, the duo moved to Milan. This enabled Analogia Project to tap into Italy’s extensive infrastructure of craft workshops. Over time, the studio has increasingly embraced traditional crafts, reinterpreting them in a contemporary way. It has drawn on the skills of master glassblowers in Murano and veteran ceramicist Alessio Sarri, based in the Tuscan ceramics-manufacturing centre Siesto Fiorentino, near Florence. Sarri originally made his name realising the idiosyncratic ceramics of 1980s, avant-garde, Italian design collective Memphis.

Andrea Mancuso photographed in his studio

That year, Analogia Project, which has also collaborated with Italian brands Driade and Bulgari, began to move from 3D representations of 2D drawings to overtly 3D projects, many of which reflect a fascination with history, an early example being its 2013 Storywall ceramic wall tiles. These comprised bas-relief motifs in the form of faithfully reproduced artefacts displayed in several archaeological museums in Rome and Milan that emerged from plain tiles in a ghostly fashion – a statement about how the past lives on in the present. “In Italy we’re surrounded by history but barely notice it as it’s so omnipresent,” says Mancuso.

In 2017, the duo parted ways: Mancuso is now the studio’s designer as well as an associate professor on the Master of Interior Design course at the Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti (New Academy of Fine Arts) in Milan, while Serra focuses on academic work. 

Mancuso’s profile was considerably raised by the relationship he formed soon after with prestigious Milan gallery Nilufar, founded by Nina Yashar in 1979. At Milan Design Week this year, the gallery unveiled Analogia Project’s new collection, Pentimenti (meaning “regrets” in Italian), comprising tables, consoles and lighting fashioned from marble, bronze and glass. These feature intricate, dynamic markings and patterns inspired by the spontaneity and vitality of the High Renaissance and Baroque drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and Ottavio Vannini respectively.

While Analogia Project installations representing sketches are usually viewed from their periphery, Mancuso has also created a number of larger, immersive environments. In 2016, he designed strikingly theatrical walls for the interior of Italian fashion label Fendi’s new HQ at the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, a 1930s structure in the starkly rationalist, Italian fascist idiom. He dreamt up walls that swelled surreally and featured shallow alcoves that echoed the grid of arches on the building’s travertine-clad façade.

Metamorphosis: a mise-en-scène at Design Miami 2019, created by Mancuso for Perrier-Jouët

In 2019, Perrier-Jouët commissioned Mancuso to create a mise-en-scène at Design Miami. The resulting cavern-like setting featured curved walls studded with 13,000 ceramic protrusions replicating the underside of champagne bottles as they appear when stored in cellars, all fabricated by Sarri and ceramics company Nuove Forme. Mancuso took inspiration from Perrier-Jouët’s property, Maison Belle Epoque, in Epernay, France, which houses a large collection of French Art Nouveau treasures. Gradations of autumnal greens, oranges and rust hues on the walls evoked opulent Art Nouveau ceramics and vineyards during the grape-harvesting season.

Mancuso’s Acquario furniture collection for Nilufar in 2022 is similarly dreamlike. Its tables’ bulbous bases are encrusted with concave discs in intense azure and ultramarine shades suggestive of an underwater world teeming with coral, sea anemones and sea creatures. Fashion brand Ferragamo admired the collection and promptly commissioned Mancuso to create an arresting, floor-to-ceiling display unit with a similar barrier-reef blue and ocean green surface for its recently remodelled Milan boutique.

Although he trained to be a product designer, Mancuso is now more interested in developing highly individual, expressive, hand-crafted pieces: “I prefer to push ideas and produce one-off or custom-made pieces,” he asserts. Such freewheeling experimentation takes him in unexpected directions. He and Serra once designed ceramic vases containing gunpowder that was detonated; each piece was unique as the explosions yielded different shapes. More recently, he’s recognised the decorative potential of a material as humble as wool – discarded, crushed eggshells – and is excited to have discovered that it’s highly versatile, thanks to their natural variations of colour. It led him to cover a pop-up bar – showcased at the 17th-century Palazzo Litta during Milan Design Week – with a washable, durable surface made of crushed eggshells, supplied by London firm Nature Squared, a specialist in sustainable surfaces. The bar’s jazzy, polychrome surface nods, he says, to patterned counters found in traditional Italian trattorias. The project reflects recurring themes in Mancuso’s work, from his passion for Italian high and low culture and history, inventive use of everyday materials and unbridled penchant for pattern and colour.

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