Design Duos / Studiopepe
Take two Italian design students, add a chance meeting in Mexico and a shared love of adventure ...
DESIGN AGENCY STUDIOPEPE was founded in Milan in 2006. Quirky, stylish, driven by its own distinctive vision, it is the brainchild of Chiara di Pinto and Arianna Lelli Mami, graduates of Milan’s Polytechnic University, who had to fly around the world to Mexico to meet. Their multidisciplinary studio work encompasses art direction, styling, interior design and product design, with a strong vein of story-telling drawing everything together. Last autumn the studio contributed ‘Pink Moon’, a distinctly feminine and cinematic pairing of table and chairs, to Made Together Apart: Connected, a project initiated by the American Hardwood Export Council and The Design Museum in London.
In October they launched their fourth Manifesto Project online, a filmic exploration of ideas and emotions in a futuristic virtual setting, featuring their own designed products. ‘De-siderio’, meaning desire in Italian, holds within it the two ideas of a lack of something and of resembling the stars – di Pinto and Lelli Mami are convinced that it is their hungry curiosity that drives their achievement.
The Design Edit: How did you meet?
Studiopepe (Chiara di Pinto): Arianna and I were at the Polytechnic University in Milan together, where we both studied industrial design. But at that time we weren’t really friends. We knew each other, but we didn’t hang out together. After our degrees, we both went on long trips to Mexico. Neither of us knew that the other was in the country. During that trip I was staying in a tiny village on the Pacific Ocean called Mazunte – there is nothing there – and the day I was leaving, I heard a voice calling my name and I met Arianna. She was arriving. You can imagine how big a surprise it was to meet each other on the other side of the planet! After two days she joined me in Chapas and from that point we continued part of the trip together. As students, we had both worked on editorials for magazines – and during that trip we decided that perhaps it was time to do something together. So, when we came back from our trip, in 2006, we began … and within a few months we had opened Studiopepe in a spare room in Arianna’s apartment, on via Pepe in Milan. Later, we rented another place, but we kept the name.
TDE: What did you identify in each other that meant you thought you could work together?
SP (Arianna Lelli Mami): We have the same love of travelling, the same curiosity. We are very hungry and can be inspired by anything. We love to think outside the box.
TDE: How has your creative output evolved?
C: In the beginning, we worked for magazines and for a style consultancy, as we had done at university. We created lots of stories. At that time, in editorial, it was really a playground. We generated our first story for Casa da Abitare in 2006. We pitched a story based on a rebus, or kind of charade – where words are replaced by images – but using three-dimensional objects. We worked so hard on this idea, mixing furniture and our style – and when it was out it made the cover. It was an honour for us. So we continued. And for the first year it was mostly editorials, but then we started doing consultancies for brands, showrooms and for interiors. We were doing sets and pop-ups for shops and windows.
C: We developed stories which we wanted to tell through editorials, so we designed the sets, we thought about the product that we want for that style, and the story behind it.
A: After studying design we, of course, knew design history, but it was through working as stylists, as set designers, that we came to know individual design pieces really well. And then we experimented with new coats, new colours, new materials, according to the set-up. It was a very creative period for us.
C: We had a lot of freedom. We started to design products because we really needed a particular object for something we had in mind, for an installation for one of our clients. The very first object that we designed was the ‘Koravase’, which featured in one set-up, and from then on we started regularly to design objects or furniture that we really needed for a project, or just for our pleasure. It evolved naturally.
Studiopepe for TOOY, ‘Nastro’ floor lamp, 2020
“When we do a project we like to start from a vision, from storytelling …”
Studiopepe for Tacchini, ‘Five to Nine’ day bed, 2020
“… and at the end, we might produce a spoon, a vase or a flower”
A: We feel we are not academic – because sometimes architects only do architecture and if they do interiors, they are very cold; or designers just do design. Our approach is more transversal. We draw our inspirations from everywhere in the creative world and we like to mix. When we do a project we like to start from a vision, from storytelling, and at the end we might produce a spoon, a vase or a flower. So we like to investigate every aspect of creativity.
C: I would say all our Manifesto Projects [‘The Visit’ (2017), ‘Club Unseen’ (2018), ‘Les Arcanistes’ (2019) and ‘De-siderio’, 2020] have been important because they are made for this purpose – to summarise and demonstrate where we are and what we feel most. These projects come from within the studio and we take care of everything – the graphic design, the interior design, the styling – up to the last object on the table. So it is really an expression of us. We have so much fun.
A: The first two Manifesto Projects were investigations into objects and the pieces we produced were one-off objects. The more recent Manifesto Projects were more entire interior projects with a lot of pieces which were made for the first time for the exhibition. Some of the pieces were prototypes, but then brands became interested in them and so we developed those into designed products.
C: The ones that you see in ‘De-siderio, the Unseen Collection’, come from prototypes developed for our second Manifesto Project, ‘Club Unseen’. That is why we call it the Unseen Collection because it came from that Manifesto Project.
TDE: What is the main theme behind ‘De-siderio’? And why is it important for you both? And can you then tell me about how Pink Moon fits into your oeuvre?
A: The human being is characterised by a feeling of ‘lack’. From the beginning, humans have explored new worlds, new lands and new ways of doing things. Chiara and I think that ‘lack’ is a very important feeling – very poetic but very real. In every Manifesto Project we try to answer some questions around how people live together and how people live in spaces. In these days of the pandemic, however, it is more difficult to think about real connection, so we tried to investigate a connection of desires, of feelings, of emotions, even if we are not together in person.
C: I think it’s the lack, or the desire, that is a primal energy that pushes you forward. If you feel a lack, you try to push your boundaries further. For us, it is the basis of creativity.
C: For our Benchmark project for the Design Museum, ‘Pink Moon’ (2020), we took inspiration from the songs of Nick Drake, but also from the idea of new light. That project had popped up in a complicated moment in Italy, last February and March, when the pandemic was at its most frightening, so it was a way to bring a little bit of hope through story-telling. We had to work with wood but it is a material we love. It drew on many different influences …
A: We are very eclectic in the inspirations we draw on and we love to work in a small group of people, and produce projects that are in effect choral. It’s been in our DNA since university.
TDE: How do you work creatively? Do you split the work, or do your skills overlap and complement? Are you polar opposites?
A: People often ask this question. In our case, it is more a matter of overlapping, and sometimes a clash of discussions or decisions. But we think it is our own way and it works – and we have fun.
C: I agree with Arianna. Temperamentally we are similar, at a deep level. We are different people but in lots of aspects there is a sort of mirroring. Of course we have some drama, we are Italian, we have lots of discussions – you can imagine! But it is not arguing, it is more like building a castle with two people, it is really interesting that it is not just one’s own vision.
TDE: How do you deal with tension and friction, pulls in different directions?
A: The good thing is we can always find a solution. We come to a deal and find a way to continue.
TDE: Are two people better than one?
C: For us, sure. I could have an idea by myself, but it is hard to get the right perspective on your own idea. It is very hard to stand back and see how your idea could be done better. The fact that we are in a duo means that we can explore different answers, try things out. It depends upon your temperament. Personally, for me, I would always rather work in a group or a duo.
A: At university, we worked in a group, where everybody had different skills, it was part of the training to work together. Over the years, creative people tend to gravitate towards the thing they know will work, so they tend to always do things the same. Being a duo is different, because in a way when one of the duo suggests something that is playing safe, the other says, “Hmm but let’s do it a different way.” It’s a good way to ensure that you don’t stop at the first step.
TDE: What are you working on at the moment?
A: We are creating a children’s floor for a big department store in Dusseldorf, a very challenging project. We are also doing some projects for social spaces and retail projects, as well as some private commissions.
C: We are also doing a lot of product design for furnishings and objects.
A: We haven’t time to rest on our laurels!
Studiopepe –a Design + Architecture + Creative Direction agency based in Milan, founded by Arianna Lelli Mami and Chiara Di Pinto.