In the studio with Elisa Ossino

A portrait of Elisa Ossino in her studio, suspended between two cities: the 20th-century Milan of trade fairs, and the contemporary one, towered over by the new City Life skyscrapers. Between architectural stratifications and cultural contaminations.

When did your career begin?

I opened the studio in 2006, but started out long before then. Straight after graduating I worked in the Architecture Faculty of the Politecnico, in a multimedia lab where we carried out research and experimentation on how to communicate using different languages. The interesting thing is that we invited artists, philosophers, personalities from the literary world… this multidisciplinary approach was really formative, and I like to highlight it as the beginning of my career.

Did this influence your practice, too?

Absolutely. It influenced my practice in a big way. For instance, in my studio today there are designers who work on interior projects, people from fine art academies who work on the visual side, but also people who write, who have a humanities background. This multidisciplinary approach is extremely important to me, because I put a lot of work into the conceptual side of my projects, and their in-depth storytelling and communication is part and parcel of that process.

Do you have the same multidisciplinary approach to finding inspiration?  

Yes. One of my main sources of inspiration is art, which is a world that I’m especially fond of. But I believe that to do this job it’s fundamental that you pay great attention to everything around you, to all the elements that make up the times we’re living in. Reading a book, going to a gig to see how music is evolving, seeing exhibitions and theatre shows. These are all signs that give you a vision, a cultural baggage that then translates into your projects in a very instinctive way.

Have you come across anything recently that resonated?

A book that I just started reading, called Inclusions: Aesthetics of the Capitalocene by Nicolas Bourriaud [2022, ed.]. It talks about the importance of art in contemporary society, arguing that in the future, we will increasingly need figures belonging to different worlds with visions that converge into the construction of possible scenarios.  Up to now, we’ve been reasoning a bit too much based on watertight compartments, with specialisations that have prevented us from having an in-depth panorama of reality.

Perhaps because when languages become overly specialised, they rot… 

Exactly, they become sterile, they self-replicate because there is no exchange, which is what brings cultural enrichment. It’s something I always try to do, on every project I work with a writer who can bring a certain intellectual content, an artist who can contribute through artwork, an expert in materials… not to mention the whole world of interactivity and digital technology. The world is increasingly complex and by creating a synergy between the different sectors of knowledge, you get far more interesting projects.

ELISA OSSINO An architect, designer and art director with Sicilian roots, Elisa Ossino founded her eponymous studio in 2006. Her work, renowned worldwide, has a strong interdisciplinary component. Architecture, art, design and performance converge into a coherent vision, where objects have compositional weight in space and symbolic meaning at the same time.

This sounds like what happened with Officina Temporanea, one of your personal projects. How important is it, for your creativity, that you have these moments of free research? 

I’d say they are fundamental, they are moments of pure research. I founded Officina Temporanea in 2010 with two other curators. The idea was to put together an in-depth study of social and cultural reality, divided into chapters, so we would suggest a topic and invite artists and designers to grapple with it. It goes back to what I was talking about before: I’m really interested in this pluralistic vision, this view of the same theme from different perspectives. For example, the first chapter in this experiment was called “Erasure”: we had street artists and rap crews painting a series of symbols on a wall, such as the one for atomic power, and then erasing them. Other artists reflected upon the erasure of money, in a performance in which they produced fake notes and then threw them into the air and finally swept them away. Others talked about the erasure of history. What emerged were a series of interpretations of the same theme that produced a multi-faceted understanding of it, according to the people’s background, culture and place of origin. Naturally, this personal research also influences my professional work—it’s hugely enriching. It’s also an opportunity for me to work with lots of artists and explore themes with them that have always been a part of my personal research, since my very first job at the Politecnico multimedia lab. I met some incredible people there—I’m thinking of Derrick De Kerkhove, a sociologist at the McLuhan Institute, but there were many others.

Performance is a recurrent theme, both in your own research and in your job as a set designer. 

Yes, very much so. I like the element of transforming reality, because sometimes reality as it is can be extremely boring. In interiors too, I work on the search for abstraction.

Speaking of interiors, your studio is in this beautiful building, a 1930s block in a hyper-contemporary neighbourhood in the city — you can see the skyscrapers from your window. Why did you choose it, what was it that attracted you to it? 

Actually, I was here before the skyscrapers were built, many years ago. I chose this area because I found it somehow metaphysical. Piazza Giulio Cesare, with this big fountain in the middle, seems almost like an archaeology of the past. It was also a badly connected neighbourhood, so it felt like being outside of the city, in a suspended zone. It’s a dimension that I seek out a lot, both in the spaces of my privatelife and in my projects.

“I like the element of transforming reality, because sometimes reality as it is can be extremely boring. In interiors too I work on the search for abstraction.”

Did the skyscrapers ruin that atmosphere for you? 

In a way, yes, but it’s also true that they brought a really interesting aspect of contemporaneity. I’m glad it happened right here, that these two realities are touching and coexisting. Milan, and Italy in general, was almost paralysed in terms of architecture in the past century, there was a long period of total stagnation. Seeing new buildings rise up, designed by important architects, is really interesting, because the city needs to evolve.

How did you come up with the interiors of your studio? 

It’s an extremely simple space. There’s lots of white, lots of light and few objects, because in order to work I need to be in an empty space, a sort of a blank canvas that allows me to imagine other spaces, to let my thoughts flow.

Could it also be that it’s easier this way, to fill it with the projects you’re working on at any given moment? 

Yes, and then I empty it all out and fill it up again. It’s a way to stay open, receptive to change. By avoiding connoting a space too much, you stay open to transformation.

Do you have the same approach to your home?  

Yes, absolutely.

After the past two years, do you think it’s still important to have a space dedicated exclusively to work?

I really enjoy having a space dedicated to work, even though I believe the future is going in a different direction. In the sense that the places of work and the places of life are increasingly mixing together, it’s already happening, and it’s a need that we as designers have to take into account. As far as I’m concerned, I really like having a place to work in because it’s a meeting place. Yes, you can work remotely, but for instance, I’m really glad you came here today, instead of sending me an interview that I could have just as well have replied to via email. But it wouldn’t have been the same, because now we’re meeting, looking each other in the eye, unfolding a thought process, there’s an intelligence sitting in front of you. But then, yes, I think we could work in a much more intelligent way, avoiding excessive commuting, flying all over the place like we were used to… I certainly can’t imagine living like that in the future. In fact, I think we will need to be careful and impose on ourselves that we don’t do it, because it’s easy taking a low-cost flight, but it also causes huge damage to the environment.

“I’m really intrigued by this aspect of simplicity and complexity coexisting in an object. Take V-ZUG: all of their technology is built around steam, water, and if you think about it that’s the foundations of the universe, of life.”

As with many things that seem democratic to start with, but then…  

Exactly, it’s an illusion. There’s the other side of the coin which has a huge price.

You were talking about how you designed your home like your studio.

Yes. What I do in a space is try to create a sort of empty box and then generate some signs. I like to make all functional objects disappear, so hide them as much as possible. And then in this slightly abstract box, I create signs that turn it into an environment. So for example, at home, I wrote sentences along the moulding that I wanted to remember, I painted them at the meeting point between the vertical and the horizontal surfaces. I try to design interiors that are like three-dimensional paintings. I like to use the space as if it were a canvas.

I imagine that all appliances in your kitchen are hidden, as they are functional items.  

That depends. There are appliances like the ones by V-ZUG that I find really interesting. They have this approach, which is similar to mine, to simplify the project to the extreme and tend to hide all functional elements, such as all the controls that used to be visible on the oven door have now disappeared. It’s a design approach that I find really clever. It’s extraordinary that an object that is so intelligent is hidden behind such a simple interface. I’m really intrigued by this aspect of simplicity and complexity coexisting in an object, even from the technological point of view, seeing as all of their technology is built around steam, water, and if you think about it that’s the foundations of the universe, of life.

Yes, and it’s not by chance that this technology was born in Switzerland, a country that is rich in water resources and sensitive to environmental questions. It’s as if it was written in their DNA. Is this the same for you, do you also feel like being Sicilian influences your work? 

Absolutely. Sicily emerges a lot in my projects, sometimes in a hidden way, in the sense that perhaps it’s often not so evident for those who don’t know it well. Sicily is my cultural background, it shaped me, it influences my imagination and it’s therefore very present in my projects, starting from my use of patterns with Arabic influences, or a certain idea of majesticness, which comes from the Greek temples. When I was little I spent hours observing them. But I’m also thinking of my works with marble, I’ve used a lot of inlay because I saw so much of that in Sicily as a child. They are memories that resurface and translate into contemporary visions.

Could it be that, at a deeper level, the theme of the intersection between different things, which keeps returning so often in your work, is also owed to Sicily? 

That’s so true, it could be. It’s the cultural stratification that has shaped my imagination since I was little and has become my experiential baggage.