In the curious land of Enrico Fratesi’s imaginative interiors, fancy roams free and inspiration is found in sources that surprise.
In Enrico Fratesi’s world, a beetle rests its smooth shell on four spindly legs, inviting you to take a seat, a simple shape on the wall hides a treasure box, and a cozy bubble wraps a workspace, while a mythical cat lounges lazily on a sideboard, casting its soft glow over the room.
If you’re thinking you’ve just stumbled down a rabbit hole and right into a Lewis Carroll novel, you may be surprised to learn that Fratesi’s quirky creations are rooted not between the rustling pages of children’s books, but in the very real media of woods, metals, and plastics. Together with partner Stine Gam, with whom he shares work, life, and a young son, Fratesi breathes life into chairs, tables, even ladders and brooms, that are as unabashedly pragmatic and traditional as they are steeped in twinkling whimsy. In decidedly modern forms, the designer embeds stories that belie his spirit while keeping true to his craft, his vision, and his sense of self.
Taste of Life caught up with him at LivingSpace in Vancouver, where he was celebrating the 90th anniversary of manufacturer Porro with a contribution to their “Cabinet of Curiosities.” GamFratesi created “9Ø,” a gorgeously crafted circular box whose locking top is just one of the secrets it’s designed to hold.
“I always found it interesting to draw, to create in any way,” says Italian-born Fratesi, who first set out as an architect. “Architecture was close to what I wanted to do, but I was fascinated by the 1:1 scale; I wanted to open everything, understand everything.” Seeking to explore the interplay of form and function, he turned to furniture design; a natural progression from his student days in an architecture office.
Though not hailing from a family of designers, Fratesi was no stranger to finely crafted products growing up, “not because [my parents] wanted to be fancy, but because they wanted good furniture.” The appreciation for quality and material, together with cultural heritage, have shaped the designer’s artistic vision: his creative pieces fuse the concept-based Italian design philosophy with Gam’s functional Scandinavian minimalism, wrapped in a generous dose of imagination.
“It’s never just a drawing; it’s all in the process,” he says. “The product can affect your behaviour, communicate a message.” Some are literary metaphors, such as the compact Haiku sofa or Allegory desk; others, whimsical treatments of simple-looking shapes — the playful Nubo wall shelf that opens into a compact personal desk, or the Cheshire lamp, a reference to Carroll’s friendly feline.
Another impromptu idea was the Fraga, an unexpected union of a pouf and coffee table. Being a parent, says Fratesi, has also taught him to see things differently: through a child’s wondrous wide-eyed gaze, with no preconceived notions, “totally free in the interpretation of things and in the behavior and experience of the space.”
Spontaneity, I learn, is a recurrent theme for Fratesi, his free-spirited attitude backed by unconditional family support. “I was privileged to have a lot of freedom in what I wanted to do,” he says, recalling attending a talent fair with his parents when he was young and their concerns about the challenges of the competitive design field. “They thought it was complicated. But now they are proud of what I do; they see that I’m happy and that is the most important thing for them, not my position in society.”
Today, GamFratesi may be the pinnacle of contemporary design, with over thirty awards and nominations in less than ten years of existence, including the coveted Elle Decor Best Young Designer award, a Finn Juhl Prize, and the opportunity to curate the international Mindcraft15 design exhibition. Through it all, Fratesi’s sense of adventure and enthusiasm for his work remain unchanged.
“You have to start from scratch, you have to learn from your mistakes,” he says of his path as an entrepreneur. “But on the other hand, you have the freedom to express yourself and your mentality, to be yourself, and that’s very important for me. Everything is interesting and complicated, and I love it that way.”
One of Fratesi’s daily challenges is juggling career and family, which for him are happily intertwined. “In a difficult moment, you can count on someone who totally understands you,” he says of his professional and family union with Gam, which he calls “a privilege…” “And when everything is going well, it’s so beautiful to enjoy it together, to bring home the joy of your success.” Nevertheless, he says the task is not always easy. “You need to find your own balance,” he says, mentioning they have even explored the theme in their Balance design exhibition. “There is no recipe.”
To preserve their creations’ one-of-a-kind nature, GamFratesi limits collaborations and expansion in favour of a smaller, more personal scale, and a focus on product rather than distribution numbers. Asking about design trends, I’m told they’re not on the radar. “We try to never look at trends, but to express our values and personality through design. It’s very important to be honest to ourselves and find the balance between our philosophy, the craft, honesty of materials, and simplicity.” According to Fratesi, their furniture is meant for living, not showrooms; ultimately, it’s all about the person on the other end of the production line.
“Every time we get a prize, the recognition is a big pleasure; but knowing it’s a quality product, and that people are using it and enjoying it, that’s the biggest prize, personally.”
As for the future, Fratesi embraces a vision as unpredictable as his designs. “I may not be able to say now what it’ll be, but for sure there’ll be something unexpected that’ll make an interesting challenge.”
Images Courtesy of GamFratesi