Sara Ricciardi: Life as a material

The free-spirited Italian designer, in an exclusive conversation with STIR, recalls the myriad influences that shaped her creative practice.

by STIRworldPublished on : May 13, 2022

"I feel that I am the daughter of many witches behind me," says Sara Ricciardi, citing her childhood influences. Nature, divinity and the transience of life: these are some of the larger themes that guide and inspire Sara Ricciardi to design quirky objects, develop cabbalistic performance arts and envisage sublimely sound spaces. She ingests all the stories and ideas and thoughts that she reads, experiences and witnesses and turns them into objects, performances and designs that emulate her wild childhood experiences in her charming country-side home in Italy, her exploration of philosophical concepts and the Italian witchcraft legends that she has grown up listening to.

Born in Benevento, Ricciardi spent her formative years in the countryside surrounding the small southern Italy city. While her childhood days were spent around nature and in a religious environment, she went on to explore theatre and philosophy during her adolescence. Later still, her experiences as a student and learner in Milan, New York and Turkey further exposed her to new ideas, ideologies, stories and cultures. With these stories and experiences, she crafts innovative works that fall in the realm of product design, performance art, interior design, urban design and interactive exhibits.

Her works have been displayed at the Milan Design Week and in several galleries and art and design fairs across the globe. In 2019, she was granted the position of the art director of the "La Grande Bellezza - The Dream Factory" project that is heralded by the Starhotels Group. As part of this collaboration, she recently designed an evocative scent diffuser Phoenix, which references the story of the legendary bird.

Phoenix diffusers by Sara Ricciardi | Sara Ricciardi | STIRworld
Phoenix diffusers by Sara Ricciardi Image: Courtesy of Sara Ricciardi

In a conversation with STIR, Sara Ricciardi narrates all the small and big influences that have shaped her personality and craft.

STIRworld: You spent your childhood years in Benevento eating pomegranates, running in the fields and enjoying theatre. How did these experiences shape your path ahead?

Sara Ricciardi: I was growing up in Benevento, in the countryside, which has various personalities: it is energetic, but it is also very silent and erotic. Nature was my teacher and you can now see its influence in the form of peacocks and other natural entities in my work. Benevento is also called the 'City of the Witches' because there are many mountains here and the ones that surround the city look like sleeping women. We also had a sacred tree, around which we would conduct a lot of rituals, governed by Longobardi. When I was young, I was also studying in a Convent, surrounded by monks and nuns, in a very Christian culture. So, religion and faith have an influence over me, too. Many of my projects are called ‘Tabernacul’ and ‘Faith’ because I was growing up with these kinds of stories, with these kinds of images around me. I was actually a very enthusiastic kid that kept all these elements with me. I am very much in love with religions. I love the intimate feelings of people with stones and flowers and death elements.

STIRworld: Your relationship with nature is fascinating. How do you find these elements of nature, of death, of different dimensions and different generations reflecting in your craft?

Sara: When I choose materials, I want people to understand that their eventual decay is not a problem. People nowadays want to have the perfect table that doesn't break, or the perfectly symmetric fruit that is shiny and spotless. But a material in itself has life. Your skin may wear over time but when you choose a material for your new kitchen, you are scared that a few scratches and dots of wine will ruin the table; for me, that’s a problem because materials are alive, just like people. We need to understand that we can play with materials because they are alive and they can absorb your energy. Your kids and your cats will scratch your furniture and walls and that's something that evolves. It’s like this Japanese concept of wabi sabi, which helps one feel the beauty of the transformation.

  • Eden by Sara Ricciardi | Sara Ricciardi | STIRworld
    Eden by Sara Ricciardi Image: Courtesy of Sara Ricciardi
  • Tree totems in Eden | Sara Ricciardi | STIRworld
    Tree totems in Eden Image: Courtesy of Sara Ricciardi
  • Supernatural aesthetics as seen in Eden | Sara Ricciardi | STIRworld
    Supernatural aesthetics as seen in Eden Image: Courtesy of Sara Ricciardi

STIRworld: Can you name a few of your designs that emulate peacocks, trees and other elements from nature?

Sara: One of my interior projects, Eden, features peacock totems. One of my projects, Natura Morta, which is my first collection of death plants and death branches, gave me a lot of visibility because it represented my feelings and my ideas. I believe that every object has a story, a narrative.

STIRworld: What do you think is the relationship or what is the duty of design in, say, elevating the context of human life? Do you think there is a relationship between design and divinity?

Sara: In Italy, high schools can either be oriented towards the scientific or the classic discipline. I was studying in the classical lyceum when I was 17-years-old. I studied a lot of philosophy and humanistic studies and I love philosophy. There was a moment when I was studying Plato, who is an important Greek philosopher. And Plato talks about this character that is called Demiurge. I was shocked because these were ideas that had no shape and no form, they were just ideas. But, ideas are very difficult to understand if they don't have a shape. Another interesting story I can recall was while I was studying Plato, a person from Milan arrived in Benevento and told me that design is the way to transform ideas into tangible shapes. Wow! I had to do design. Because I was always thinking and so I completely fell in love with it and this was my way of being connected to the divinity. It's a way of transforming ideas into something physical and simple.

Lettiga Madre by Sara Ricciardi | Sara Ricciardi | STIRworld
Lettiga Madre by Sara Ricciardi Image: Courtesy of Sara Ricciardi

STIRworld: What is your core creative philosophy? When you have an object, a mould in your hand, how do you shape it? What is the inspiration?

Sara: In my methodology, I always start with the feelings I have, then it's the historical moment that we are in, and then someone comes along and gives me words. Sometimes, I even start with materials: stay with them a lot and the material tells me what to do. Every material moves in different ways, so I observe the material a lot. When I was working with Visionnaire, they wanted to create a collection with Venini and ended up staying inside the Venini workshop for three days to test the materials and the process. I discovered the making - turning moulds to make a piece, this is how I created my animals using that technique. I also found a cascade of super sharp and super beautiful glass while I was there. I was in love with it. So, despite everyone’s suggestion that I don’t use it because it is too sharp, I took all these sharp glasses and created Metamorphosis, a collection of vases with both sides of the glass, the smooth one and the sharp one. But, this happened because I lost myself in it and let the material tell me what to do.

  • Urban Trader’s Revolution by Sara Ricciardi | Sara Ricciardi | STIRworld
    Urban Trader’s Revolution by Sara Ricciardi Image: Courtesy of Sara Ricciardi
  • Lettiga Madre by Sara Ricciardi | Sara Ricciardi | STIRworld
    Performances as part of the Urban Trader’s Revolution show Image: Courtesy of Sara Ricciardi

STIRworld: You don many hats - that of a set designer, product designer, conductor of workshops and a teacher. How do you juggle these roles and which of these do you enjoy the most?

Sara: I have to tell you that I do love the variety, because the variety gives me the possibility to put different skills into the project. I make installations, design interiors, envision social designs and plan urban precincts. Interior design, set design and scenography give me different suggestions, and social design gives me other voices. And all these powerful suggestions help me become a stronger character, a stronger presence for myself. Whether I am working for Dolce & Gabbana or I am working for the suburbs, the super crazy kids, I put in the same effort, and I love both projects for different reasons.

Similarly, being a teacher is also very powerful for me because you need to feed your students and so you need to study more. I work with a transgenerational crowd from 90-years-old to two-years-old. For me, it's the same. The point is, if I was just a teacher it would be a mess because I need to recharge, change, and do other things. But then all these fields feed each other a lot.

02 mins watch Sara Ricciardi with ‘Happy Caretto’ | Sara Ricciardi | STIRworld
Sara Ricciardi with ‘Happy Caretto’ Video: Courtesy of Sara Ricciardi

STIRworld: From your large body of work, pick one that is closest to your heart.

Sara: If I have to pick one, I will choose a project assignment I conceptualised while I was in a university in Milan for the showroom using Bosch tools. I decided to build Happy Carretto, which was a machine connected to the wheel of a cart. I went all around Milan with it. As I was walking and moving the cart with me, the yarn was being woven. This shocked the onlookers and this is one of the reasons why I love urban installations. Currently, we are working on a commercial centre and it's very fast because commercial projects don’t wait for you. It is very challenging but I am enjoying it a lot.

  • Initial sketches for ‘Semina’ by Sara Ricciardi | Sara Ricciardi | STIRworld
    Initial sketches for ‘Semina’ by Sara Ricciardi Image: Courtesy of Sara Ricciardi
  • Installation view of Semina’ | Sara Ricciardi | STIRworld
    Installation view of Semina Image: Courtesy of Sara Ricciardi

STIRworld: Can you tell us a little about one of your recent projects, Semina, which was displayed at the Contemporary Cluster gallery?

Sara: Semina is an installation I created using 38 unique pieces with the Ceramiche Rometti. The inspiration was derived from seeds. The germination of the seed is an interesting process; they are in the ground and they need to explode. They open one piece of their body and the plant starts to grow but it's a very complex moment like when you are pregnant. Another inference I found in this was that of a ferita, a wound. But, I want to grow, to give life, because life is always between effort and beauty. So, Semina invites people to stay with their seeds that are also like tears. In Italian, pianto means both “plant” and “I cried”, and this for me is amazing because if you cry, you can plant a seed and I decided to make this exhibition about the power of seeds. It shows a powerful moment after many tears. Because when you let tears go, you are actually giving water to your body.

  • Rough sketch for ‘Semina’ by Sara Ricciardi | Sara Ricciardi | STIRworld
    Rough sketch for ‘Semina’ by Sara Ricciardi Image: Courtesy of Sara Ricciardi
  • Exhibit at Semina | Sara Ricciardi | STIRworld
    Exhibit at Semina Image: Courtesy of Sara Ricciardi

STIRworld: You have a very powerful and individual creative voice. In case of creative differences, how do you find the mean path with your collaborators?

Sara: I must admit that I did lose a lot of creative opportunities that came my way but my advice is if you want to respect your craft, be ready to lose lots of work opportunities. I didn't adhere to the policy of advertising something or working with brands that didn't give me the possibility to experiment as much as I wanted. For me, it was not useful enough. Fortunately, I have a small studio, so I have the luxury to say no. Yet again when I am collaborating with a brand, I tend to ask them several questions because I do respect who they are and I want to build the right story for them. For example, now I am working for a brand of electronic cigarettes, and I am making a collection for them that will be displayed at the Milan Design Week. For me, this is enriching because I created a narrative that resonated with their vision. This has garnered appreciation and positive reception, too.

Ricciardi will continue to showcase her creatively layered showcases such as the Hypernova and Re-generation at the much anticipated Salone del Mobile.Milano 2022.

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