Elena Salmistraro, the eclectic side of design

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Less is a bore. Elena Salmistraro knows it well. On the wings of creativity, perfectly balanced between art and design, her world comes to life. If design’s modern challenge is to be unique and recognizable, she has definitely won it. All due to a peculiarity that the creative holds dear – giving objects purposes that, besides meeting daily needs, tug at heartstrings.

She is not cut for a life in studio, and after university, her free spirit led her to many years of solo work, between experimentation and evening pottery classes, while she looked for her own language and place in design. Salmistraro does not call herself a designer, rather a storyteller of unique pieces and a representative of premium handicrafts. Shunning hit-and-run trends and methods, she reverses the status quo of industrial design through her strong decorative, poetic approach. Her monsters, like the Gryphon, giant Polyphemus, and monkeys from the Primates series, are some of the characters from her eclectic, kaleidoscopic universe, mixing with the 1990s’ street-art.

We talk about this on the phone during the compelling interview here below.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I have always had a calling for the world of art. I attended an artistic high-school, and after that, I chose a university course that could combine an artistic approach with industrial design. After graduating in fashion design at the Politecnico in Milan, I decided to specialize in industrial design too. Being a fashion designer did not feel right for me. I’d rather describe myself as a creative influenced by different worlds, looking for common ground between all disciplines and trying to adjust them to industrial design. My creative process starts from drawings – first on canvas, now on technological devices – where my monsters come to life in 2D, before becoming real through different production techniques.

Your style undoubtedly stands out – it’s eclectic, colorful, and evocative, with graphic subjects resembling monster animals. Where do you draw your inspiration from?

I lived the 90s’ generation, and I witnessed the rise of a crucial wave in the world of art – street-art and its offshoots. This powerful creative wake, invaded by graffiti from several writers and by the period’s cartoons, shaped my language. The recurring monsters that characterize my work are only terrible and aggressive at a first impression, but actually harmless. They are only there to keep company with a decorative, unconventional twist.

Pottery, metal, glass, glass fiber, and marble are just some of the surfaces that you have used to give shape to your creativity. Is there any material that you prefer today, that best moulds your ideas? 

Although I began with papier mâché, what I love most is pottery. It is because of the evening classes that I took when starting out, during eleven years of working my way up through many sacrifices. I learned crafting techniques like coiling or the wheel. Obviously, I wouldn’t call myself a potter, there are many excellent ones in Italy, but working with pottery allowed me to see its strengths and weaknesses. I turned my love for this material into various pieces that were the leitmotif of my first exhibitions. Then I met Bosa, which believed in me right from the start. Shaping pottery is also therapeutic for me: plunging my hands into the block of clay and kneading it is so relaxing! But I must confess that I would also like to try out a new material, glass. I used it in the past, but would like to explore it more… maybe for the next project, who knows! Weaving is also a technique that fascinates me.

Your training started from fashion, then took you to industrial design. What should fashion learn from design?

Design has always proved more conscious of the environmental impact of certain materials. Even though fashion is already making efforts and raising awareness, it should definitely adopt a similar approach. Moreover, the fashion system goes too fast (one more reason why designers are growing more and more aware of the problem), while design has never had tight deadlines so far – even if today, my world is also yielding to a way-too-seasonal mode because of the various trade shows (think of all the shows we have in one year, from the Salone del Mobile to Maison et Objet) where having new features to present is essential. But creativity does not get along with hectic paces: creating a carefully designed vase, lamp, or object takes time. Chimera, with its surface collection made in collaboration with Cedit Ceramiche d’Italia, took four years to create, and it was absolutely inspiring. We used a cutting-edge technique: micro-tridimensional print, which can reproduce fabric textures, warp and leather. As you can see, I always draw inspiration from different worlds, and fashion is a recurring one, because of my first studies.

Serving a purpose, or amaze with decorations. Your projects seem to show that you prefer the second. What do you feel closer to – art or design?

Purpose is the crucial element of design, but I have always loved the emotional side that objects conceal. I think they should make you feel good, and also tell a story. The peculiarity of my job is in introspective storytelling, a process that starts from drawing, the step where I express myself.

You are one of the protagonists of the exhibition “Nelle mani delle donne” (“In women’s hands”) running at SuperStudio Più in Milan until October 29. In design, women have often had to make more efforts than men. Where are we now?

Something is changing, even if slowly. When I look at big brands’ websites, I can’t help but notice that most designers are men, as there have always been more in my field. I’d like to point out that I have never had any issues or unpleasant experiences, but sometimes, when talking to old-school craftsmen, I could sense that they had reserves. I think women should network more, especially in a world like mine, where it is often easy to be self-centered. It is hard, but it would be nice. In this regard, Silvana Annicchiarico held an interesting exhibition titled “W. Women in Italian Design” at the Triennale Milano, which celebrated women’s design, and where I was also featured.

What about your future projects?

I have several projects for the 2021 edition of the Salone del Mobile. I cannot reveal anything yet, but there will surely be upholstery and various accessories like lamps and vases for Italian and emerging brands. I will carry on my projects with Bosa, and I have designed some decorative panels and a living room table in collaboration with Lithea, a company producing marble furnishing.

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Letizia Bellitti
Letizia Bellitti
Curious by nature and passionate about everything creative. I have been writing for several years, and I have always been interested in fashion and design. Writing about fashion, art and design is the best way for me to share my passion with others.

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