I am sitting with designers Erika Zorzi and Matteo Sangalli in a packed coffice in Brooklyn. I have to admit the duo is not exactly what I expected. The Italian couple is gorgeous (that part wasn’t a surprise). But, they remind me of Italian hippies: Both have long dark hair, which Matteo keeps pulled back while Erika allows her naturally curly locks to cascade loosely around her face. She has bright blue eyes that are at once inquisitive and electric, like a neon sign that lights up the dark night. He speaks softly and soulfully.
I showed up a little early, so I am already halfway through my cold brew by the time they arrive. Matteo orders an espresso (also not a surprise) for himself and a simple cup of joe with milk for Erika.
Non-surprises aside, what hits me as truly remarkable, is how subtle these designers are.
The Italian duo couldn’t be any further from pretentious. They exude a laid-back energy, yet they are incredibly warm and engaging. They are just like any other New Yorkers enjoying a sunny October afternoon.
Erika and Matteo are the founders of Mathery – a creative studio whose artistic works are ever evolving. You could call them product designers; after all, the pair did meet while studying the subject in college. But, to solely label them as product designers would be wholly untrue. Even they admit to the challenges of not allowing themselves to be confined to a certain design form.
«Inspiration comes really from everywhere. Everything’s so blended together, and there is so much going on, especially in New York.»
Erika: The way that we start, or that we work on, each project is different all the time, in the fact that we are shifting from one discipline to another. Every time we learn. Every time we take on a new project, so we are not sticking with a certain style or aesthetic.
Matteo: We cannot really frame ourselves in one word. That is our struggle. Because most of the time we go to meetings, and people just assume you can describe yourself in one word. You can just say, ‘OK, I’m a photographer, or I’m an artist.’ But we haven’t found the word to describe what we really are because it’s more complex than that. For us, it’s just more about—
Erika: If we have an idea or we have something to tell, we find the medium to say it.
No matter how they choose to channel a vision, you can expect something fun and infused with ample personality. Mathery has been prone to creating quirky products from funky house wares made of painted fruit rinds to – my personal favourite – the Josie, a wooden chair that shoots stringed confetti around the person who sits down on it. There was line of swimsuits inspired by the way long hair drapes over your clothes. The team brought to life whimsical wallpaper filled with sunny side up (egg) lampshades and hot dog flower vases, which were created by hand sans computers and then photographed. Their latest collection is a line of abstract fashion pieces (think non-functional shoes connected at the toes creating a U-shape). And they are now also playing with videography. Fiber Affair is a reflection of that, a video made when inspiration struck via a lint roller.
Having recently moved from Milan to New York City, Mathery is making some successful strides networking among Manhattan’s advertising firms. They have already booked a project with the soap giant Dove.
Mathery was founded in 2010 with the launch of 01Mathery, a Tumblr blog. It contained only 100 posts, each one showcasing a photo of a product made by Erika and Matteo, and it kind of functioned like an online art exhibit of the designers’ works. A pinecone bicycle basket. A tray for those who eat on the couch, complete with an apron connected to said tray to prevent spillage. A food-warming apparatus capitalising on the overheating generated from a laptop (do bear in mind, this was six years ago).
Erika: Because we are super, super committed, when we decide that we have to do something, we just try our best to do it. And we were broke. We were just starting out, so all the materials we used were recycled items.
Although their talent has outgrown those first days of 01Mathery and transforming objects from used products, both agree that the blog played an important foundation for building Mathery as design studio.
Erika: Talking about this now, it’s something that we see as something really, really good in the past, doing this recycling thing. It’s not something we are comfortable doing now, or that we are not so interested in now. But, some of them were fun; others were more practical. It was a way to express our humour.
Matteo: We started it, [and said] it’s a great idea, and let’s see how far we can go with this. And, then we ended up collecting other ideas, other objects, and it was quite beautiful.
Erika: We didn’t want to do 100 days [posts] at the start, but we started reaching 6,000 views per day. At that time, having a blog among people our age at the university … it wasn’t the thing that it is now. Now, having a blog is a little bit old-fashioned. Young people nowadays are on Instagram, or Facebook, so they are already online all the time.
Since debuting on that groundbreaking platform, Mathery has produced at least 16 major projects, and their works have been featured in international magazines such as Vogue Brasil and Home & Décor Malaysia, and on digital publications like Wired and Design Boom.
Erika and Matteo were living abroad in Australia when they were asked to create a 43-meter-long table runner to be a focal point on three large communal tables at an all-important sponsor dinner held inside the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. What was born was Con-Vivio, a kitschy design of a woman with salami-covered eyes, wine spilled, bread loaves broken and dipped in marinara sauce, and too much spaghetti on the fork (once considered a faux pas).
Erika: In an environment like that one, it was amazing. [It’s] such a satisfaction when you design something, and from your computer, you see it printed on a 14-meter table runner. And, then you see it in a museum on three tables in a huge room, and there were all these paintings on the walls.
Mathery played an essential role in that same museum’s initiative to provide free children’s programs. The contribution was Pastello – Draw Act, which enabled children to colour three dimensionally using items such as crayon-embedded shoes and helmets.
The exhibit lasted 2 months and drew in a whooping 50,000 kids.
Erika: The crazy thing is when we presented the idea to them, we were, like, ‘This is the idea, but we are freaking out. We don’t know if we can make it happen. This is a big challenge. It depends on how far you want to go and how far you want to risk.’ And, they looked at us, and they said, ‘We want to risk!’
From start to finish, Erika and Matteo saw the entire production through, consuming them for months. The two simultaneously designed the space while melding down the wax and colour to produce the rich crayons and producing all of the necessary prototypes from scratch.
Erika: It was one of the biggest and most satisfying projects we have ever worked on because we curated literally all of the aspects, from the product to the design of the space and the actual shooting [of the video]. We didn’t do any compromises. It was exactly what we wanted.
After the completion of Pastello – Draw Act, and finishing the Con-Vivio tablecloth for the museum’s dinner gala, the designers felt it was the perfect finish to their time in Oz.
Erika and Matteo returned to Italy, but it wasn’t long before they were longing for the expat life of living somewhere new. They decided on the Big Apple.
Erika: Sometimes it’s a lot of trouble because you’re restarting everything from the beginning, which means finding new clients, adjusting your kind of perspective or the kind of work you do.
Luckily, they quickly found a room for rent in Brooklyn, in the artsy area of Bushwick where they had once vacationed and had hoped to return to.
I offer them some of the avocado toast I’ve ordered, but they decline. Matteo admits how full they are from just having dined in Chinatown. They had a meeting in Manhattan, so it was the perfect excuse to swing through.
Chinatown is clearly one of their favourite New York City neighbourhoods, not just for the great food, but also for the cheap shops that often spark innovation as seen by Mathery’s five-part collection entitled Beautiful China Town.
Matteo: It’s filling our mind with stuff around us. It could be a good starting point for a new project. We try to absorb what we can for each project.
Matteo: Inspiration comes really from everywhere. Everything’s so blended together, and there is so much going on, especially in New York. That’s why we decided to come here.
With 8.5 million people living in The City that Never Sleeps, I feel pretty confident that Mathery can count on an endless amount of stimulus to keep them satisfied.
(And I secretly want them to make me a smaller version of the Con-Vivio tablecloth.)