Romolo Stanco does not live up to his name (Stanco means ‘tired’ in Italian): he never gives up. The LaDinDon rocking chair – a ‘fun’ chair of sandwich construction with polyurethane foam, carbon fibre and fibreglass skin – was 45 mm thick when he unveiled it in April 2006.

And after eight months of further development and research, it was presented at this year’s Salone del Mobile (Milan’s International Furniture Fair) in a 15 mm version. Slicker and more astonishing than ever.

“Research is the basis of all we do,” Romolo Stanco explains, talking about SmarritaCamilla, the architecture and design workshop that he founded in 1998.

“With our designs, we want to get to the essence of things. We need to create a happy medium between form and function and we try to do so by conjuring up the most unusual shapes and ideas.”

For strangeness’ sake? “Not at all,” clarifies Stanco. “Quite the opposite, in fact. We know what’s going on in the world of materials research and we strive to apply that knowledge in the field of design, so that we can push the limits just a little further. That’s how advancements are made.”

This insight into the complex world of materials engineering comes to Stanco from his preferred relationship with an Italian research center, the Institute for Energetics and Interphases (IENI), which is part of the Italian National Research Council (CNR).

Here, a team of researchers and technicians study the development of metals and alloys, as well as innovative processes of production and enabling technologies for the use of advanced metallic materials.

“We work very closely with Stefano Besseghini of the IENI,” says Stanco. They were introduced to each other by a very well known professor of medical physics at Milan University, Dr Graziella Airoldi.

“She is an expert on memory alloys and she believed Stefano’s work to be amongst the most cutting edge in the field,” explains Stanco. “The world of design is very experimental when it comes to form, yet it often waits forever before using new materials that in physics or engineering are already well known and applied.”

In this sense, his two years spent at the physics faculty (before giving up and studying design and architecture) paid off well for Romolo Stanco. “I have no difficulty in handling new, high-tech materials,” he explains.

“I know that production is the goal and for this reason I concentrate on the concept, develop it as a prototype and then see whether it is possible to produce it, albeit in limited-edition pieces.”

With this aim in mind, in 2006 Romolo Stanco created the brand NonEsiste (Italian for ‘it does not exist’). The brand is the signature for the SmarritaCamilla Architectural Workshop pieces, the commercial arm of the research workshop.

“Commercial feasibility comes last in the creative process,” explains Stanco. “The aim is to show what is possible and to make things real; that is what NonEsiste is all about.”

At the last Salone del Mobile in April, SmarritaCamilla Architectural Workshop introduced many research-to-production NonEsiste pieces. The new, thinner LaDinDon, the chaise longue Schoops!, the armchair Oops! and a little chair named Gulp. “We have an idea, and we respect it,” says Stanco.

“We want to make it real. So we bend technologies and materials to our will and strive to realise what seemed impossible.” The sitting furniture that Romolo Stanco introduced last April was all born from a line on a piece of paper.

“I thought of the function and drew it. I did not care about the structural elements. Being able to make the thing work was the challenge.” A challenge that he met by using composite materials.

“They are not new materials – they have been used in racing yacht design for years,” says Stanco, who likes to point out that all the hulls of the boats taking part in the last America’s Cup were constructed with the same technique that he used to manufacture the 15 mm-thick LaDinDon chair.

“Their structural performance, resistance and lightness come from their sandwich construction, which also includes an extremely light inner element that can be moulded to shape (such as Termanto or Nomex honeycomb) and some external layers depending on the piece that needs to be developed.

"These vary from carbon fibre to glass fibre or Kevlar, soaked in resins that surround the inner element, thus forming a very resistant mono-block.”

But despite his obvious passion for science, physics and technology, for Romolo Stanco research also has a ‘philosophical’ meaning. “Essence is not essentiality,” he says. “My research does not imply a minimalist approach; quite the opposite, in fact. My research is driven by such devotion to the project that I refuse to let technological or production constraints drive my design.”

V/a.g.r.a. and Arsenio, two lighting applications built with memory alloys, were also introduced last April. Both lamps are inanimate objects that ‘come to life’ when the light bulb is switched on.

“The design is inspired by the dynamic fluidity of cellular division in microbiology. The shape is that of an embryo, dragged down by the force of gravity. It looks weak, like a trunk that is unable to sustain itself, like a drop that is about to fall. Then suddenly, almost magically, the lamp is given new life, as if it were granted the sparkle of life.”

V/a.g.r.a. is the wall version of this lamp (soon to come also in table and exterior versions), while Arsenio is the ceiling suspension lamp (with eight to ten trunks).

The magic element is in fact a very physical one: a shape memory alloy (also called SMA, smart alloy and memory metal). The IENI in Lecco has been researching these for a long time (with a particular focus on nickel-titanium alloys). Shape memory alloys are materials that remember their geometry; after being ‘deformed’ they regain their original shape by themselves during heating.

“I had been designing fluid, soft shapes for a while,” says Stanco. “They were Ross Lovegrove-type designs and that sort of annoyed me. With all due respect, I like to do my own thing!” he laughs.

Romolo Stanco’s thinking was pretty straightforward. If design is organic, it should also be animated; otherwise it will end up de-composing. It was while talking with some friends who are obsessed with anthropology that Stanco started to imagine light as the element that could give life to an inanimate object.

“Light has always been the symbol of life, from all ancient cultures up until the present.”

He started sketching forms that could suddenly become animated with the addition of light – using memory alloys. “The first designs were not what I wanted; there was something lacking.

"I asked some biologist friends to show me videos of electron micro-scope views of cellular division processes. I would stop the video when I could capture a nice shape and then draw it. There was a constant in the way cells were being separated. They seemed to flow like liquids, yet they were solid, organic materials.”

The first prototypes shown at the Salone were created with rapid prototyping techniques in order to stay as close as possible to the original design. The actual development of the product was far from easy.

“It was really difficult to obtain thoroughly white silicon, and we had to carry out numerous tests in order to calibrate the right temperature on the wires. If you see how little room there is inside the trunks and the lamp itself, you will soon realise that it was no simple task.”

Yet, in the end, everything turned out as it was supposed to. The animated lights caught the attention of the public and the press and SmarritaCamilla Architecture Workshop is now already busy with new projects and frontiers.

Like the architectural project SpideR, a self-building structure with a net whose large dimensions allow for the creation of big covered areas without ever forcing workers to stand above ground level.

“This is possible thanks to the use of nickel-titanium tie beams,” explains Stanco. “After many scale models, we are now building a 1:1 prototype that measure six metres in diameter.”

And upcoming design work? “For the time being, NonEsiste, does not exist,” concludes Stanco. Yet we are sure by next April it will.

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