Clay Talks Episode #1: Stian Alessandro Ekkernes Rossi (Snøhetta)

Snohetta clay talks for Matteo Brioni, photo by Bjornar Ovrebo

Guido: where are you?

Stian Alessandro: just outside Oslo. Here, in the whole of December they recorded only seven hours of sunshine...

Guido: It's like being constantly stuck at home...

Stian Alessandro: It’s just like this strange period we’re in, it starts with the little things and drives us even more. Great visions often fail to follow up effective direct messages which have to do with architecture and society: ambitions and dreams are lost along the way in the course of each project. Together with Matteo what we’re really thinking about is the idea of a shared concept that starts from little things.

Matteo Brioni: Let me just interrupt to say how Alessandro and I met.

I have a friend from Luzzara, Stefania, who works in marketing ceramics and we meet every now and then at trade shows or when we take the children to school. One time when she was in Milan for an event, she met Alessandro and started talking about clay, she showed him my Instagram page and he was like “Wow. that’s fantastic, can you put me in touch with him?” She called me there and then (I was in the car and it was in the middle of winter) and we had a full-on conversation about the subject. A few months later Alessandro sent me a link to a video called Clay, and it literally made me fall out of my chair: I really wish I’d done it myself.

Snohetta clay talks for Matteo Brioni, photo by Bjornar Ovrebo
Photo by Bjornar Ovrebo

Stian Alessandro: It was a presentation for the Corriere della Sera in Milan. The “Clay” Video was the first bit of output from the new research I am doing. I’m an architect, but since 2016 I’ve created a role at Snøhetta more linked to materials which are the basis of every project.

I initially did some research on plastic and this was before the issue of plastic pollution exploded in the media around the world. The result was the design of a chair for Nordica Comfort Products (NCP), a historic Norwegian design brand that produces plastic furniture. I suggested changing the rules of the game and re-working the R-48 chair, a classic designed in the late sixties by Bendt Winge using only recycled plastic material.

In Norway there are a lot of fish farms, especially for salmon fishing, and so the choice fell on plastic from local fish farms in the form of fishing nets, ropes and pipes. Instead of sending them to waste-to-energy plants, worn-out tools are ground up into a granulate that can be injected into moulds for chairs, but which can potentially also be used for endless other possibilities. Today there is a lot of talk about the circular economy, but often that’s all it is, just talk, whereas this case is a direct example and one from which we can create a much wider narrative.

Matteo Brioni portrait, photo by Giuseppe Gradella
photo by Giuseppe Gradella

Guido: So it’s the narrative that drives us to go further, maybe even beyond shape or form itself.

Stian Alessandro: lots of people only think about form, but that’s not enough for me. There was no need for a new form of chair either, instead what we needed was a story that showed how to go further, how to generate value starting with something that has no value.

Matteo: Exactly like with clay...

Stian Alessandro: When people think of Norway, they usually think of wood, but in traditional Norwegian architecture there is a lot of clay within the wooden walls, even if you can't see it. In reality it is an extremely versatile building material with highly significant and relevant structural, acoustic, thermal and aesthetic qualities. Snøhetta’s research aims to develop new ways of designing, thinking and building with the use and reuse of local clay through low energy consumption processing and the adoption of cradle to cradle consumption cycles.

We ask ourselves, for example, if it’s possible to make clay products that don’t need to be fired; or how it’s possible once the life of a building is over to put clay back into the ground without having any impact.

Snohetta clay talks for Matteo Brioni, photo by Bjornar Ovrebo
Photo by Bjornar Ovrebo

Guido: I am reminded of something that Roberta Busato said when she was talking about work with raw earth -  “art is a dirty thing”.

It strikes me that this is close to what you are getting at; showing us something beautiful that can only be achieved by starting from something dirty ...

Matteo: Or as Fabrizio De André said “Nothing comes from diamonds, flowers are born from manure ...”..

Stian Alessandro: That’s right, it's exactly the same thing. We’re now also working on a project looking at the glass used in electronic products. Contrary to what we tend to think, glass isn’t made just of sand, which we think is something the world is full of, rather glass is actually a very specific material and now is running out.

The world of e-waste is huge, with vast numbers of low cost and very low durability products but unlike metals, the dense glass used isn’t recycled. Yet in most cases it is tempered glass, which if it’s shattered,  generates fragments that are all the same and which are easier to melt down and rework without complex shredding operations. After a number of specific tests carried out in Belgium, we decided to create a series of tiles using the recycled glass. They all came out differently to each other in a range of colours and some of them were partly transparent, others partly opaque.

Matteo: They’re incredibly beautiful, they remind me of the alabaster on the windows of the Galla Placidia Byzantine Mausoleum in Ravenna.

What do you think about these multinationals that suddenly present themselves as all sensitive to the future and the fate of the planet? All this greenwashing ... just because maybe they make car bumpers out of recycled plastic...

Stian Alessandro: Norway is often recognized for its tremendous sensitivity with regard to the environment. But don’t let’s forget that this sensitivity comes from a feeling of well-being linked to years of oil extraction, and therefore also the production of plastics. Rather than wasting energy in unfocused anger, I believe it should be directed towards new projects, even with those industries guilty of greenwashing.

I’m more interested in seeing what can be done on an individual or one-off basis. Recently for example, I contacted a Thai company, the largest in the world in terms of egg production, to start looking into the reusing of the enormous quantity of egg shells that are currently completely unused. I’m not an expert in eggs or shells, but I think we have to be constantly curious, always asking ourselves what can be done. It might be clay, glass, mushrooms, fish ... everything is part of what we have available on Earth and in this sense, there is no such thing as waste, everything is material. If there is a gap there is an opportunity, we just have to recognize its potential and change our perception of value.

Guido: Both of you work with CMF design, which for those who don’t know, is an area of industrial design that started in the 1980s and which works on the chromatic, tactile and decorative identity of products and environments.

To put it into context, it was an area in which initially only designers worked and using a meta-project style. It’s interesting for me to see how that sensitivity has gradually moved both into the heart of architectural and urban design, as well as into the broader overall vision.

Matteo: one evening a few months ago, I was coming back from Milan where I’d been working all day, and my son Cesare, who is 11, said: “Dad, do you know that in seven years the world will explode?”

“Well, Cesare, let’s hope not” I said and he replied “Okay, maybe not in seven years, but it will explode anyway and it will all be the fault of you adults who have ruined it and are not doing anything to solve the problem”. I was shocked and it made me feel really bad, but then I thought that the important thing was to try, and to solve the problem: we might be successful or not, but it is essential to make things better, to establish an attitude of curiosity, of research.

Guido: Alessandro, who knows what your new-born son will tell you in a dozen years or so – “Dad, you know that the world has exploded, but have we recycled it very well?".


Stian Alessandro: Let’s hope he’ll have something nice to say .... Sometimes it’s enough to give the world a little example, a small gesture, a starting point so that everyone can imagine and see where to go.

Matteo: Beautiful...

Matteo Brioni portrait, photo by Giuseppe Gradella
Matteo Brioni portrait, photo by Giuseppe Gradella

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