In Milan, on Via Marco Polo 9, the new flagship showroom of Ceramiche Ragno project by Benedetta Tagliabue - EMBT.
Ceramiche Ragno inaugurates its first flagship showroom: 400 square metres of display area in the iconic Porta Nuova district in Milan.
The project, curated by Benedetta Tagliabue – EMBT, was interpreted as a kaleidoscope of colors, textures and designs that tell the story and the technical and artisan skills of the brand and the expressive potential of ceramics.
Whatever the architectural scale, the approach at your studio, EMBT, has always been innovative and experimental, perfectly balanced with history and craft traditions. You have adopted collage as the characteristic feature of your approach.
Is this procedure the key to developing your architecture, the details of its elements and its geometrical compositions?
BT The technique of collage – which is the tried and tested starting point of all our projects – starts by adding together fragments of objective elements which are obviously related to the client’s requirements, but which also include all the things that are pleasing to us. Working with creative people – and there are plenty of them in our studio – is more a collective game than a job: this phase of the project brings together several heads, each with their own ideas and points of view, although at a certain point I take control. It’s a form of working together and for a collective audience, that’s the only way you can break new ground, otherwise you end up seeing only what you want to see and repeating yourself. It’s a method that enables you to follow a number of directions, to break through physical and mental barriers, to set aside your preconceptions and arrive at a synthesis which can sometimes even subvert the original concept. As in the case of this showroom, where we were originally inspired by the charm of the mosaics of Piazza Armerina only to understand, from our discussions with the company, that that wasn’t going to work.
Ceramic is very widely used in architecture, but EMBT has made it its central material, while always expressing its potential in a fresh way, ranging from the renowned, highly functional roof for the market of Santa Caterina in Barcelona to the artistic and symbolic use of the material in the interior of the new Church of San Giacomo in Ferrara. Which of the many potentialities of ceramic as a material do you use in your work?
BT Ceramic, like wood, is a natural element, ancient, warm, robust and inalterable – I always like to highlight its deep connection to the soil. That’s why we seek out fresh ways to use it in our projects, and we’re always surprised by how it can be anything and everything: any type of finish, sensation, color or geometry.
How did the discussions about the showroom go with the company?
BT The company contacted us because they were struck by the natural, coloristic and rather special way in which we use ceramic. They told us about the Group’s philosophy, and explained that Ragno is the more youthful brand and as such has a more adventurous approach than Marazzi. We took this as an invitation to design a totally new space, maintaining this vision of freedom and experimentation, which was easy for us to do because it reflects our own design philosophy. It was an interesting interior design project, on the small scale (no more than 400 square metres of showroom) in comparison to a university campus or parliament building, which required a constant pragmatism and tailormade design. In the beginning we had a rather abstract concept, but as we worked with the company we understood how to modify the project as applied to the actual product.
The showroom features a number of familiar themes from your work, like the felicitous combination of materials and textures, the lively colors and the decorative use of laminated wood in trellis-like structures. When you enter the space you are immediately struck by its dynamism, openness and lightness, all making for a warm, welcoming atmosphere which invites you to stay. Was the interior redesigned?
BT In general we left the existing space unchanged, maintaining certain volumes and opening up some walls to increase the overall visibility. When a visitor enters the space, they are welcomed by two big lamellar structures – one spiral shaped, the other dome-like. This is the first time we have used such complicated structures, and we were afraid they wouldn’t bear their own weight – in fact I insisted on seeing the prototypes one at a time, even though only remotely. This was all made possible by digital design and simulation, which was then transformed into concrete form by a company from Alberobello. To prevent the sensation of looking through a telescope, we created a number of concave and convex lamellar structures along the narrow corridor, to give movement to the rectilinear space and propose a new model of material display, almost like a gallery in which the tiles are the paintings, a labyrinthine installation which continuously reveals new surprises. In homage to the brand’s name and historic logo, we played with the concept of a spider’s web in the show windows, substituting a ship’s rigging for the threads of the web to capture and support the collections. Mounting the ceramics to the wood was problematic, but we were able to resolve this in our discussions with the company and the fitters, who came up with a number of reconfigurable mounting systems using intelligent arms which can be used to adjust the positions of the tiles and thus enable new displays in the future.
And there’s also that wonderful floor, a collage of textures that captures the gaze, as well as the surprising use of a ceramic mural in the room looking onto the courtyard, with its large windows. How were you inspired by the material potentials of Ragno ceramic?
BT We always wanted the floor to be like that – indeed we simplified our original idea at the company’s suggestion. It was fun to bring together the various finishes, colors and forms, to demonstrate how effectively the collections can be mixed and matched. Even the washroom features a mixture of marbles in vertical bands, a reference to the characteristic structure of Italian cathedrals. The large mural, on the other hand, makes reference to the things most dear to my heart: I love the atmosphere and people of the Emilia region, and I wanted to represent the metaphysical world of De Chirico, the writings of Alberto Savinio – I read them all when I was young – and, as a homage to the Marazzi Group, their factory tower. The furniture, like the large reconfigurable tables, are those I have at home, designed by us and reproduced for the first time by the American Hardwood Export Council, which were also on show in a major installation at the entrance to the University of Milan during Milan Design Week.
Tell us a little about what you’re working on at the moment.
BT We have many projects underway, many of them in China and France. We are participating in numerous competitions and exhibitions, as well as housing projects: we’re currently finishing the underground station of the Centro Direzionale in Naples, working on urban requalification projects in the Paris suburbs, like the masterplan, public square and station of Clichy-Montfermeil, known for its street art… always initiating, accepting, including and redesigning relationships.
Benedetta Tagliabue – EMBT is an internationally recognised architectural firm founded in 1994 by Enric Miralles (1955-2000) and Benedetta Tagliabue in Barcelona. The mature approach to architecture, interior design and planning that is the hallmark of Benedetta Tagliabue – EMBT's firm can be seen in the design of schools and universities, commercial, industrial and residential buildings, restoration and landscape architecture. The firm designed public spaces and
buildings in both Europe and China, working with state and local authorities, as well as corporate and private customers.
The firm's current projects include the School of Management at Fudan University in Shanghai, the Xiamen and Taichung "office towers", the HafenCity public spaces in Hamburg, Germany, the Clichy- Montfermeil metro station in Paris, France (for which the firm won 1st place in the invitation to tender) and the central metro station in Naples, Italy.
In recognition of her work over the years, Benedetta Tagliabue – EMBT was awarded the Catalan National Award in 2002, the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2005, the Spanish National Award in 2006, the City of Barcelona Award in 2005 and 2009, FAD Awards in 2000, 2003 and 2007, and WAF Awards in 2010 and 2011.