of Atelier Manferdini
Elena Manferdini, principal of Atelier Manferdini, has twenty years of professional experience in architecture, public art, design, and education. She currently teaches at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) where she serves as the Graduate Programs Chair. In 2019, Manferdini was honored with the ICON Award as part of the LA Design Festival, which is a prize that recognizes iconic women who have made an indelible mark on Los Angeles, culture, and society in generalthrough their work, character, and creative leadership. With a body of work that spans through various scales and disciplines of design, her eponymous atelier has completed projects over three continents. Manferdini loves art, technology, and inventions, and she deeply believes in the positive power of education, community outreach, and creative collaboration.
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Elena Manferdini: Judith Ripka selected Atelier Manferdini to design their new 2020 jewelry line Adoro. I am the first architect they collaborated with. After this experience, they’re planning to continue with other female designers. We started the design process in April 2020 and the collection was launched just before Christmas. Adoro is a comprehensive collection comprised of a ring, earrings, necklace, and a cuff. We are currently working on a new series, this time focusing on objects for the house. Judith Ripka is planning on expanding the typologies of their usual productions and to focus not only on jewelry, but also other precious objects, and they see those as complementary to the jewelry for their stores in the United States.
I know product design has been part of your practice. Has that been the case throughout your career?
In addition to my work in architecture, over the years I have collaborated with several companies around the world and delved into a variety of design fields, including automotive, furniture, fashion, object, textiles, and interior design. It is not uncommon that architects design at multiple scales and in different design fields. My first product design project was for the Italian brand Alessi, which has a long history of collaborations with architects. The impetus comes from the idea that architects could and should design from the spoon to the city.
Architectural education is wide. Traditionally architects are generalists, and the digital design turn has helped them to manifest it. As designers we now use shared digital platforms that allow our professional practice to expand into different fields of creativity. In addition to that, objects nowadays are no longer produced through manual craftsmanship. After the Industrial and Digital Revolutions craftsmanship transformed into a shared, democratizing skill available to many. Today it is a new normal for architects to design across various creative fields.
Urban Fabric Fashion, 2017
This conversation might also have to do with your Italian origins, maybe your Italian upbringing and your experience, both as an interdisciplinary designer, as an engineer, a product designer, an architect, and an artist. Do you think that your Italian roots influenced your way of thinking about scale and objects?
The idea that an architect can and should design at different scales is engrained in Italian culture. Architecture is the kind of education one would choose to be able to think and be creative in all design fields. That is the expectation from the Renaissance onward. Also the idea that one should go beyond the labels delineated by the commerce is part of the Italian definition of the architecture field—today many international architects have this approach to design. You look at the work of Frank Gehry for instance, who had designed objects for Tiffany in addition to his iconic furniture pieces. The idea that design is not chained to a typology is something that many architects value as an outlet for their creativity.
EM: Absolutely not. I was young. I left my country at 22. I was not seeing this as a life changing experience, meaning that I would stay in the United States forever; my mother would have never let me go if she would have known. What brought me to Los Angeles was a scholarship from the UCLA Engineering Department. When I came to the USA, I thought I would finish my degree in engineering. After my first week of classes at UCLA, I understood that I could not take undergraduate classes in engineering because I had taken them all when I was a student in Italy. I needed to petition to go directly into the graduate program. Looking at the roster of instructors, I immediately realized that architecture was offering a remarkable program. Sylvia Lavin became the chairwoman in 1996 and I started at UCLA in 1997, so I was part of her first year recruit. She had brought outstanding faculties to teach there, and from engineering I carved my way into architecture.
Leaving home behind is a challenge. I had this one-year scholarship, and I wanted to make the most out of it. In reality, the scholarship then was renewed and in 2020 I finished my master’s degree in architecture. I also finished my engineering degree. 1997 was my first time visiting the United States. The transition was not easy. This city was not a love at first sight phenomenon. But I liked the educational system. I realized how much more in terms of choices and exposure and hands-on experience I could get. In Italy, we have an education system that is free, but we also have a ratio between a faculty and student that the 1 to 600. You see the instructor in a big hall, and you have trouble even seeing what he or she is writing on the blackboard. I always studied in excellent institutions, from high school to university, but when I came to the United States, I realized how important it was to have a more intimate learning setting. Especially in architecture, I met instructors who were willing to share their experience with me. My first professor at UCLA for portfolio was Thom Mayne. Having a Pritzker Prize winner look through my portfolio and give me advice and personalized assignments is something that is not that easy to come by in Italy.
Tempera Pavilion for A New Sculpturalism show at MOCA, Los Angeles, 2013
I think it also might have to do with timing as well. In 1997, that was around the first digital turn in architecture. I think of the paperless studios that were happening at Columbia, and I think there were other kinds of characters like Frank Gehry and Greg Lynn, who were working on how to use the computer in architecture. What was happening at UCLA when you were studying there?
I think you’re right. I was extremely lucky in terms of timing. As I said, Sylvia became the chairwoman in 1996 and Greg Lynn came to UCLA in 1997. He brought with him a clear and groundbreaking vision in terms of what digital tools could do. Frank Gehry and Randy Jefferson, who was working for Frank Gehry at that time, were coming to reviews. You could see that those digital and fabrication tools were at work, both theoretically and practically. And UCLA was at the center of that conjunction and was promoting interesting synergies between practice and theory. Los Angeles offers both academia and practice. The city is a fertile place for practitioners, and it also has a series of universities and institutes that foster speculative design. And so having those at the same time together deeply enriched my education.
Unroll Drawing, part of LACMA’s permanent collection.
And so you move from Italy, you go to Los Angeles, there’s all these strange new things happening in architecture with these wonderful characters. And then you graduate with a set of specialties and I guess, start teaching at SCI-Arc. And you’ve been there for twenty-years I suppose?
After graduation I worked for Greg Lynn for three years. Then I started teaching at SCI-Arc. At that time the school was starting to be engaged with digital tools, and needed the kind of skills and knowledge that I could bring to the table. The dean was Eric Owen Moss; he hired several young practitioners that had a new vision about what digital tools could do in architecture. He gave us a platform and also he challenged us. Eric has always loved to discuss new points of view. I appreciated the fact that nothing was off the table in terms of belief systems, but he could always listen and understand that there is always space for change. He was instrumental, with the undergraduate and graduate chair at that point, Chris Genik and Ming Fung, to foster the digital turn. I’ve been teaching at SCI-Arc for almost 20 years now. I started as a visual study instructor when I was 29. I progressed to teaching studios, moved up to the graduate program, and then became the Graduate Thesis coordinator. Finally, five years ago, I became the Graduate Programs Chair of the school.
I think it’s fantastic to hear the seriousness in which you’re taking both practice and teaching. One thing I find fascinating; I was reading your recent Log article, which I think you wrote it with Christina Griggs, and you were talking a little bit about color, but also how color is interacting with new digital tools and techniques. I’m sure you have a position or an idea around how technology has changed over the twenty years. Can you see the next evolution of technology in the discipline of architecture, this post-UCLA moment within the discipline?
In reference to the Log 49 essay on color, we wanted to focus on the fact that social media as a technology has democratized the use of colors in architecture. Color is not only a device for effects or playfulness, but it embodies gender, race, politics, culture, and all those issues we are constantly grappling with. Today, color is a battleground and social media has been an important component to this awakening. The article tried to link contemporary culture with contemporary tools.
We have gone through 25 years of digital revolution. These tools have been digested and become a new normal. Schools and professional practices have been moving quickly through all the different facets of our “everything digital.” I would say that what was back then the focus of the research has today become merely a “modus operandi.” But we know now that tools are never neutral and academia has the important task of understanding the critical qualities at play with this methodology of design.
These 25 years have been a conquering march. Most creative practices today are hinged on digital tools. These design methodologies have an important role in representation. A school like SCI-Arc is well known for its intricate drawings, its exquisite models, a genuine interest in the generative potentials of representation. Today, the interest is in the original workflows that one can invent.