Inviting illusionary mosaic art

Downtown Design Dubai 2023

Visitors to Downtown Design Dubai 2023 will be welcomed by ‘Carved in the Now’, a spectacular walk-through entrance installation commissioned and hand crafted by Fantini Mosaici – the Italian luxury handcrafted surfaces company, designed by Arianna Bavuso and Andre Chedid of Lisbon-based AB+AC Architects.

1/ What is the theme of the installation for Downtown Design?

‘Carved in the Now’ is a reinterpretation of the classic, age-old craft of mosaics that culminates in a space symbolizing both the cave and the tower, showing where we have come from and what we can aspire to become, while understanding that the here and now is where it all happens.

2/ How does this differ from the highly successful ‘Back to the Future’ installation that you designed for Milan Design Week?

For ‘Back to the Future’ focused on terrazzo and tried to showcase Fantini Mosaici's 100-year experience in developing this technique and material, as shown in countless buildings in the city, working alongside architects like Giovanni Muzio... while with this art installation we wanted to focus on the second main craft that Fantini is a master of: mosaics.

3/ Why are you so fascinated with mirrors and the art of illusion?

We are interested in creating architecture that is experiential and where the 'consumer of spaces' – the visitor, the user – is the protagonist. The use of mirrors and their powerful potential in terms of spatial distortion, expasion and transformation brings the user, literally, to the forefront of the space, and projects him/her into infinity. It’s a physical and a metaphorical journey.

4/ In general, where do you get most of your design inspiration?

The natural world is definitely our biggest source of inspiration, but also societal matters of global interest and other industries where innovation is at the forefront. In the context of this Dubai Design Week, as architects and as art directors, we are interested in the possibility of using a commercial occasion, like a design fair, as an occasion to promote the maximum artistic capabilites that Fantini Mosaici has to offer, while raising awareness of contemporary matters like mental health and wellbeing and how we can contribute to its improvement. Art and creative expression are just two such ways. Our goal is to stimulate visitors’ immagination by showing the vastness of possibities that Fantini’s materials and techniques enable.

5/ What was your inspiration for this specific design?

Dubai, and its dream for a unified humanity. 'Carved in the Now' is a new kaleidoscopic room where the spiritual qualities of joy, abundance and creative transformation are projected to the infinite, thanks to the fascinating illusion of mirrors positioned both on the floor and ceiling. The powerful message is clear. It invites you to stay, slow down and discover, while replenishing your energy.

6/ Please can you describe the installation?

The symmetrical configuration of the tranquil entrance will usher visitors to an octagonal shaped pavilion that houses the magical ‘Carved in the Now’ design experience. The sensual leather curtains of the pavilion open to reveal an enchanting manmade cave of light, formed of irregular hand-cut yellow Siena stones, Murano glass, Citrine crystals and shards of gold leaf, all hand-crafted by Fantini Mosaici’s master mosaicists. Here, we wanted to focus on the narrative around hand-crafted mosaics, in a contemporary reinterpretation.

The space is like an infinite tower of precious materials that extends below and above us. To enhance the perspective, and to provide adequate visual comfort, we inserted a series of backlight strips in between the mosaic, redefining a traditional cave. The unusual part is the cut pattern and general distribution and mix of materials.

7/ What does its name represent?

‘Carved in the Now’ is an homage to materials, to craft and to the importance of being present and focused in the moment, especially in a world full of distractions.

8/ Dubai is synonymous with high buildings and its towering skyline; is that what inspired the tower element?

On one hand yes; it is an abstraction of the numerous Dubai skyscrapers in a way. However, we also used the mirrors to create the opposite of a tower, which is a cave. We thought it would be very interesting to create this ‘cave-tower’, representing not only our fascination with the ‘future’ of our cities but also our respect for the ‘past’, and the ancient technique of mosaics.

9/ What are the materials that you are using - How many pieces of mosaic are used in this installation?

We have used more than 3000 pieces, including organic shapes and a multitude of sizes, cuts and materials, incorporating both polished and rough finishes, each cut by hand, as well as various materials from limited resources like Italian stone, high-quality glass without air bubbles, shards of gold leaf upcycled from other construction sites, natural quartz and crystals – which has ancestral origins yet whose usage in modern mosaic is absolutely innovative.

10/ You are also designing the reception area for DD; can you describe the concept behind that?

Since it is the 10th Edition of Dubai Design Week, and the first time the organizers have asked someone to design the main entrance, we decided to transform it into an immersive experience where visitors have the chance to touch beauty, craftsmanship and art from the very first moment. The goal was not only to design a warm and welcoming space visually, but to also make the visitor feel comfortable. This is why we clad all the surfaces with acoustic foam panels, to enhance the sound quality of the space, since good design is not only about what you see but also how you feel.

11/ This is your second installation with Fantini Mosaici; what attracts you to their very specific hand-crafted materials and technologies?

We believe that Fantini brilliantly merges traditional craftsmanship and incredible generational know-how, with a contemporary mindset. Getting the right balance between technology and tradition is easier said than done, and we really believe their work does exactly that.

It is also an extremely versatile craft that is sustainable, because the works can last for centuries and are extremely durable, and because the technique can be used with many materials and applied to almost all surfaces.

12/ How long will it take for Fantini Mosaici’s artisans and master-craftspeople to make this intricate and intriguing design?

It will take the craftsmen about six weeks to create the design – but the actual process, which starts with creating some mosaic tests, started at the beginning of September.

13/ Mosaic is revered as a sustainable material that has been used for centuries as a building material. How important is sustainability to you when designing a new project and choosing materials?

Sustainability is not just a trendy topic anymore. It is a serious topic that should be tackled across every industry. We always look at it holistically, for instance starting from the material qualities in term of durability and maintenance, and this thinking means more than just using a sustainable material. It means thinking about a modular design that can be reused, partially or entirely, and thinking about transportation, labour and the entire supply chain.

14/ What other projects are you working on now?

We are happy to be working on the execution phase of the first flagship store of Fantini Mosaici in Milan, in Foro Bonaparte 68. We are also working on a few private commissions in the historical city centre of Lisbon – like the interior design of apartments and custom pieces, and the execution phase of a high-end new residential building, all while carrying on our teaching practice on Neuro-Architecture and the Psychology of Spaces.

15/ You are Italian; your partner Andre American-Lebanese; and you are based in Lisbon, Portugal. What drew you there? Having worked and lived in various parts of the world, how does your multicultural lifestyle impact and enhance your work as architects?

We set up our studio in Lisbon because it is where we met; it is where each of us developed an important part of our skills as professionals – I studied and worked with Aires Mateus, and Andre built his first few projects as a freelance architect; the city is vibrant, cosmopolitan and yet grounded in its rich history, especially when it comes to architecture and craftsmanship; Lisbon has for each of us become our home away from home.

We believe that an important part of our profession is travelling, observing and learning from other cultures, because it is useful for our international client base and it gives richness, meaning and depth to our designs. We believe that each project requires a unique approach, and the more multicultural we and our team are, the more success we will have at creating successful projects for our clients and for society as a whole.

16/ Why did you launch your own design studio and what are the core values of your practice?

We started AB+AC Architects during the pandemic as we felt the need to step into our own shoes as creative individuals and to fill a gap that we thought existed in the industry.

We are highly dedicated to bringing back the humanistic aspect of our profession: putting physical, social, mental and emotional user needs at the heart of our projects. What matters to us is being receptive and resilient enough to absorb the changes happening in the world and readdress them in a way that enables our designs to stimulate a healthier quality of life. For us, architecture should enhance our everyday experience, and not being a container for ‘our stuff’.

When new team members join, we encourage them to ‘think architecture’ before starting to sketch. Identifying problems while understanding the complexities of the brief is the first step in creating exciting spaces.

Second, we question if our design is adding value. Our studio is mainly based in Portugal, the country with the second highest number of vacant homes in Europe, most of which are in a state of ruin. Here, it is easy to fall into the temptation of demolishing and building contemporary facades. But we believe that part of promoting innovation is bridging the gap between existing historical fabric and new building concepts and technologies, like in the case of the Praca das Flores project.

Lastly, we value the pursuit of beauty. At the core of our work lies an extensive design exploration to achieve an aesthetic that is effortless, elegant and ultimately uplifting.

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