I’m meeting Enrico Fratesi, one half of design duo of the moment GamFratesi, creators of pared-back luxe furniture. We are in possibly the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen in London: the slightly crumbly but hopelessly romantic secret Old Sessions House on Clerkenwell Green, where GamFratesi’s collaboration with Danish design house Gubi is on show during Clerkenwell Design Week. The only quiet space to talk is a dark store room stacked with boxes of champagne for a party later that day.
Fratesi doesn’t seem phased. All the interviews I’ve read with the Italian and his Danish partner (both professional and personal) Stine Gam are serious and earnest, while in pictures they have a hipster-ish aloofness and an academic air. Happily, in person, Fratesi is much more open and relaxed than his appearance would suggest (he is a formal dresser, favouring button-up shirts and jackets). A smile breaks from underneath his heavy retro fringe and glasses, and, despite having just flown in from Copenhagen, he is perky and ready to talk. But then, he tells me, he likes interviews. His wife has pulled out of our meeting last-minute due to feeling unwell. “Don’t worry,” jokes Fratesi, “because I talk enough for both of us, and in any case, I know her fairly well by now.”
His English is good – even at the breakneck speed at which words tumble from his mouth. But he should be used to working in different languages. Since meeting, falling in love and setting up studio with Gam in 2006, the designer, originally from Pesaro, has lived and worked in Copenhagen. From there, GamFratesi has forged solid relationships with producers in Scandinavia (such as Swedese, based in Stockholm) and France, including Ligne Roset, which produces GamFratesi’s headline-grabbing 2009 Rewrite desk (£1,733), with its quirky but cool oversized cocooning soft screen.
It was with this design that their reputation spread across Europe and beyond. Now they are the leading lights of Danish furniture brand Gubi’s contemporary offering, from which their sleek Masculo chair (from £559), with its upholstered back and arms and slinky, metal-sled base, is a bestseller. They have also caught the eye of Italian super-creative director Piero Lissoni, through whom they have forged a relationship with Italian design house Porro – this year producing a double-ended upholstered leather daybed called Traveller (£5,600), inspired by globetrotting and the intimacy of their own relationship.
Other projects include Balance, a new hanging screen system (£1,320), the couple’s first design for the Italian furniture firm Cappellini, while at this year’s Milan furniture fair they curated one of the most talked-about shows of the week, MindCraft – a presentation of innovative work by young and established designers staged in reflective dome cages in a Milanese courtyard. Lissoni calls them “very talented designers doing interesting projects” – high praise from the king of understatement.
Jacob Gubi, chief creative officer of Gubi, meanwhile, is more than happy to identify Fratesi as one of his own, agreeing with Fratesi’s assessment that “the Danish are so open-minded, they don’t care where I’m from. I’ve joined the family.”
The pair’s intriguing Scandi/Italian tale has added significantly to the mystique and originality of GamFratesi as a design force. These are two countries with a history of designing beautiful interiors – but in incredibly different, even opposing ways. Fratesi says that, on the one hand, they feel pan-European in outlook. On the other, he admits, their different cultures are a constant source of both conflict and inspiration. For Italians, he explains, communication is everything. And being able to communicate “a strong emotion” in any one project is essential. “If we [Italians] can’t communicate, we are nothing.” The Scandinavian way of working, meanwhile, is about handcraft and heritage and “using natural materials, a simplicity of line and being honest in the way you work with the materials. The materials come first and then hopefully you turn them into a solution.”
Stine Gam later admits that the duo tend to fall into the stereotypes of considered and balanced northerner, and garrulous and expressive southerner: “Enrico is very good at creating concepts; he is very talkative and energetic while I’m more introverted and thoughtful. I’m careful in the selection and solutions, and Enrico is quicker and more technical.”
There may be battles aplenty because of their differences (“Let’s say we have a continuous, smooth kind of conflict,” says Gam. “One pulls and the other pushes, which can be very frustrating sometimes.”) But in the end, she says, “differences make the result.”
“Enrico and Stine leave spaces open for each other,” says Gubi. “They are very generous with each other.” And their final designs – whether it’s the new leather-lined brass circular trays-within-a-tray for heritage Swedish brass and silver brand Skultuna (from €96), or the art deco-inspired TS marble coffee table series for Gubi (from £349) – appear harmonious; minimal of line, yes, but there’s a warmth and plenty of humanity – and some subtle humour too.
Theirs is the Scandinavian way of working, but with Italian personality and panache: “The right mix of Italian creativity and Nordic rigour,” says Giulio Cappellini. Such chemistry is much in evidence in new designs, including pieces for Wiener GTV Design. The couple were invited to reinterpret the traditional bentwood material used by Michael Thonet in the 1850s in the form of a chair (from €635) and the pretty, delicate Targa seating (sofa, from €4,428; lounge chair, from €2,988), which brings the traditional structure (which wouldn’t look out of place at a Viennese ball) to the outside of the furniture, rather than hiding it, so “it’s clear how it is put together”, says Fratesi. The designs are elegant and contemporary, as in the Allegory desk (from €2,180) with its circular mesh-weave backing inspired by a very 21st-century “mood board” idea. “There are sweet references to the past and the tradition comes through, but you can see this is a new piece.”
Indeed, Gam and Fratesi’s approach is openly one of homage. That first Gubi chair, the Masculo, is their reinterpretation of Hans Wegner’s wonderfully balanced, wooden‑framed chairs, including the iconic woven-seated Wishbone chair, a Danish design classic. “It’s absolutely a tribute, from the shape of the back rest to the way his chairs hold your arms so well,” says Fratesi. “References are important to us, but we take them and we move them on, and we make them clearly contemporary.”
Their curvaceous drinks-trolley table for Casamania, Chariot (£1,689), borrows significantly from the late Finnish designer Alvar Aalto’s drinks-trolley design, playing with his purity of line and the circle leitmotif that permeated his work (and that the couple are consistently drawn to). But they manage to come up with something genuinely new, says Skultuna’s creative director, Viktor Blomqvist. “They bring a range of disciplines into their designs: harmony, balance, line, concept, heritage, to name a few. The end result feels so very fresh, but ageless.”
One of GamFratesi’s latest works – released by Cappellini at the Milan furniture fair this year – is the hanging divider screen Balance. It references the mobile work of sculptor Alexander Calder, and also the traditional Danish hanging mobiles by Christian Flensted, its large textile “leaves” attached by slender arms to a hanging wire system. There is a practical as well as an art element to the design – there’s a degree of sound-proofing offered via the suspended acoustic-absorbing textile panels. But the design also epitomises the ultimate quality the duo are looking for in their work, both literally and figuratively: equilibrium. “We are interested in exploring the ideas of balance in life, in work and also in design,” says Fratesi. In that respect, this was no small challenge.
Early on, it became apparent that the larger they made the components, the more difficult it was to balance the modular design without it tipping over. Much tinkering finally led to a design that impressed Cappellini enough to produce it. “Their projects are always very balanced, never excessive,” says Giulio Cappellini. “They make everyday objects look poetic.”
Equally consuming, though not fully resolved, is that elusive life/work balance. Fratesi makes it clear that they have no intention of growing their small studio and enjoy being able to take on a wide variety of projects – from exhibitions like Milan’s MindCraft to the interior design of a commercial HQ and restaurant in Copenhagen. “I’ve always been envious of the way writers or musicians can move people, even make them cry, with their work. But furniture design is not quite the same, so something like the MindCraft exhibition, which lets you transmit emotion to people, is really satisfying,” he says. And a bigger workload might take away from the enjoyment they get from their work – not to mention their partnership both in and out of the studio. “I’m not saying we’ve arrived at a perfect balance when it comes to ourselves. But we’re always going to be looking for it.”