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She has an undergraduate degree from the University of Civil Engineering in Bologna, Italy; an M.Arch. from UCLA; and she teaches at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles — but don’t try to pigeonhole Elena Manferdini. With her firm, Atelier Manferdini, which has a team of four working at its Los Angeles base and two people in Bologna, Manferdini switches hats easily from engineer to architect, product designer, fashion designer, and artist. “Perhaps it’s less common here to branch into many different fields,” she says, “but in Italy it’s more understood that a creative person can be creative in more than one discipline.” For Manferdini, those diverse disciplines aren’t just hobbies. Her firm has working collaborations with a slew of companies from a variety of industries, including MTV, Fiat, Nike, Alessi, Guzzini, Ottaviani, Moroso, Valentino, and Rosenthal. Manferdini gives some credit for her versatility to her European upbringing, but mostly, she says, “it’s digital tools. With them we can break boundaries. They’ve changed the way we produce, they’ve changed the way we craft, and given us less of a division between all areas of design.”
From a dress to a table to a building, it’s all about a shift in scale for Manferdini’s design process. She freely admits that her work is recognizable in all its forms, because she designs “from a unit to a component. The small scale informs the larger.” The smaller the scale, the fewer constraints. Her laser-cut clothing line, called “Cherry Blossom,” designed as part of the West Coast Pavilion representing the U.S. at the 2006 Architecture Biennale in Beijing, informed the design of the pavilion itself, which Manferdini was invited to design as curator of the West Coast USA session of the Emerging Talents, Emerging Technologies exhibition. The pavilion, a sandwich of undulating plastic layers that flowed through and around its volume, followed many of the fabrication techniques used for the laser-cut clothing. “For me, the small-scale projects are really case studies and incubators of ideas,” says Manferdini. “They’re relatively free of constraints. One object is an instance that can lead to something larger, with a longer life. It’s a circular process, and in a way the continuity makes it all feel like the same project.”The continuity in Manferdini’s body of work carries certain themes — lace and cutouts appear again and again, from her clothes to her Ricami stool and dining table (ricami is the Italian word for embroidery) to her installation at SCI-Arc in 2008 called Merletti (from the Italian word for lace) to her design for a residential tower in Guiyang, China, which features an intricate draped skin akin to Guiyang women’s traditional filigree headdresses. Manferdini is one of 11 architects chosen to provide a single part of Guiyang’s master plan, and her proposal is a response to the site’s landscape and cultures. “For me, the relationship with the client is a huge creative component,” she says. “For a project like this, you really have to be inventive.” Not only for this project; inventive thinking is second nature to Manferdini. “My teaching, my work, my life in Los Angeles, it’s all very motivating,” she says. “You have to open your mind to the possibilities.”
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