Last December, on the opening night of the increasingly influential Design Miami fair, fashion scion Silvia Venturini Fendi was holding court in a room that seemed to inhabit another dimension. Set off by charcoal walls and bare fluorescent fixtures, a grouping of matte crystalline creations in black or white—an end table, a stool, a towering sculpture—appeared to sprout from the floor. With the help of iPads, visitors were designing their own multifaceted objects, which were constructed on the spot out of a few thousand geometric modules. As the odd-shaped blocks were called into action, five giant letters were revealed on the wall behind them: FENDI. Blending in with the international art and design crowd in a simple black cotton dress, black platform shoes, and a black cashmere sweater draped over her shoulders, Venturini Fendi surveyed the scene, smiling with pride. “Fantastico!” she exclaimed.
Despite having her family name splashed on the wall, Venturini Fendi was not the creator of Modern Primitives, as the installation was called: It was the work of New York architects Benjamin Aranda and Chris Lasch. But her role was instrumental nonetheless. It was the latest in a slew of design projects sponsored by the blonde 50-year-old Italian and the fashion house founded by her grandparents.
In the past three years, Venturini Fendi has collaborated with some two dozen designers, mounting an interactive op art installation from the Berlin-based studio Beta Tank at last year’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan, and partnering with the Gallery Fumi during the 2010 London Design Festival to present “In Every Dream Home,” a show of new work by six designers. In April, as part of Milan Design Week, that city’s Fendi boutique hosted a performance called “Fatto a Mano for the Future,” during which designer Rowan Mersh joined artist Nicola Guerraz and a Fendi artisan to construct pieces out of scraps left over from Fendi’s manufacturing process.
The design community has been impressed with Fendi’s choice of collaborators. “Their work is fundamentally important for architecture today,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, of Aranda and Lasch. “Many people talk about design that is generated by mathematical patterns and many universities are embracing it. Aranda\Lasch was among the first to formalize it.”
The fashion industry and the art world have long circled each other. From Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian dresses to Marc Jacobs’s collaborations with Takashi Murakami to Bernard Arnault’s and François Pinault’s dueling personal museums, fashion looks to art for cultural credibility, while artists and dealers hope for a little reflected glamour. But Fendi’s choice of furniture and objets over painting and sculpture makes the house an anomaly. Dealer Paul Johnson, whose New York gallery represents Aranda\Lasch, has a wry take on why Venturini Fendi is scouting his talent pool rather than, say, Larry Gagosian’s. “Look at the size of Design Miami and then look at the size of Art Basel,” Johnson said. “I think Fendi is smart to see that they can come over to the design side and be the big player. They can be with the hottest young designers in the world because no one else is after them.” Venturini Fendi has a less cynical explanation. “I don’t like big companies that sponsor things that are not related to them,” she explained. “It’s very fake. There are more real connections between design and fashion than there are between art and fashion.”