Giovanni Barbieri brings the sensitivity of the stonemason’s eye and hand to tile-making, resulting in products that are quite unlike anything else on the market. From deeply carved reliefs to subtle plays on surface texture, his work blurs the boundaries between art, design, stonemasonry and sculpture.
Barbieri had an early start in the stone making industry, and by 1984, at 18 years old, he had purchased half of a company partly owned by his brother, establishing F.LLI Barbieri (a company that’s still running). He learned interior design via evening classes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, opening his eyes to new possibilities: as he puts it, he became “totally fed up with the meaningless products of that period” and opened his own design studio in 1998 to innovate, experiment and discover something new. He’s currently based in Longa, north of Vicenza in the Veneto region, close to his family’s factory but also in close proximity to nearby ceramic and wood-inlay artisans that also produce his work.
Early on, Barbieri became known for creating patented ‘timeworn’ finishes on new tiles – imagine how a mosaic floor in a centuries-old cathedral might be selectively rubbed away by thousands of footsteps over time – and this is also a preoccupation in his contemporary products. The Squar collection, for example, features five different tiles that go from dead flat to three-dimensional, with a loosely geometric pattern that feels distinctively hand-made. The designer says that this is his favourite collection of all, because it “allows you to create real art performances, and create any interpretation in reference to the place and its intended use. It is an investment, as it is so complicated and refined to make that all the panels are exclusively designed and made by me in person. I don't think there is anyone else able to produce an alternative to this collection and make panels like mine.”
A drive towards experimentation is what creates such startling products. For example, Murano is a collection that combines relief stone work with inlaid Murano glass applied on the raised pattern, with an option to back-light the tiled panels so that the glass elements glow invitingly. In 2013 he developed the hexagonal Exciton/Hive, which is made from recycled marble dust, preempting the current vogue for reusing waste materials. Barbieri recently launched a wooden parquet floor with Italian brand Flooma, in a tessellating waterlily pattern that creates a wonderful sense of movement from flat timber.
When developing products, the designer says that he usually starts with a new material or technique, and works backwards from there.
“I think about it very deeply – and when my mind becomes clouded, I leave it aside and I look at it again after a while, with new ways of seeing, until I get something that makes me totally satisfied.”
The creativity must go hand-in-hand with the practicalities of the production method, so there is more refining and experimenting to do there. Sometimes it can take years to develop a product, says Barbieri, but sometimes things come together more quickly, as was the case for his tiles made from recycled marble dust: the design was there, but it would have been too expensive to make them in solid stone, so when a way to cast them came along – and in a satisfyingly sustainable way, using waste products – the planets aligned.
Barbieri is incredibly single-minded about his work when the need takes him, to the exception of almost everything else. “I must say, I live for it,” he says about this phase of translating concept into reality.
“When I discover an opportunity to develop something very beautiful and new, I dedicate myself totally until I see the first real results– weekends, included and endless hours a day. When you do a job you like, time passes by without you realising it and you end up having dinner at midnight or working whole Saturdays and Sundays forgetting about normal life…which can only happen if you have an extremely understanding family.”
He has favourite stones to work with, including Calacatta and Statuario marbles from Carrara, which have been prized since antiquity, as well as Bianco Antico from the Venetian quarries, which he loves “not only for their extraordinary colours and veining but also for their workability and versatility.” However, it’s about much more than the stone itself: “Every project has its own best fit. The marble is as important as its workmanship and thoughtful use: a few square metres used in a well-combined design and spectacular workmanship are worth much more than a lot of square metres laid as a tile.” He also believes that, as a finite resource, these materials are underrated: “We don't give the right value to a natural material like marble or stone, which is unrepeatable and we don't knowhow long it will be available.”
Barbieri’s passion for his raw materials, as well as the processes themselves, shines through and always translates into the final work. That decision many years ago to pull away from his family business to follow a more creative path must have seemed brave at the time – but thank goodness he made that leap, otherwise we might not have the opportunity to enjoy such highly imaginative work, now and in the future.
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