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The Italian ideas factory: Fabrica through the eyes of its alumni

Since its inception 22 years ago, Fabrica has proved it’s the type of place that can take ordinary ideas and turn them into something unique and valuable. Summed up as a “communication research centre,” the phrase only taps at the surface of what the institution actually does.

Fabrica was the vision of Luciano Benetton in 1994, the Italian billionaire businessman who is one of the co-founders of his eponymous fashion brand. The first directors were photographer Oliviero Toscani and director Godfrey Reggio, the idea behind Fabrica has remained the same since opening: to create ideas that are “a vehicle of social change.” A place where design isn’t just aesthetically pleasing but functional, and can be a solution for real world problems.

Offering the opportunity to explore design, visual communication, photography, journalism, product design and much more, the type of projects students can expect to work on are diverse. The centre offers people under 25 from around the world a one-year scholarship, accommodation and a round-trip ticket to Italy to “enable a highly diverse group of researchers.” Year on year it produces an elite class of graduates arming each Fabricanti (what Fabrica calls its alumni) with a Communication and Applied Arts Foundation and a whole load of experience and creative and business opportunities to boot.

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Alessandro Furchino Capria: Fabrica

Notable Fabricanti and collaborators include artist Jaime Hayon, designer Dean Brown, and furniture maker Martino Gamper, as well as a new roster of talent including designers Anna Kulachek and Broomberg & Chanarin. In June later this year, the first Fabrica reunion of its alumni since 1994 will take place and despite the high profile work it churns out, it’s still shrouded in mystery. So what separates it from the rest? Is it the students, the environment or just the continued expectation of greatness that is bestowed upon it?

For CEO Carlo Tunioli, it’s the culture at Fabrica that sets it apart from other research centres. “What makes Fabrica really special is the interaction among young creative people speaking different languages and coming from completely different cultural backgrounds,” he explains. “Our researchers become ‘lateral thinkers’ and find fertile ground for the development of strong ideas – it provides exposure and real-world experience while still being conceptual and experimental.”

Housed in a renovated 17th Century villa in the Italian countryside in Treviso, the Fabrica building epitomises the centre’s approach to problem solving. In the 90s, the dilapidated villa was transformed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando to create a space for creativity and curiosity. By using traditional techniques and materials from the original structure it’s now a seamless blend of the old with the new and an embodiment of the Fabrica ethos.

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Alessandro Furchino Capria: Fabrica

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At the heart of it is Fabrica’s vast library – a hive of information students gravitate towards when they first arrive. With over 5,000 books on graphic design, photography, industrial design, art and other topics relating to visual communication, the centre’s library is constructed around a concrete spiral illuminated by natural sunlight above. It’s a place many Fabricanti cite as one of their favourite places on the campus including Tunioli for its “moments of creative mindfulness.”

Designer Anna Kulachek also remembers the cosmic powers of the building. “It reminded me of a whole galaxy with its magic quietness and number of amazing books,” she says. Anna was at Fabrica from 2012 until 2014 and her main project there was the Fabrica Handbook which she created with Samantha Ziino, to help new students adjust to Fabrica life. “Our main goal was to create a manual for newcomers with all the helpful information about the campus. We had to create the content and understand how exactly we were going to tell the story,” explains Anna. “Now every time I hold the book I relive all the experiences once again.”

From printer etiquette to a snapshot of the food you can except from the campus cafeteria Mensa, the book covers all bases. But it’s the less tangible things that will also stay with Anna: “Fabrica is a completely unique phenomenon. It doesn’t have a scheme for teaching everyone the same thing… Now it’s always there for me no matter where I go,” she says. “After my time there I feel more connected to this world, it united me with more people and now the world isn’t so disjointed for me anymore.”

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Alessandro Furchino Capria: Fabrica

For photographer Jen Osborne, who’s known for her refreshingly honest style, finding a common ground with the people she was working with was key in her Fabrica experience. She stayed for just over a year back in 2008 and at the time it seemed like “the ultimate thing for a young photographer to do.”

While Fabrica can be a rose-tinted experience for many, for Jen her time there was rocky – “I basically pulled my hair out trying to get projects approved!” – but to escape the pressures, Jen frequented the town of nearby Treviso. “There was a gelato shop in the centre. I would buy pretty much any flavour of the highest quality gelato for only 80 cents.” The real learning curve for Jen was getting over her fear of continually trying to “produce groundbreaking work” and she realised her colleagues were feeling exactly the same as her. “I was happy to learn we all have our highs and lows and it was important to discover that in a place like Fabrica that bestowed such high expectations on me.”

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Alessandro Furchino Capria: Fabrica

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Alessandro Furchino Capria: Fabrica

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Eating gelato and spending time away from the studio is part of the rich tapestry of Fabrica life. Mensa is the campus’ cafeteria situated a short walk, drive or bike away closer to Benetton’s headquarters. For illustrator, graphic artist and It’s Nice That favourite Andy Rementer it was a space that became another part of his education. “Mensa was truly the forum for open discussions and lively conversations, I looked forward to that time of the day for socialising, team building and of course the pasta,” says Andy.

Known for his brightly coloured and surreal illustrations, Andy attended Fabrica for two years in 2005 and having ten years to reflect, he feels “the concept and principles remain.” Andy threw himself into the Visual Communications department, “the face of Fabrica” at the time. “I would often resort to drawing when pitching ideas and the team responded to my style which encouraged me to pursue it more.”

The real pull for him was living in another country – “I’d never lived abroad, so it was quite a thrilling opportunity” – and as well as immersing himself into his work, Andy explored the campus with vigour. “There are so many beautiful and peaceful moments throughout the building – spending two years working in a Tadao Ando structure was incredible,” he says. “For quiet time, I’d go to the centre of the building. There’s a wide open piazza-like space surrounded by looming grey columns – it was a special place to go and collect your thoughts with an afternoon espresso from the machines.”

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Alessandro Furchino Capria: Fabrica

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Alessandro Furchino Capria: Fabrica

The grey columns Andy refers to, mark the path for a courtyard that sits in between the auditorium’s curved wall and the outer facades of the other buildings. It’s a striking feature of the Fabrica building but there are these hidden spectacles throughout the campus. Designer Dean Brown discovered this for himself when he attended Fabrica for a year in 2010. “There is this vast undiscovered concrete staircase underneath the library that leads you to a locked door,” explains Dean who up until recently was senior consultant at Fabrica working on retail interiors for Benetton among other things. “The space is extremely dark, pierced by two pyramid-shaped glass skylights that bring column like beams of light into the space. It’s probably the most secret place in the building.”

“Fabrica puts trust in young and inexperienced creatives. There are few places like this in the world and this is an issue that’s as relevant as ever.”

Dean Brown

Dean feels it “sums up how eccentric, unique and indulgent Fabrica is,” which only adds to the allure of this elusive institution. During his time there the designer created the centre’s first furniture collection that launched at the Milan Furniture Fair and it became clear that it was up to him to make the opportunities happen. Treviso is full of artisanal production and Dean took full advantage of that: “It was incredibly fulfilling to have ceramic, glass making, metal folding, wood turning and stone cutting on your doorstep,” he says. “A moment sharing a sketch with a craftsman can change everything.” Looking back on his time at Fabrica Dean says: “It’s very much an experience you shape as an individual so you must make the most of it… Fabrica puts trust in young and inexperienced creatives, offering them the time and support to find their own way. There are few places like this in the world and this is an issue that’s as relevant as ever.”

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Alessandro Furchino Capria: Fabrica

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Of course Fabrica isn’t the only institution with a hub of creativity bubbling away, offering young people an alternative educational experience. Both ECAL in Lausanne, Switzerland and global business school INSEAD offers its students solutions to contemporary issues and tries to remain forward-looking. But with Fabrica, this thinking is left to its students – there’s no curriculum, just guidance. It’s a place to hone independent working but utilise Fabrica’s connections and consider the impact of their work in the wider world.

This notion is almost Bauhaus-like, where a key attribute of the movement is an understanding of the relationship between art and design with society and technology. But while Bauhaus dismissed traditional fine art education, a year at Fabrica is in addition to your previous training or education. The ethos of Fabrica has always remained with the students, and while the building, professors and facilities contribute towards making the institution great, ultimately it’s the people who pass the rigorous selection process that make it what it is. When we’re in a climate that recognises the importance of design, but still hasn’t quite worked out how to integrate it into the wider world, places like Fabrica are vital.

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Alessandro Furchino Capria: Fabrica

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Alessandro Furchino Capria: Fabrica

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Alessandro Furchino Capria: Fabrica

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Alessandro Furchino Capria: Fabrica