Inside The Super-Minimalist Studio Of A New Italian Home Design Brand
It’s hard to find an upside to snapping your Achilles tendon during a tennis match on one of your first post-quarantine outings. Ditto to spending a scorching hot Italian summer with your leg in a cast. Yet for Mr Flavio Girolami, far from contributing to the annus horribilis that has been 2020, these things appear to have been a blessing in disguise.
“On the last serve, I heard a noise, then felt a pain,” he says, wincing, over Zoom. “But it was good for me,” he insists. Being laid up for the best part of three months meant he had no excuse but to concentrate on his lifestyle label SSAM, which stands for Small Artisanal Manufacturers (the extra “S” originally stood for “Save”, but has since been dropped). “Most of my producers are here, which really helped keep things on track.”
“Here” is his hometown of San Benedetto del Tronto in the Marche region on the east coast of Italy. “Here” is also where he recuperated after his arrival from London amid the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic to a place, he thought, would be the lesser of two evils. The producers he is referring to are a group of Italy’s finest artisans and craftspeople, many of them childhood friends, with whom he is collaborating on his first foray into furniture and homeware.
You may be familiar with Mr Girolami by way of Common Projects, the footwear brand he co-founded with Mr Prathan Poopat in 2004. Its minimalist Achilles sneaker re-set footwear trends in the direction of low-top, box-fresh designs and provided an elegant alternative to classic kicks, which exhilarated fans of no-fuss menswear across the globe. SSAM, which manifests this same minimalist aesthetic via chairs, tables and candles, is a different concept, however.
Designed as a platform to showcase and utilise Italy’s homegrown talent, which in the past couple of decades has been overlooked in favour of cheaper production methods, SSAM is a rally call. “The idea is to bring tradition into the contemporary world and make it look cool again,” says Mr Girolami.
The brand unofficially started about 10 years ago when Mr Girolami noticed a lot of his Italian friends in skilled artisan positions were losing their jobs. At the same time, contacts he had made in New York, London, Paris and Los Angeles were asking him if he could put them in touch with Italian artisans to have things made. He joined the dots.
“It was a tool to connect people, a hub,” he says. “The problem with fashion is that there are a lot of intermediaries who mark up so much that Italian fashion looks prohibitive to buy and the people who actually make the stuff don’t even make much money.”
The model flourished and ticked along as Mr Girolami pursued Common Projects and other marketing work, but, after buying a dream apartment in Notting Hill, London, six years ago, he realised he missed the “soul and passion” of his birthplace – the craftsmanship, the food, the nature, the way of life. “Being far from this world, you realise this is the dream for most people,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘Are you crazy to leave that?’”
He didn’t move back for good, but he realised the “huge potential” of what was on offer in Italy, and thought, “Maybe, I could be the guy to promote people and make some stuff?” Shortly afterwards, SSAM as we now know it became official.
Mr Girolami is both founder and designer and his collection of wares has evolved as organically as his brand. He believes that “opportunity has to create a product” and, true to his word, his first interiors objects came about because he needed things for his flat.
The IDP01 lounge chair and matching footstool were inspired by the fluoro-fabulous “plastic spaghetti chairs you find outside gelato places” in most Italian seaside resorts. Mr Girolami has translated them into luxurious works of art with the know-how of craftsman Mr Marco Ripa and artist Mr Roberto Cicchinè. They produced a limited edition run of 20 crafted from 150m of leather cord wrapped around a continuous steel structure.
His IDP02 floor lamp is a riff on the overhead weight machines in gyms, designed to take care of awkward dark corners. Also realised by Mr Cicchinè, it has a solid steel base that weighs 20kg.
Mr Girolami’s candles, meanwhile, are scented with notes of leather – a nod to his sneaker success – and encased in handmade ceramic jars (500 in all) that took the artist Ms Yvonne Rosetti, another childhood friend, three months to make by hand. They are topped off by leather dust caps that the designer had made by a local dress shoes artisan.
The clothing is just as laden with provenance. Sweatshirts and hoodies crafted in cotton and silk have been made on repurposed machinery from the 1970s. Mr Girolami and his teams have restored them to make “something totally new and special”. The camel hoodie he has styled with a black scarf on our call looks suitably cosy for a winter of lockdown.
Coming up with ideas, he says, is a result of instinct. “I might not do much for hours, then I have a vision at night,” he says. “I text myself and in the morning I give birth to the thing.” It also requires patience. “I’m very patient,” he says. “But I can be the opposite if I get too excited. I get impatient, but I always calm down.”
Mr Girolami’s penchant for original handmade items stems from a typical 1970s Italian childhood. He was raised in a home in which his mother “made everything, from meals to clothes”. His grandparents grew their own food on their farm and when he needed shoes, they were handmade at the local cobbler, even though, he confesses, all he really wanted at the time “was a pair of Nikes”.
He recalls wanting to make a jacket aged 12, so drew it on a piece of paper and gave it to his mother to make. Unfortunately, he left the jacket in the changing room the second time he wore it and it was stolen. “I think I cried a lot,” he says.
Such experiences inform his inspirations and aesthetics now. He cites Bauhaus as an early inspiration, but it’s “everyday objects and everyday things” that catch his eye now.
“Yesterday, I was driving to the studio and there was this old man on his bicycle and he was wearing this old sweater inside these big huge pants. That was major,” he says, joking that he nearly had a car crash trying to take a picture of him. “When you see people who look really original, that’s inspiring.”
As well as continuing to extol the virtues of made in Italy, Mr Girolami is making inroads to bring SSAM to the US by exporting one of the old looms to LA. The Italians he works with in the Marche will then travel to teach new artisans how to make fabrics using recycled materials.
“I would love SSAM to become a movement,” he says. “I don’t want to be pretentious, but I think it could make a better world.”