While many parents wield some measure of influence over the profession their kids choose, there aren’t many adults who can say they’ve followed in the footsteps of both mom and dad. But as an architect by training, like her father, whose bread and butter is artistic creation, as was that of her gallerist mother, Joana Astolfi has forged her own unique — and wildly successful — career path in space between what both parents did. Astolfi describes the two years she spent at Fabrica, Benetton’s think tank in Venice, with giving her the courage to shirk labels and pursue her own vision. Studio Astolfi, the company she founded in Lisbon five years ago, draws on its multidisciplinary team of 20 that includes architects, artists and artisans, to tackle creative projects of all sorts — from reimagining spaces to revamping interiors to creating installations and whimsical display windows. Clients include such heavy-hitters as Hermés, José Avillez, Claus Porto, and A Padaria Portuguesa.
The Athena Journal sat down with Astolfi at her office in Lisbon’s Braço de Prata neighborhood.
You do so many different kinds of projects, it can be hard for casual observers to wrap their heads around what, exactly, you do. In a nutshell, what is it that you do?
What really moves me are ideas, creativity. It could be for any kind of problem you need to solve creatively. I express myself through spaces and through objects — doing interiors and installations — but I could also come up with, say, the storyboard for a performance. Now a lot of companies are coming to us to help them with product launches. People have always been asking me, ‘what are you? Are you an artist? An architect?’ And I have always try to be like, ‘what does that matter? I’m creating my language, full stop.’ This creative language of mine is a fusion between architecture and art. I bring those two worlds together. I studied architecture [at the University of Wales] but even then I knew I wanted to do something more transversal, something that would look inside spaces to see the quality of spaces, the details, the finishings, the textures and the colors. I wanted to“dress” spaces, fill spaces. Mine was always a very hybrid way of looking at architecture, very influenced by all sorts of arts.
It must have been hard and risky to decide to take this path when you were a young person, just starting out…
Now, my work is well known enough that people get what I’m doing and seek me out because what I do is so different from what other people are doing. But when I was just starting out, it was very risky, absolutely. But I’m a total risk taker. I believe you have to go for it, or you don’t know what the results could be. But I did have very difficult times. When I came back to Portugal from Fabrica, I was living in this little house, with a bathroom in the kitchen, for like five or six years. It was difficult. But I refused several invitations to work at architecture studios, and sit there in front of the computer all day, because I knew that’s not whatI wanted. I wanted to go much further than that.
Do you think you can trace your unusual career path back to your somewhat unusual upbringing — the fact that your dad is Brazilian and your mom Portuguese and that you had a very international childhood, attending international schools and traveling lots?
One really important thing was that from a very young age, I exposed to all sorts of art. My parents and I would travel a lot, and they would take me to see tons of exhibitions — all sorts of things. My parents are a really incredible couple, and they still inspire me, each in their own way. My mother is more intellectual, cerebral, and my father is much more like me, intuitive, expressive, and hands-on. I kind of found myself halfway between those two worlds.
Earlier in your career, you became known as someone who used found or recycled objects in your work. You don’t do that so much anymore. Why?
I’ve always been a collector. I love to buy objects that speak to me; objects that have memory in them, stories in them. My art used to be all about transforming those objects. I was seeing an object that was obsolete, or broken, but it had density and a narrative. I would take objects that were in the bin sometimes and transform them into art. Even now, when I do art installations or shop windows, I still do sometimes use these old objects, though now it’s more of a mix: I create a tension between these old objects — I hate the world ‘old’ so instead let’s say these objects that have a patina of time — and contemporary materials. It’s this tension between new and old that interests me most.