Silvia Quintanilla and Francesco Rugi are an art/design duo that works under the name Carnovsky and have gained great recognition for their RGB project, presented for the first time in 2010.
Silvia was born in Bogotá, Colombia in 1979, where she studied as industrial designer. Francesco was born in Tuscany, Italy, lived in Verona, and studied art history in Bologna. They met at Domus Academy in Milan in 2004, where they were working on master’s degrees in design. After graduating, they decided to stay in Milan and work together, and they started Carnovsky in 2007. The differences between their educational and cultural backgrounds are a great influence on their work, which follows the idea of a “fusion of horizons” where what emerges is no longer identifiable as a simple sum of two individualities, but is something different and original. It is a strange alchemy, and in this they feel really lucky.
One of their main characteristics as a team is that for them, it is really important to work at the threshold between art and design. Let’s say that they have an artistic approach towards design, and a design approach towards art. So as they work from a basis of straddling the visual arts and design, they always try to have a side vision of things, an approach that is not restricted to their disciplinary fields, because this often generates standard, sterile works or objects. They rather try to look at other worlds and other ways, maybe to create unexpected links, to try to do things in a somehow different way, such as “painting” frescos through wallpaper or making architecture through purses.
When they started Carnovsky, they didn’t have a clear idea of what they would focus on, or where to start, so they had some time to experiment with things that they really care about (which was a great fortune), such as printing techniques, light, and the relationship between them. That is how their RGB project was born.
RGB is a project about the surface, about the skin of things, where the surface mutates and interacts with different chromatic stimulus. RGB images seen under natural light are like unexpected and disorienting worlds where the colors mix up and the lines and shapes entwine, becoming dream-like and not completely clear. Through a colored filter (a light or a transparent material), it is possible to discover the layers in which the image is composed, so the image is constantly changing. So far with RGB, they have created wallpapers, limited edition prints, a deck of cards, and a collection of scarves that they sell worldwide. They are also finishing their first approach to furniture.
Their work is widely recognized. It has been published in many magazines around the world, such as Frame, Wallpaper, Elle Décor, Whitewall, Vogue, and Wired, among others, as well as in lots of blogs. Their wallpaper “Jungla,” presented in London at “DreamBags JaguarShoes” in 2011, won the 2012 Wallpaper Magazine Design Award for Best Wallpaper.
What are you working on right now?
For the moment, we are focusing on RGB. For us, this is a really wide project that goes beyond wallpaper and prints. It is a work about the skin of things, so we are exploring it both in terms of applications and in terms of new subjects, making experiments with new materials, techniques, and uses. We started with the wallpaper presenting RGB and then “RGB: the black series”; now we are exploring new reproduction techniques on walls. We also do bespoke projects for architecture and design studios and art collectors.
Also, we have done some limited edition prints, the deck of cards, the scarves, and we are selling them in some galleries in London, Belgium, Germany, and Australia. We also sell directly worldwide. We are almost finished with our first approach to furniture with RGB, which we may launch soon. In this moment, we are also exploring new markets and commercial possibilities. We are working on a collection of Bone China tableware. We also work with some companies for specific products, like Gelaskins, which creates skins and cases for electronic devices (we are working in a new collection), and recently we have launched a collection of wall stickers for Blik
However, it takes time to do new things. Making a new design is long because there is not just one image, but three that have to be strong both by themselves and together with the other two, and new reproduction proofs and processes also take a long time. There are still so many things that we have on our schedule, and hopefully we may do them all.
Where did the idea for RGB come from?
Printing techniques and light have always been two subjects that we really care about, so it all began doing some experiments with them. We have seen how an image changes if printed in red and green and then looked at through a red filter. It is an ancient “trick” that has been used many times, but we asked ourselves what could happen with other colors, how do they work? So we began experimenting, and it was really exciting and challenging. That was for the technical part, because the big issue then was to develop a language—or better, a visual universe—that could be really fascinating also without the “trick.” The issue was working with filters, trying to hold all the “magic” but being sure that the project has a visual interest. We were looking for something “great.”
Basically, the idea of RGB is that there are many different levels of meanings in things. What you see for the first time may hide other meanings, other worlds, and what is supposed to be flat maybe is not. This is what we call the “surface deepness”—the idea of “change,” the idea of the mutation of things rather than stability, the indefiniteness rather than certainty. With RGB, we try do something ephemeral which continuously mutates.
The images change with three filter colors (red, green, and blue) that are not supposed to work in the same way, and we use this difference to enhance the narrative side of the images.
What does your typical day look like?
We wake up at 8:00, have some breakfast, and go to the studio. There it all depends on the project we are working on, but we usually answer email, prepare materials for printing. Since the wallpapers we sell are custom-made, the client sends us the size and we send back a proposal. If it is approved, we prepare the images for the printing, work on new images, do research. We do lots of proofs in different materials and reproduction techniques, we have some lunch and then continue working until 7:00. Then we buy something to cook for dinner and have dinner around 9:00, then we start a movie (this is something that we love and do almost every night on a projector) or read a book, which we also love, and then fall sleep. We are married and work together, so much of the time our day is the same for both of us. Or sometimes if we are working on something outside the office, such as the furniture and lithographic prints in Verona or a site-specific installation in London, one of us travels and the other stays in the office. But if we have a first meeting with a new client, gallery or space that we are thinking of working with or an opening, we travel together.
How do you bring ideas to life?
About ideas: at least in our field, we have learned some things. First is that an idea is nothing if you don’t do it, if you don’t start working on it and shaping it—that you have to start immediately, and that an idea changes a lot from the moment you have it to the moment you do it, so you have to be flexible. We are working as two, so we have to be more flexible, because sometimes we don’t have the same idea about an idea.
Talking about the creation of a new image: usually we start discussing the subject. We got used to talking in the terms of three levels—what are we going to do on each one of the three or what we want to appear with each light or filter in a sort of narrative way. Then we start working on one of the three levels at a time. We don’t do that much sketching in terms of drawing, but we do lots of proofs. It is kind of difficult because there is not just one image, but three, and they have to look great by themselves, but also with the other two levels. So we work on one as an outline, then we start the other overlapping the previous one, then the third, and then come back to the first and so on. For us, it is really important that the effect of the image under white light, the chromatic balance and the visual impact as we are overlapping different things doesn’t look like a mess. Sometimes we have three really interesting levels that work perfectly with the three lights, but when mixing, they just don’t work, so we have a lot of unused material.
We also always test different lights, transparent materials, and printing methods depending on the project. The most difficult thing is the printing, because this project depends a lot on the purity of colors. We have to arrive to the nearest to RGB colors with printing, most of the times in CMYK, and this is not that easy. Also because we both are really perfectionists. So every time we start a new project, printing on a new material or with a new printer, we do make a lot of proofs and adjustments to find the right gamma of colors. Not to speak about the hand-made dyeing processes when working on textiles and threads. It’s a kind of compromise between what in theory works perfectly and what you get in reality, and sometimes it is a really long process. But in the end, when we have it in our hands or see it installed, it is really satisfying.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
“Trend” is a word that we really don’t use that much, even though we have been published in important trend blogs and books. So maybe the ideas of movement, color, change, the indefiniteness, the ephemeral are “trends,” and we like them.
Once we read a book by Italo Calvino, Lezioni Americane, a series of lectures that he was preparing to do at Harvard about the literary values that he wished to guide the future generations of writers, but he died before doing it. Fortunately, he completed five of the six lectures, each one about one value—“Lightness,” “Quickness,” “Exactitude,” “Visibility,” and “Multiplicity”—and each one developed in a marvelous way, illustrating his thoughts with fragments of wonderful books. He also praises their opposites; in “Lightness,” he quotes Paul Valéry on being “light like a bird and not like a feather.” It gives the exact image of what he meant with being “light”—really far from being weightless, for us more like having a weight, both physical and intangible. He also states that an “apologia for quickness does not presume to deny the pleasures of lingering”—we are not quick at all, but work on things that have a specific time, a cycle. These are not trends, we know, but are values that we try to follow in our work or way of doing things. We are not writers, but if we could make people feel with our work the things that we feel when reading a good book, we are really happy, and that is also important for us.
Also access to quality information through the Internet. For example, libraries around the world are digitalizing antique or rare books that a few years ago it was impossible to even think that you could take a glimpse at them, and we really appreciate this, because the quality is really good nowadays.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
We started five years ago; the idea of starting again and changing some things hasn’t cross our minds yet. Obviously there were frustrating and difficult moments, but looking back they helped us a lot in shaping what we are doing right now, and we are really happy. Surely there will be more, but it’s part of the satisfaction of creating something on our own… So maybe nothing
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
To work a lot on a project before launching it, to make it grow from a solid base, to do a lot of research, to see it from all the possible angles, to be flexible and change what has to be changed, to start again if you have to do so—but once you have it and you believe in it, don’t fear taking risks!
What is one problem you encountered as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
When we started Carnovsky, we really didn’t know what we where going to focus on. On one hand, as we said before, it gave us the time to explore and experiment with things we like, and this was really good for us, because now we really love what we are doing. (In this we were lucky, because nowadays it is a rare occasion to have time to explore and experiment.) But on the other hand, experimenting and exploring with things you like doesn’t bring much money (most of the time, and in this case), so we had to accept jobs that didn’t interested us or low-budget projects that from the idea you have and develop to the final result are completely different, unrecognizable things. To be sincere, they were really few (one or two), because most of the time, since we were unknown, making an appointment with a big company or something like that was almost impossible. When you finally start (and being young is not an advantage, at least in Italy), some people just don’t care about your project as you do, so you have to make decisions and take risks—your own decision and risks. In five years, we have had the fortune of working with a lot of people in different projects and circumstances. Some we liked more than others, but the truth is that we have kept something positive from all of them.
We learned from this that sometimes the things that you feel are failures or breakdowns in the end are revealed to be great fortunes, because they make you think different, look to other possibilities, develop a new strategy, take new decisions and risks, explore things that you have never thought about. Also that if you really believe in what you are doing, you have to fight a lot, in first person. It will never be easy at that precise moment, but looking back, it is satisfying.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?
We would discourage the excessive use of glass coverings for new buildings. It seems to be the only thing architects can think about now, and it ruins the landscape. In this moment, we can’t do much, but if we ever make a building, we won’t cover it with glass.
What are your three favorite online tools or resources, and what do you love about them?
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
We are not sure about recommending a single book. It depends on personal tastes. Maybe what we would recommend for sure is in their free time to read a lot of books that don’t have anything to do with work. I mean more Tolkien, Celine, Vonnegut, Calvino, Hemmingway, Bukowski, Dickens, Kipling, Franzen, Roth, Fante, classics… it refreshes your mind from work, and you never know—ideas come from everywhere. And less business books… that is working!
Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?
Because, in different manners, they are clever and funny
When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
This weekend we met most of our close friends that we haven’t seen in a month because all of us were on holidays. So it was a weekend full of travel anecdotes, from the most normal to the most surreal ones, so we couldn’t stop laughing.
Who is your hero?
We have lots of heroes that have influenced our lives at some point. We share our love and admiration for Werner Herzog’s films and life, and that dichotomy between hero and antihero that permeates all his work. He is one of our favorite filmmakers; we consider him probably one of the few last heroes of our age. It is impossible to see one of his films or documentaries without having in mind how it has been done. When Fitzcarraldo’s ship is dragged over a mountain, it is a powerful image that makes you feel like you could do anything if you really want it. And the ship is really dragged; we think that no special effect could never give you that sensation of greatness. It is the author behind its character that’s the real hero.
Why did you pick Carnovsky as a name?
Carnovsky comes from Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound. Zuckerman is Roth’s literary alter-ego, and Carnovsky is Zuckerman’s literary alter-ego. Let’s say that we love Roth and this game of reflections, but we also like how it sounds.
Do you have any pets?
Yes, we have two goldfish called Ciprì and Maresco. They have been living with us for a year and are part of the family.
The 100 Best Books For Entrepreneurs
Sign up for our emails and we'll send you a list of the 100 best books for entrepreneurs, which we compiled by analyzing over 3,000 interviews.