Design Collective LABINAC Is Part Workshop, Part Salon, Part Think Tank

Creativity often thrives in isolation. Whether seeking inspiration or wrestling an idea into shape, the imaginative often retreat to a room of their own. But sometimes, for some, there is satisfaction in company, in airing a concept out loud, in manipulating materials with others looking on. Whether challenged or championed, an encounter among peers can be a powerful part of the creative process. Part workshop, part salon, part think tank, the Berlin-based design collective LABINAC is a haven for those for whom dialogue and collaboration are galvanizing. And with an outpost in Naples, its ethos is reaching an even greater community of creatives.

Founded by Maria Thereza Alves and Jimmie Durham with the express determination to support the work of indigenous peoples across the Americas, LABINAC has also welcomed individuals, – including Elisa Strinna, Jone Kvie and Philipp Modersohn – whose work is generally more art than design-driven. “My family immigrated in the late 60s to the U.S. because of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil at that time,” relates the São Paulo–born Alves. “Due to the massacres of Indigenous communities by the military, in 1978, I wanted to learn how to make a national Indigenous organization, which did not exist at that time, to defend ourselves. I thus began working at the International Indian Treaty Council in New York, where I met Jimmie Durham, who became my mentor and partner.”

Lauded artists themselves (Durham, who earned the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in 2019 at the Venice Biennale, died last November in Berlin, at 81), the couple found their way to design by necessity. “When Jimmie and I met in the late 70s, we wanted nice furniture, but due to a scarceness of funds, we made our own by gathering local materials, which we were also using for making art. So as we moved from place to place, our furniture very much reflected the concerns of that particular city.” Visiting a small shop on a country road in Portugal, for example, they snapped up discarded stones from a local building project. “We give a second life to what has been rejected or removed from society.”


The LABINAC property began life as a monastery pharmacy in the 15th century, metamorphosed to a woolen mill in the 1880s and was a defunct leather goods factory when Alves and Durham acquired it in 2018. Heavy machinery still littered the much-divided space, which architect Antonio Martiniello refashioned to meet the needs of the new owners, removing partition walls and uncovering lovely archways.

Comprising spaces for work, conversation and rest, this creative generator is an austere shell populated with works-in-progress and finished pieces. Tools and stuff of every sort – metal, wood, clay, fabric, stone – cover the rough-hewn worktables in the studio. In the straightforward kitchen, Alves’ brass-legged table topped with an irregular slab of pink Portuguese marble takes the place of the usual island. A dining table designed by Durham is crafted from an array of woods, including cherry, black walnut and purpleheart from Brazil. “Jimmie was not hierarchical in the use of material,” shares Alves, who is currently engrossed in exploring the possibilities of glass, creating a variety of vases and lighting. “Stones, shells, plastic pipes, leather … Whatever material crossed his path and interrupted his thoughts would engage him further with the world.”

For the artists and designers who find their way to the world Alves and Durham created, chance and curiosity are richly rewarded, as conversation and hands-on experimentation open the way to new possibilities. Music often accompanies their work (Los Lobos, Leontyne Price, Taj Mahal, Katia Guerreiro), and when lunch comes, it might be fish with mangos from a farm in Sicily or a chicken with chocolate mole sauce brought from friends in Mexico. In time, all will return home to their own studios, their own challenges. But what refreshment they take with them!

Photography by Fabrizio Cicconi.

For more like this, be sure to check out the home and studio of artist Andrea de Carvalho.

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