Perched on a highland plateau nearly eight thousand feet above the Red Sea, Asmara is an improbable setting for a modernist metropolis. As the jewel in Italy’s former colonial crown, the Eritrean capital was transformed in the early 20th century from a sleepy village to a bustling city as part of the imperial campaigns that saw so many northeast African cities stamped with an Italian aesthetic and infrastructure.
Asmara’s town planning, conceived in the 1910s by Italian architect-engineer Odoardo Cavagnari, offered a palimpsest on which Italian architects could realize their wildest fantasies across a selection of building types—from factories, shops, and residences to government agencies and churches. That so many of these buildings survive today owes as much to their architectural bravura as it does to Cavagnari’s ingenious city plans. But the preservation of Asmara and its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site belies its dark origins—the repressive and bloody war crimes committed across northeast Africa in the name of Italian colonization from the late 19th through to the mid-20th century. It is a disturbing history with which Italy is still coming to terms.
This troubled meeting of beauty and brutality was explored by Italian design studio Formafantasma through Colony, their 2011 series of mohair and mixed-media blankets made in collaboration with the Audax Textielmuseum, Tilburg. Each of the three exquisite blankets, akin to oversized postcards in their composition, focuses on a formerly occupied city: Asmara in Eritrea, Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, and Tripoli in Libya. The urban layout of each city and their respective architectural landmarks have been woven into the blankets together with politicized symbols, cartographies, contemporaneous postage stamps, and texts. Formafantasma uses this collated historical data as both the visual material with which they layer their blanket designs as well as a theoretical compass to navigate highly charged issues that are still relevant today.
In Asmara, a 2011 map charting African migration routes into Europe is overlaid with a line drawing of Giuseppe Pettazzi’s FIAT Tagliero office (1938), an astounding building which came close to realizing the Futurist aeropittura fantasy of flying architecture. Tripoli depicts La Casa Coloniale, a 1930s prototype villa by Luigi Piccinato that sought to adapt Italian Rationalism to local conditions. It is accompanied by a passage from Article 19 of the Treaty of Benghazi between Italy and Libya signed by Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Qaddafi in 2008 that, among many remunerative agreements, enforced a system of land border controls. Addis Ababa’s Fascist-style Casa Littoria, a municipal building of 1938, is woven alongside the Colonial Order of the Star of Italy, awarded to deployed soldiers and to those who sympathized with the state.
Just as design has been appropriated historically as a vehicle for nationalism, Formafantasma now uses design as a Trojan horse to address our collective concerns about migration, environmental crisis, and the global dynamics of production. Their ongoing project Cambio (2020) is an investigation into the governance of the timber industry, while Oltre Terra (2023) looks at the extraction and production of wool. With Colony, they couch piercing geopolitical issues within mohair blankets—silky-soft domestic items usually associated with comfort and familial bliss. As they have commented, “Using the intimacy of the blanket as a way of discussing something that is more regularly addressed by the collective, the politics of a society as a whole, adds a different layer to the conversation.”
Libby Sellers is a London-based curator, writer, and design historian.