As an experiential designer, there are few things as fascinating as seeing people interact with something  you’ve created. For us, that’s seeing how meaningful experiences can create better relationships between brands and their consumers. For multidisciplinary artist SOFIBEA (Sofia Beatrice Malatesta), it’s about how the human body interacts with space – specifically in this case, inflatable architectural structures – to reveal different perspectives and states of mind. We sat down with SOFIBEA to find out more about her work and the pneumatic architecture installation, Breathing Places, that had us mesmerised at London Design Festival earlier this year.

How did you choose pneumatics (inflatables) as your medium?

The Ancient Greek etymology of pneumatic is πνεῦμα (pneûma) meaning wind, breath and spirit. If you extend the concept of breath it becomes the soul and evokes the essence of life somehow. When I think about inflatables the first thing I think about is a bubble. The way it floats and how vulnerable and fragile it is – like the fragility of human life. Working with pneumatics is full of symbolism and significance.

What inspired you? Can you tell us a bit more about Breathing Places?

I’m a huge fan of Andy Warhol and he created an art installation called Silver Clouds made from a collection of floating metallic clouds. This was a huge inspiration for me and I thought, let’s build on this concept and make one big inflatable to see what happens.  I started to make it move and breathe and the effect was amazing – it was like an entity. I put a fan inside that is connected to a sensor. When you get close to the installation it starts to breathe in connection with yourself as the viewer. This was the start of Breathing Places. The relationship that inflatables have with people is so strong, it’s the perfect combination of body and soul. They have this physicality that is similar to our body but it’s full of potential, it resonates with my goal of building installations that live by themselves.  Inflatables aren’t static so they change every time, affected by things like temperature and movement. Sometimes this works too well and I feel like I can’t control them. 

I make the installations out of Mylar – a resistant material used by Nasa. It’s used for so many other things too like balloons, emergency blankets, space structures and food packaging. It’s very versatile and has many uses. Someone once said I basically make huge chip bags. 

Footage from Breathing Places at London Design Festival. Since its first exhibition in 2021, the installation has interacted with various audiences and environments across London and even performed at Waking Life Festival in Portugal. Most recently it took part in London Design Festival’s 20th edition.

Did you do anything different for LDF?

I took the concept even further for LDF by integrating an additional light element that interacts with the audience’s movements. I made it breathe in a different way so that people couldn’t really perceive it. You are standing in this narrow space, surrounded by the pneumatic architecture and need to stay there for a few moments to perceive the breathing. I wanted people to be immersed in the entity and surrounded by the presence and create a connection to that. I would love people to feel like another dimension in a meditative state where they are not really alone. The installation is the other presence, feeling of connection.

Can you give us an insight into your creative process?

My prototyping method is so random – every time I have an assistant to help, it’s a nightmare for them as my process has no logic and I can’t always articulate what I’m doing as I’m just doing it. Sometimes I get stuck in the most difficult way of doing something and from the outside it’s like why are you doing it that way. My process isn’t linear or logical, I follow the dopamine and the idea to see where it takes me. This starting point is full of creativity and later on I can add the logic and make it perfect. To a lot of people, inflatables are huge and difficult to control but I saw it as a great tool to shape ideas and reimagine traditional forms. 

How do you see your work evolving? Is pneumatic architecture here to stay? 

The main aim of my art is to make something that lives by itself so right now I’m trying to develop concepts in a more technological way. I’m studying coding so that I can experiment with making it even more interactive to the person experiencing it. I’m the one making it but I want the art to create a conversation with the person by itself. I will definitely continue to do things on a large scale and may even experiment by adding in other natural elements.

I’m also starting to think about collaborations with brands – and what that means as a multidisciplinary artist. I recently spent some time at Milan Fashion Week which gave me a lot of inspiration. Virgil Abloh was one of my favourite multidisciplinary artists to bring architecture and design into fashion. Manel Torres blurred the lines between a fashion show and art installation at the SS23 Coperni show. The art and design world is fluid and to get stuck in one of those is a limitation. I would love to collaborate with a brand but it’s important not to lose one identity within another, you need to find a connection and create a platform that amplifies both the artist’s work and creates a unique experience for the brand.

There are so many mediums out there, how did you find your way as an artist?

I’ve always been inspired by Andy Warhol and his path as a multidisciplinary artist because  I wasn’t sure of where I fitted in and tried so many things. I took a very broad approach until I found something that resonated – once I eventually found my way everything came easily. If you really want to get into a certain scene or type of design, think about how you can reach that from another point of view. My biggest piece of advice is to do  something that you want to do and the industry will find you. I didn’t even know that I was creating art installations at the beginning – I was just mixing things together, everything I knew. My experience as an architect approaching the space, graphic design looking at lights and colours, my sociology studies focusing on audience emotions and experience, and my time as a fashion events producer. It melded together perfectly and I followed that.

About SOFIBEA: SOFIBEA (Sofia Beatrice Malatesta) is an Artist, Architect, and Designer based in London. Her focus is on the relationship between the human body and spaces, analyzing it through arts, design, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, sociology, engineering, technology, and health disciplines to translate physical places into sets where the spirit performs and determines individual and community growth.

About Breathing Places: BREATHING PLACES is an inflatable lightweight over-scaled structure that reshapes the space and acts as a beacon to highlight the hidden pathway while unfolding different perspectives. It is an experience that takes the viewer on a multidimensional journey. The inflatables are no more objects, but a living presence: their anonymous movements become breathing that controls how the individual moves and the containing ropes become cages that provoke empathy and emotional reactions. From this interaction, the silver entities absorb values and become familiar, a home, a neighborhood. It is now a place where the spirit exists, performs, and discovers itself. Place and body become interconnected and construct and activate each other’s behavior in an ephemeral but cathartic momentum. Each is essential for the being of the other. This art installation combines the concept of identity, perception issues, social attachment, sense of place, and presence. Exhibited for the first time in Peckham in 2021, BREATHING PLACES interacted with different audiences and environments throughout London, showcased in Crato (Portugal) in the summer of 2022 at Waking Life festival, and took part in the 20th edition of the London Design Festival.

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