Erika Zorzi and Matteo Sangalli are known as Mathery, a multifaceted duo that directs, photographs, designs and art directs project for clients including Ikea, MTV and Target. Everything they create — spots, short films, photographs and spacial design — is amazingly consistent. Mathery is masterful at creating bold visual worlds and delivering unexpected humor. The Italian natives are based in Brooklyn and reside on the 1stAveMachine roster.
Zack Seckler: Excelling at film, photography, art direction and design on a professional level is rare. How did this happen!? How are you so talented at so many things?
Mathery: Thanks, you really know how to start an interview! We don’t want to say that we’re unbelievably talented at all of these things, but film, photography, art direction, and design are all subjects and fields that we’re passionate about and incorporate into our work. We’re self-taught and it shows in our visual narratives. Our careers didn’t start in a specific medium, but rather from the necessity to find the best ways to express profound ideas and tell human-centric stories. Our background in product design also made us versatile to a wide range of disciplines.
What’s the upside to being able to provide so many services to clients?
We definitely understand the behind-the-scenes process. Before working as directors in exhibitions and spatial design, we used to get our hands dirty by experimenting with materials and techniques in our workshop. Depending on the scale of a job, we’re more than ready to take care of hands-on duties such as woodworking, painting, cutting, and glueing. If the budget can’t afford an external set designer or stylist, then we fill in that role. Of course, we always end up loving it because curating a project 360 degrees makes it very, very special. We also really like the idea of not getting stuck in just one discipline and constantly challenging ourselves with new inputs and stimuli.
The main problem occurs when you actually need to advertise yourself. Sometimes, it’s not that easy selling the bigger picture. People who seek out our services and work with us aren’t just looking for the best photographer or director. They’re more interested in our visions as artists.
How did you get started working together?
It all started between university desks! We were studying product design and, after working together on several research assignments, we decided to do something more experimental and personal. We opened a blog called “01mathery” (this was 2010, mind you) and built one object every day for around 100 days. This was our very first project together and we haven’t worked apart ever since. That’s when we started calling ourselves “Mathery.”
What’s your process for working together? Is one of you more focused on certain aspects of the creative process, production, directing, etc?
The details of our creative partnership weren’t clear from the start. At first, we began working side-to-side on every aspect of each project, which we still do today but with a different mindset. Erika is responsible for research, storytelling, art direction, and overall aesthetic while Matteo is much more invested in photography, lighting, and learning the mechanics behind each process. We’re a good team and have been working together for 9 years now across different continents, disciplines, and situations!
What attracts you to quirky subject matter?
We like the idea of the unexpected and being a bit silly. We choose not to take ourselves too seriously because we already do that in real life! The idea of putting a smile on someone’s face attracts us as well as creating parallel worlds where anything can happen.
Every decision we make goes in and out of two different minds, which makes a lot of our work well-thought-out. Almost nothing is left behind. We’re also very trusting of one another and recognize when moments call for a divide-and-conquer approach, especially when we’re directing because productions are always time sensitive. People might think that sharing the work in two makes each of us work less. Hahaha – wrong! It gives us more room to focus on different aspects and the chance to collaborate closely with not only agencies, but also directors of photography, production designers, actors, stylists, and more.
What resources do you use for creative inspiration?
Literally everything. Mind-blowing, right? We like playing with the different meanings behind certain words and subverting expectations. Sometimes, our resource for creative inspiration can be an interesting talk we’re listening to and, other times, it can be something abstract such as a half-eaten pizza slice on a sidewalk.
You’ve recently moved from Italy to Brooklyn. How has that affected your career? How are the opportunities in the US market different from those in Italy?
We’ve lived in Australia and Italy as well as worked in Asia. In every country, we reinvented ourselves. These travels shaped us as creatives and what we’re doing here now in NY wouldn’t have happened without any of these places. From our experience, the US is a place where people take risks. Your background doesn’t matter, if someone sees a sparkle in what you do, they give you a chance. In Italy, we’re still, unfortunately, bound by one’s career past and emerging artists have a hard time getting noticed by Italian clients, brands, and productions.
The creative brief was about seeing things from different perspectives. There’s a rich history of perspective tricks dating back to Renaissance art, we borrowed these concepts to bring to life some brand new ones. The challenge for us was making constructive illusions, which isn’t the norm because trick pieces usually fall apart with new perspectives. At the beginning of the spot, the narrator is suspended on her side with a harness and the characters around her appear to defy gravity. This set build was a new personal record for us, the highest part was the 12-meter-tall arch! Something that happens a lot on these kinds of illusion sets is that, until the camera’s rolling, most of the crew usually doesn’t get what’s supposed to be happening, actors too, then they see playback through the monitor, and everyone gets psyched. These projects are fun because everyone gets super into it.
I love your Orbitz spots too, what was your approach there?
Comedy certainly played a key role in this campaign. The looped dialogue, “Like that. Like what?”, definitely gets stuck in your head. We normally shoot in a studio, but for this project, we got to film on location, which is something we always wanted to do more. We wanted the setting and cast to feel real, but at the same time, highly curated with an over-the-top touch such as deadpan acting and picture-perfect hairstyles.
And how about your Ikea spots?
Working on these funny IKEA spots was a blast. Throughout the four 15-second spots, a family performs incredible tricks such as juggling while nonchalantly setting out a dinner table or serving spinning taco trays from their feet to guests during an intimate gathering. The client and agency trusted our vision and really gave us the chance to explore funny and unique characters. Forget the expected IKEA family, but imagine a stylized one dressed to match their house’s color palette 🙂 What we like about these types of advertisements are that they make the audience smile, laugh, and dream. It’s about selling products at the end of the day, but for us, it’s still a way to make art.
New York’s definitely a pretty nice city to be when work is slow! During that time, we go to shows and talks whenever we can. Exhibitions have the power to fully recharge us. We also like to test out our creativity in the kitchen and do maintenance stuff around our house. I know it sounds boring, but for us, it’s the exact opposite!
After a production wraps there can be a feeling of coming down off the rollercoaster, off the high. How do you deal with that?
Yeah, the first couple of days after a shoot are definitely a rough transition. It’s intense, everything can drop from 100 to 0 in just one day. They’re times when we feel that we need a month’s worth of rest to switch off our bodies and minds from operating on production time, but before we know it, we end up ready to jump back into work again! If there aren’t jobs right away, we usually return to personal projects, water some plants around our apartment, and wait for the next one!
With your background in design and art direction I’m guessing your relationship is more involved with art department, props and wardrobe on commercial projects. What’s the relationships and creative process like?
Being in two, we have four eyes, two brains, and four hands to work on projects. We always prefer to be on top of everything and our complementary skills allow us to manage different tasks at the same time. Since art direction is our passion, we often start envisioning a story from the setting it takes place in such as the colors and props that populate the space. This aspect really helps us envision a job. When delivering pitches, we already know the set design, wardrobe, and lighting. We’re also very involved with choosing collaborators. Curating the overall aesthetic of a commercial project is one of our favorite parts of the process.
Our best advice would be to always look for something that can inspire you and try to find the time to work on personal projects. Most importantly, don’t be scared to share your work, especially with those who don’t even work in your field. It’s always a great opportunity to receive feedback.
You’ve directed short films, are you interested in features or TV?
They’re not at the top of our list at the moment. We mostly enjoy short-term projects because they give us room to experiment. However, we’re still intrigued by the idea of a feature film or television project because that’s where we’d have the time to tell a more visually immersive story for the viewer.
We’re currently working on a fashion film entitled “Fatal Sale.” It’s a splatter story imagining a world where clothes have feelings and decide to take revenge against their wearers. Hopefully, we’ll be able to secure funding for it! We’re also working on a long-term photographic collection based on research about wedding traditions from ancient cultures.
Interview by Zack Seckler.