The Everywhere Atelier

A two-year-old child traces some marks with a stick in the mud. Another one is playing with water and different containers in the kitchen. A group of kids are painting on the easels of the art room. A ceramist models a sculpture in his studio. A man of the Paleolithic engraves an antelope in a cave.

What do these so different events have in common?

Exploring the world belongs to our shared human nature, as well as communicating and expressing ourselves through what we find around us. It is always about a transformative relationship between yourself and the world, between the inside and the outside, in both directions.

This happens since the very beginning through the free play in early childhood. Then it flows into the various disciplines and educational curriculum, until it is somehow integrated into adult life, for example becoming the core of some creative professions or, at worst, almost disappearing in certain daily routines. In any case, it always remains a need and a potential of human nature.


The atelier is a space-time frame intentionally set up for continuing to develop and enrich this transformative interaction with the world, without other objectives than the interaction itself, going where it will take us.

Do you remember how important it was to define a space for playing in your childhood, carefully choosing objects and stuff that were part of the game? Now, add to that involvement your actual knowledge and awarness acquired over time, and you will have a good starting point for setting up an atelier.

In the Italian educational landscape, the atelier and the atelierista were introduced by Loris Malaguzzi in the preschools of Reggio Emilia. It was a revolutionary act, putting the expressive languages (drawing, modeling, music, dance, body movement, stories) at the center of learning processes.

Since then, the research about several possible “shapes” of the atelier has continued to extend, including unconventional materials and fields: ateliers of light, of food, of gear… up to the concept of a spread atelier in recent years, coming out of a dedicated room to other areas of the school (classrooms, entrance, gardens, kitchen) and even the city (squares, shops, parks).

It is not about where. Meaningful processes can happen everywhere.

That’s why the most common objection of many educators – We do not have an extra room! – is just a very weak, apparent obstacle. The atelier is not necessarily a room.

This applies to any educational contexts, to the dimension of personal research and others fields, like the therapeutic one. Creating an atelier – for themselves or for others – means first of all selecting a part of the world, not only through physical boundaries but with a certain kind of insight and approach.

Here are a few of the many possible variations, explored by me or by some very good artists, art therapists and friends of mine (click them for more info):

You can create again and again endless containing “frames”:  it is a world within a world as Nona Orbach defines it in the book The Good Enough Studio. A space where we allow ourselves and others to play just for the sake of it, without a product or a goal or to be achieved.

Are there certain minimum conditions to enable this microcosmos? From the point of view of space and materials, is there something absolutely necessary?  

During the Covid emergency, I remember many teachers were really disoriented for the impossibility of using most of materials.

What do we do now? We have almost nothing! – as if the ability to play, explore and create was due to some particular materials… Of course, there are differences. For example, the so-called “artistic” materials come from a tradition that makes them particularly suitable for a certain type of expressive research (we will go into this topic in another post).

It is the world itself, with all the things it contains, that represents a really interesting interlocutor… and also, have you ever thought of the potential of an empty space? Maybe just with a tool or a material in the center of it?

Gallizi Preschool, Italy (Fano)

The “atelier-bubble” is everything except impermeable, always related and connected to its context, while being safe and defined by some kind of boundaries. Therefore, there are neither templates nor two identical ateliers. Moreover, a selection is still necessary: there is always a more or less conscious choice of tools, objects, materials. This enables the development of a creative potential that would otherwise be dispersed or remain latent.

A certain “limitation” often occurs spontaneously, as children play in a defined area – to the exclusion of all else. Despite this spontaneous ability, a space can sometimes be so hyper stimulating, saturated and dispersive that it makes it very difficult to orient, pause, focus and immerse  in the flow of a creative process.

Thus, the question about what and how many materials to choose is really crucial. We will investigate it in the next posts.

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The Grammar of Matter

Every material has got a set of specific characteristics and qualities resulting from its nature, that defines its limits and potential as well as its range of possible transformations, reversible or not. It is what I call a kind of “natural grammar”, meaning some inner rules that can be empirically investigated. How?

Observing and transforming the material with a friendly approach, remaining attuned to its nature, with the curiosity and discretion of a guest. If we do not impose a shape but are in a respectful interaction, the material itself will suggest us what to do. A sheet of paper, for example.

all the possible ways to fold a sheet of paper
Pictures from the book ” Folding Techniques for Designers: From Sheet to Form ” by Paul Jackson

Just taking it in your hands, you will immediately guess it can be rolled or folded. In how many ways? The exploration of this simple actions open up endless variations: you can try different dimensions, inclinations, proportions, forms of the starting sheet, and so on. We couldn’t imagine all these possibilities without an hands-on investigation.

The same applies to many other actions, that we can develop (rubbing, piercing, cutting, rolling, wetting …) and combine. The richer our inventory will become, the more available choices we will have for creatively transforming the material.

some possible ways to transform a sheet of paper
Pictures from the book “Il gioco creativo – 1 La carta” by E. Rottger and D. Klante, Il Castello Edizioni

Paper comes in several shapes, weights and textures: the grammar of each type of paper has got some characteristics in common (with all the papers) and some different, specific ones. Let’s think, for example, of a toilet paper roll: the actions of folding and cutting are still possible (like in a sheet of paper) but influenced by the cylindrical shape and the weight of the cardboard, thus effecting different results.

all the possible ways to transform  a toilet paper roll

The same goes for whatever material, artistic, waste or everyday, from the simplest to the most complex and structured one, to some objects (like newspapers, magazines, books ord catalogs in the case of paper).

But why is it important to explore the “grammar” of a material? Won’t it be boring using a material just for the sake of it, without the goal of a specific product?

all the possible ways to transform  a magazine

A deep exploration of the identity of materials is really enjoyable and useful to discover all their transformative potential, that than can be used for whatever goal or context. Thus we will be able to make the most of its technical and expressive possibilities.

Art works by Stefano Arienti
Art works by Stefano Arienti
Art works by Zbigniew Salaj
Art works by Zbigniew Salaj

In some cases, such as clay, the “grammar” mostly coincides with what we call “technique”: a set of rules and coded informations handed down over time, necessary for more complex works. For example, before cooking a piece of clay, we need to know how to avoid air bubbles to prevent the piece from breaking, and so on. But, in addition to this knowledge, it is still important to directly explore the material firsthand, for understanding its nature: how can it be transformed? Through what actions? How does the material react? With what results?

some possible ways to transform a piece of clay
Pictures from the book “Il gioco creativo – 3 La ceramica” by E. Rottger and D. Klante, Il Castello Edizioni

Following a gradual increase in complexity, our exploration can go on with the encounter between two or more materials: what possible dialogues between two languages and grammars? The encounter with “diversity” reveals even better the specific identity of each material and brings unexpected solutions. Maybe these dialogues between materials can represent a significant metaphor of our relational patterns as human beings. Of course, there are not simplistic and linear interpretations, but subtle correspondences between external and internal world, very interesting to be deepened. You can find more about this in the post “Dialogue with a sheet of paper”.

some possible ways to use clay and cardboard together
some possible ways to use clay and other materials together
Atelier of the Loris Malaguzzi Center, Reggio Emilia

At all levels, from the educational field to the industrial design, using a material with a respectful approach towards its nature generates a more authentic, ecological relationship with it, as well as a more pleasant and coherent aesthetic result.

As Bruno Munari explained in his book “Da cosa nasce cosa”, we can learn this kind of approach by observing nature. Simple shapes like a drop of water, or more complicated ones like that of the praying mantis, are all built according to laws of constructive economy. In a bamboo cane the thickness of the material, the decreasing diameter, its elasticity, the arrangement of the nodes, all of these respond to precise economic laws: if it was stiffer it would break, more elastic it would not bear the weight of the snow. There is a limit we cannot go beyond, in the sense of constructive simplicity.

The orange fruit as example of perfect packaging by Bruno Munari

For example, the traditional blown glass bottle has a logical form in relation to the material: in fact its shape is nothing but the shape of the drop of molten glass, dilated by the blower. This means that it is a logical form, where the thickness is uniform over the entire surface, such as in soap bubbles. You can’t make a square bottle with blown glass, because the square shape is unnatural compared to the expansion process of this incandescent magma which is glass.

Picture from the book “Da cosa nasce cosa” by Bruno Munari, Laterza

Thus, it seems that an “exact” thing is also beautiful. This is why the observation of natural forms is very useful to designers, who learn to use materials for their technical characteristics, according to their nature, and not to use iron where wood would be better, and so on.

Discovering the grammar of matter allows us to use a material respecting its limits and enhancing its potential. It allows an meaningful dialogue with matter, for anyone interested in a creative and interactive relationship with the world.

how to represent trees with a string
Picture from the book “Saremo alberi” by Mauro Evangelista, Artebambini

Click here for exploring the Grammar of Matter through my Course, where I have condensed my experience about materials (20% off for Newsletter Subscribers!)

You are also welcome to join the Facebook group The Grammar of Matter for sharing ideas.

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