Oscar Piccolo's Lamps Are Off More Than They're On
A few mornings back, we sat down with Oscar Piccolo, one-half of the design and art studio, Dello. Operated between him and long-time collaborator Charlotte Taylor, the interiors and objects they're fabricating leave us in a world full of nostalgia and warm familiarity.
And that warm familiarity and nostalgia seemingly follows and surrounds Oscar everywhere he goes. Shaped from his constant uprooting throughout his childhood, Oscar has learned what truly defines any place as a home, and how to be comfortable despite constant movement. And even though this was our first time chatting with him, we couldn't help but feel like he's been an old friend.
MW: You’re in London, correct me if I’m wrong.
OP: That’s correct, yeah. I’ve been here six years now. Which is weird, because it’s the longest time I’ve ever been in one place.
MW: It’s funny, because I know you’ve been traveling all your life, but being from Italy and now living in London. I can’t pin down your accent whatsoever.
OP: I went to loads of international schools growing up. I started off at a British international school, and eventually moved to an American one. It was right around that time where I started to notice my accent blending. It was very weird. My family moved back to Italy for a time, and I thought I was getting used to being back in an Italian school. We eventually moved again, and the only school that was around was an Irish school. So it felt like I was back to square one.
MW: You talk about it so naturally, it’s kind of scary. Stuff like that is unheard of back here in the States. How many languages can you speak?
OP: So I know Italian and English. I can get around with French, but I wouldn’t say I’m fluent by any means. And I can read Arabic, but I’m not always certain what I’m reading. Can I ask where you guys are at?
MW: We’re in Los Angeles. Have you ever been?
OP: I’ve got family in the States, but I’ve only ever been to New York.
MW: The architecture in Los Angeles is pretty special. The case study homes out here are otherworldly.
OP: So beautiful. One of my really good mates Charlotte, who I do Dello Studio with, went out there last year. The photos she came back with were just insane.
MW: So when you went to school in Chelsea, did you know in your head that London was going to be where you set up base? Or was that not in your mind at all?
OP: Honestly, not really. Because I’ve never been in a single place for a long period of time, I have a hard time admitting that anywhere has become my base. But I knew I liked London, and I never felt the need to go anywhere else, so the feeling just stuck.
MW: We have a close friend who pretty much lives out of a single suitcase and is ready to leave whenever they want. Do you find yourself in a similar situation? Where you’re not really tied down to any one place and can move whenever you’re tired of it.
OP: One of my favorite pastimes is to randomly look at houses in new cities. Solely out of curiosity. But I don’t feel tied down. But at the same time, I don’t think I fit into the single suitcase category either. I do have a lot of stuff that I’ve gathered over the years.
MW: Where was the last location you were looking at?
OP: I was actually looking at my hometown. The houses there are insane.
MW: Where in Italy were you born?
OP: In a tiny town called Carini. It’s outside of Palermo, Sicily.
MW: I was born in Napoli, which is almost a straight shot across the sea.
OP: Were you really?
MW: Yeah. I haven’t been back in so long, but I love it over there. You also can’t tell based on my complexion. My Dad’s side is fully Albanian and I happened to inherit my Mom’s whiteness.
OP: I got mistaken for almost every nationality as I moved around when I was growing up. When I lived in places like Egypt or Libya or Turkey. The lines are so blurry, so people were always left guessing, which I suppose isn’t a bad thing.
MW: Out of all the places you’ve grown up through, does one stand out above the others? My Father spent some time in Istanbul and would always tell me that’s his favorite place he’s ever been.
OP: Istanbul is beautiful, like insanely beautiful. But my favorite would probably be Cairo. And I don’t think it’s necessarily related to place, but more so age. I was a teenager in Egypt and really underwent a lot of growth during that time. But each place I lived was special for its own reasons. The first place I ever moved to was Ghana. And that was beautiful in its own way. Had I been older, I would have really appreciated it more.
MW: Have you spent any time going back to the places you used to live?
OP: Not really, no. The way it’s all structured is quite strange, because you meet all these people who are in a similar situation as yourself, and are constantly moving. And those people become your association to the place you’re staying in. So after everyone leaves, there’s not much bringing me back, other than seeing the country or city again. I remember going back to Egypt was a bit of a strange feeling, because it was after the revolution happened. And it was like going back to a different place. Like your favorite thing wasn’t there anymore.
MW: When you were living in Cairo were you aware of the political turmoil going on around you? Or did you only understand what was going on after you left?
OP: I think I was in more of a bubble than I am now. And I think everyone was for the most part. It was way before the Arab Spring, so even though the discontent was there and things were happening, we didn’t really see the climax of that environment for years to come.
MW: We’re seeing that over in the States right now. Things seem to be going somewhat smoothly, and out of nowhere you have huge movements against the law enforcement in our country, huge movements against the way our political system is set up, all revolving around our Presidential Election. And I shouldn’t say it comes out of nowhere, because the discontent is there, but you never really know what’s going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
OP: Certainly. What’s happening in the States right now is quite crucial for everyone.
MW: We were talking with another client who’s also in London a few weeks ago, right when the election was about to be decided. And it was just a weird feeling. It doesn’t seem like the whole world is watching our elections, but they definitely are. For better or for worse the United States has become the world’s measuring stick.
OP: The elections were so big over here. And it really does have an impact on everyone, I think. Certainly now more than ever. And you’re starting to see a shift, where it used to be only the big countries were observing the small ones. And it’s kind of flipped now. The actions the United States undergoes has a ripple effect on the rest of the world. And when we talk about the movements going on in Egypt when I lived there, it makes me think of when I lived in Libya. It was the year after Gaddafi was killed, and living in a country that had no political regime was on the other end of the spectrum compared to my time in Cairo. So the conversations and movements you’re putting into motion in the States, sets an extreme precedence for how other countries should proceed, whether you’re aware of it or not.
MW: Is there a point in time during your travels that your design and art practice really clicked? Can it be traced back to a singular moment?
OP: It really stems all the way back to when I was in Ghana. It was the first place we moved to, and we had nothing. Everything was primal and basic. I’m talking mattresses on the floor. My mom started drawing and getting things made. And I truly believe my practice was born from those days. Seeing a need and using what you have to solve the problem. Loads of temporary solutions were being implemented when we were there. Using bricks as shelves, for example. The more I grew, the more I began to miss that primal-ness, if that makes sense.
MW: We’re really fascinated by this relationship between utility and beauty. Can an object be both? Does one have to take precedence over the other, and if so which wins? I’d be curious to know, because lamps are one of your staple pieces, if you view the lamp as firstly an object of utility, or an object of elegance.
OP: You know, it always depends on the object in question. But for the lamp specifically, I view it as a sculptural object more than an object of function. And that holds up, if you start thinking about it. The lamp was never designed to just be a lamp — lamps stay off way more than they ever stay on. So how is the lamp working for you when it isn’t fulfilling its role? That’s where the balance between functionality and elegance and symbolism comes into play. Because an object is never just one thing, I think. In order to guarantee stability, my family travelled with all of our furniture every time we moved. It meant I always had the same dining table growing up, the same bedroom. And my idea of home shifted from the country I was in, to the things that took up space in our household. I get taken the piss a lot for this table I made that I’m currently using. It’s the most un-functional table ever. It’s way too small for me. But it’s nice. It’s really simple, black metal, and I made it. So it’s special. I showed it to my mom and she told me it was sadly small.
Site of Conversation, Oscar Piccolo
MW: There really is an appreciation for a chair that looks really nice: it occupies its space perfectly, the colors and the environment it exists in are both considered. And it may not be the thing you want to sit in for three hours, but who sits in a living room chair for three hours a day.
OP: Yeah, exactly. Why does that always have to matter? And at the same time, there’s always a sentimental value that needs to be considered. If that chair defines what your home is, then that’s way more important than just a chair to sit in.
MW: As someone who works in and around interiors, and who is always considering them.. Let’s say you move into an empty studio apartment. What’s the first thing that goes in there that defines the rest of the space? What is everything else being built around?
OP: Oh, that’s hard. If it’s completely empty, I think probably bowls and vases. I’ve just got a real soft spot for them. It needs to be the first thing. I don’t care where they go or what’s placed in them. But they dictate everything else around them for me. But, even in the place I’m currently in. I’ve been here for almost a year and a half, and I just got the table I’m on two months ago. I literally just bought a sofa. I really take my time in filling spaces out.
MW: A lot of people really rush into that stuff. You move into a new place and try and fully furnish it in a month. I moved into a new apartment a year ago, and just got my dining table 3 weeks ago, you know? I’m also very, very slow about that kind of stuff.
OP: So many of my friends would make fun of me because I’d offer for them to come for dinner, and they’d say: “What, and eat on the floor?” Eating on a coffee table is the same as eating at a dinner table, just on the floor. You just have to take it step by step, and really appreciate what you get. There’s a real reason why you have any certain object, I truly believe.
MW: As someone who’s moved around, is there something you have that you couldn’t get rid of? No matter where you go, it’s going with you?
OP: I have this chair, this one in front of me. I got it in a charity shop, it’s this proper wooden chair. When I moved from my old flat to this new one, I pretty much got rid of everything but the chair and my bowls and vases.
MW: I want to take some time to segway.. How do you wake up? How do you go to bed? What are your habits like?
OP: I wake up quite early. Normally around 6am. I structure my day in a very Italian way. The most important thing is making coffee in the morning. It’s not really even drinking the coffee, because at times I don’t even drink a lot of it. It’s just the making that wakes me up. Heating the water, putting the Moka pot on the stove. That just really gets me. I listen to the radio as I do that.
[Me and Oscar proceed to compare our Moka pots over zoom]
OP: ...Sadly I broke the handle on mine.
MW: Did you break yours off when you were trying to twist it open?
OP: Yeah, it’s just completely gone.
MW: I used to have a three-cup Moka, but I left it on the stove too long and the handle melted off. Now I’m rocking with the single-cup.
OP: I almost did the same thing at an Airbnb in Berlin. Almost burned the whole place down. Thankfully I didn’t. But see, you don’t want to replace them if you don’t have to. Because the more you use the Moka pot, the more delicious the coffee gets. It gets good with age. So I’m over here using oven mitts to pour my coffee.
MW: You need to build a new handle for it. That’d be cool. But I think about this all the time, especially if we’re talking about functionality vs. beauty in design. The Moka pot bridges that gap almost perfectly. So well so that you never think about it and just take it for granted. But there’s a reason why that little pot stays on your stove even after you’re done using it. You’re not putting it away, you know? It’s funny, but sometimes I think the end goal is to sort of take the objects for granted.
OP: 100%. Exactly. It’s why you end up holding onto a Moka pot for a year even though it’s broken.
MW: So you make your coffee, you listen to the radio. What else are you getting into?
OP: After the coffee, the radio. I’m answering a lot of emails. I’m working towards celebrating an anniversary of the lamps, so there has been a lot of logistics that go on with that. But usually after emails, I have the rest of my day to make and have fun. I live on my own, and use my space as a studio as well. That’s how it would be even if we weren’t in a pandemic, so everything is centered around this one location.
MW: So Dello doesn't have its own office or studio space?
OP: We used to in the beginning. Especially right after Uni. Charlotte ended up moving to Paris for a year, and when she came back we realized we didn’t really need it. Dello pretty much exists with a MacBook, and we can use workshop spaces any time we’re ready to actually make something. Me and Charlotte live on opposite sides of this park, and there’s this coffee shop in the middle, so it’s pretty perfect.
MW: Can you tell us a little more about Dello? How it’s been doing and what the future looks like?
OP: As a background, Dello started at Goldsmiths University. Me and Charlotte were sitting next to each other, and over time realized we had loads of things in common. By the end of Year One, we realized that we weren’t really making anything we were necessarily proud of. We had a shared expectation of the things we wanted to be making, so we both applied as a collective at Chelsea College of Arts. We went from a design course that was strict and incredibly rigid, into a fine art course that was set up with no boundaries. Dello was established rather organically. We did one project, and another, and started to understand that they were built off each other and had relations. We wanted to tie them together somehow. Dello in Italian means “of the”, or “from the”. So “From the Studio”, a nod to our backgrounds. Dello was quite a design-led studio, which we got a lot of criticism for during our time at Uni, especially since we were in a Fine-Art curriculum. But that conversation flipped upon graduation, when we found ourselves immediately finding work, even though our colleagues didn’t acknowledge us as true artists, you know?
MW: It’s like the right amount of structure and the right amount of wonder to allow you to effectively run a business. The structure coming from this design-led practice that you and Charlotte established, and blending that with the no-boundary nature that your Fine-Arts curriculum allowed you.
OP: Exactly. And one of the best things Goldsmith’s gave us was that kind of structure. It balanced the curriculum at Chelsea really well and allowed us to stay focused and build a world without getting lost in it.
MW: What’s been one of the hardest challenges in getting Dello off the ground and continuing to refine it to what it currently is?
OP: The biggest struggle really, and something we’re currently working through, is how to manage all of our practices. And by that I mean, Charlotte has her own practice, I have my own practice, and we come together as Dello. And they’ve all become very busy. What kind of time do we dedicate to each, and how can that work in a fair and harmonious way? We’re trying to navigate it all.
MW: We really try and reward each other for going off and making things on our own that don’t have the Mouthwash tag associated with it. Those personal practices directly inform the work we make at the studio. But it’s such a balancing act. And I’m sure, especially for you two, trying to draw the line on what has your name on it, what has Charlotte’s, and what has Dello’s, and being able to stick to that consistently has been incredibly challenging.
OP: Definitely. I think also; Charlotte’s work, my work, Dello’s work. They’re all obviously similar. We’re the same people. We are Dello, and Dello is equally us. Since Dello is a joint effort, we end up helping each other make things that wouldn’t have been possible if it was just a solo effort. That’s the problem with an individual practice. You tend to overthink. Working with Charlotte is like a ping-pong match. I’ll throw something out, she’ll return it, and it just keeps going. But it’s hard to play ping-pong by yourself. Not impossible, but it’s definitely a different process to get to an end result.
Oscar in Carini, Sicily
MW: Oscar as we begin to wrap up, I just want to ask. It looks like you went back to Sicily and saw your family recently. How was that?
OP: It was really nice. I’ve been in London throughout the whole Corona situation, and haven’t seen my parents in a long time. I went home, but home is in the middle of nowhere. It was just really nice to feel a little stranded. Just olive trees and literally nothing. The only way to get bread was from this man who comes every morning in a van. He comes in this little white van and opens up the back and it’s full of bread. And if you wake up at 7, you miss it for the day. You’ll have to wait till the next day. But it was so nice. I’ve been living by myself, so I had to refamiliarize what it’s like to share a bathroom. To help set a table for dinner. You miss those little things when you’re by yourself.
MW: I’ve been in Los Angeles for about a year and a half. I really would love to go live and work in Italy at some point. Definitely sooner rather than later. But unless you live there and understand the culture, you can’t really understand how slow the pace of life is. The biggest dilemma in your life is waking up at 7 so you don’t miss the bread van, right? So I’m just curious if going back and living in Italy is something you see yourself doing, and if you’re afraid of going there and having your work slow down.
OP: It really is just a different world over there, especially when you compare it to places like London, like Los Angeles. I even noticed it crossing the street. If you see people crossing the street in Sicily, you’ll notice it’s incredibly slow. From red to green and back to red. Everything is slowed down. But in London, everyone is trying to cross as fast as they possibly can. That really explains it, right? The beautiful thing about Italy is that there’s an emphasis on enjoying your time. You’re not having lunch for the sake of fueling yourself to go back to work. You appreciate lunch and what it’s meant to be — which is sitting down, having a break, and eating well. It’s in the culture. You’ll have coffee in the morning, a coffee before lunch, one right after, and then some coffee in the afternoon after you’ve had a siesta, you know?
MW: it’s incredibly slow. Incredibly ritualistic.
OP: Ritualistic. Exactly. It’s genuinely a ritual. But workwise, I completely agree to your point. There is that fear that you move to Italy and your career more or less slows down to nonexistence. But at the same time, it can be beneficial, especially if your work rewards you for taking your time and working through things. For example, my lamps are made in Sicily. I would have never been able to make my lamps here in London, just because of the culture. In Sicily, you still have so many older artisanal workers using metal, trying to keep these practices alive, even when they aren’t the most commodified processes. You just don’t see that priority in fast-pace environments like London.
MW: There’s something special knowing that every lamp is slightly different. It’s a product of someone’s hands, as opposed to being manufactured in large batches.
OP: I certainly think so. It’s what makes them special. I can’t just whip them out in a day. The lamps can be replicated in a factory, and they’ll look the same, but its value, what it stands for, is way different.