Victoria Episcopo became a furniture designer entirely by accident. After writing a thesis on contemporary art in Mexico for six months, she got the news that her beloved grandma had died. Episcopo returned to her grandparents’ house in Salento, Puglia, just in time for Christmas, and walked into her grandmother’s now-vacant studio. “I found the top of the tables white, ready to be painted,” she says. “So I thought to myself, ‘Let's try to do it.’” Her grandmother had loved to paint in the 1970s — particularly on flower-shaped tables made of wood and wrought iron, and now, it was Episcopo's turn to take up the reins. First, she painted small, characterful side tables mimicking different-coloured lilies. Thanks to iron’s incredible malleability, Episcopo made the legs of the tables look like plant stems with leaves as dainty feet. “I like to give the impression that the leaves of the table can move. I call them ballerina's feet,” she says. If you look closely enough, you can also see minute, almost microscopic detail of wasps and bees pollinating the flowers, while the surfaces of the tables themselves appear three-dimensional thanks to painterly optical illusions.
Episcopo soon gravitated towards larger-scale furniture; dining tables mimicking sprawling poppies offered a more expansive option for clients and signified an upscale in production. Friends told Episcopo that she should show her work to Rossana Orlandi, someone she describes as “owning one of the most important design galleries in Europe” and “a star of design in Milan.” Two months later she showed her work with Orlandi at the Salone del Mobile (the highly-esteemed Milan Furniture Fair) in 2015, and the rest is history.
Six years later, Episcopo is still creating wondrous sculptural furniture — and now it’s her full-time job. “It just happened. I never said to myself, now I'm going to become a furniture designer or an artist,” she says. Before we talk, she sends me a hefty WeTransfer of images that inspire her, interspersed with photos of her own work. Georgia O'Keeffe is a foundational reference, with her undulating, transcendent depictions of nature and colour — Episcopo’s grandmother introduced her to the late American artist’s work when she was just 12 years old. Alberto Giacometti’s spindly bronze piece Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932) appears, as do more under-the-radar nature paintings by Lucian Freud. “I love Giacometti because of his way of working with metals. He's not only elegant, but his sculptures seem almost like they are flying,” says Episcopo.
Aside from getting her inspiration from art, Episcopo also likes to take trips around the world to look at and be in nature. She finds her “main inspiration” in botanical gardens, citing locations in Palermo, LA, Seoul, and Kew Gardens and The Barbican Conservatory in London. But despite her love of nature, she splits her time between South Kensington in London and Puglia. “I love to have this balance between countryside and city, and I love London,” she says.
Below, Episcopo gives insight into the technical processes behind her flower tables.
Iron is a material that seems so hard. But it's super soft and you can really do anything with it. It's beautiful to watch iron when it's getting hot and then make different forms out of it. I start by drawing an object, but when making it real you always encounter technical issues to solve, practical things to solve. What is beautiful is that you have to find this balance between the design and the functionality that you want to give it.
I have more than one studio. This room in my grandparents’ studio where I paint, then another studio where I work with iron. The iron process is done directly in the blacksmith's studio because he has all the tools needed — the welding machine. I couldn't use it by myself, because blacksmithing is very strong work. If I could do it, I would! With every piece, I make a real-sized paper model. It's super cool to see how some very thick paper behaves exactly as the iron material when you're working with it. It's very useful to do a real-sized paper model — you feel more prepared when it comes to making it in the iron studio. After the work is back from the blacksmith, I research how to get amazing colours to oxidate the iron. Some clients like the iron painted — I prefer it when it isn’t!
Recently I've really enjoyed working with feathers. I'm doing a lot of lamps at the moment and it's cool to do more sculptural work. I'm always trying to create pieces that make interesting shadows on the wall.