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Francesca Zoboli on the Magic of Nature and Play

Francesca Zoboli on the Magic of Nature and Play

Hidden behind one of the imposing facades that line the streets of Milan is a little paradise that Italian artist Francesca Zoboli has called her own for over twenty years. It was not always so, rather more industrial and stark, but the studio and garden have provided a valuable creative outlet to Francesca that rightly make it an oasis for her.

A successful interior decorator at the time she found the space, Francesca had felt restricted by the small confines of her then studio. However, after finding this spot, she was finally able to work the way her mind was naturally inclined — in large, space-filling ways. Each surface provided potential, no matter if it were a table or two-story wall, and she had room enough for countless project iterations.

Now, two decades later, Francesca still values that space and the collaborations that have occurred in it since she moved there. From book jacket illustrations to wallpaper designs she welcomes many forms of creativity.

In a first for Kinship + Craft, we spoke with Francesca over video call about her work, studio space, and spectacularly varied creative practice, while her friend and neighbor, photographer Laura Adai, translated between Italian and English. The following interview is the resulting conversation with these two fantastic women, whose stories are as intertwined as their words below.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity in collaboration with Francesca Zoboli and Laura Adai but is otherwise how the conversation occurred. Kinship + Craft does not have any affiliate sponsor agreements with the brands mentioned in this interview and has not been paid to do so.

Francesca Zoboli working in her studio. | Photographed by Laura Adai.

Friendship, creativity, and the right decision

Laura — So, we met in the studio where we were working. It was in the 80s. 

Francesca — Sì.[Yes.]

Laura — We both were assistants in a graphics studio. People working there were architects, but they were mainly working in the editorial world. So it was like a graphic design and illustration [studio], and we were assistants to an illustrator for children’s books, and Francesca was an assistant to everyone, mainly graphic. This was the start. Then, we came to live in a place where she has a studio. It is a special place. 

Francesca — We can look. (Picks up laptop to show the garden outside as seen in the first image below.) This is where we live. Laura lives here and I have my studio here. I come every day by bicycle.

Laura — See? It is like a garden.

K+C — Yes, it’s beautiful!

Laura — And I live next door. We went on through the years with each other and became friends. Now, we share this place and our life has gone on in the same direction. 

K+C — Have you both have lived in this area since the 80s?

Laura — No, we came here in 2000. About 20 or 21 years ago. At the time, it was not so beautiful. It was like a manufacturing place, but now it’s houses and studios. It was not a garden, but we made it a garden, and after 20 years it’s… (Shakes head and smiles.) We’re lucky.

K+C —  That’s so lovely! And you’re in the center of Milan?

Francesca — Yes! When you go out and open the door, there is the city! It is an island. (Laughing.)

Laura — Everybody who comes here says, “Where are we now?” On the outside, it’s only buildings, and here it is only green. That’s also something that connects us because we both love nature. 

A view of the garden outside of Francesca’s studio in the center of Milan. Residents converted the industrial location into a garden, which Francesca and Laura both enjoy immensely. | Photographed by Tornaghi.
K+C — I can imagine it would be shock to find such a green place behind a building in the middle of the city, hidden from view. It’s so nice. Francesca, I like to start by asking people how they would describe themselves and the work that they do. Would you mind telling us a little about yourself?

Francesca — Yes. When people ask me, how I can describe myself, there is… (Switches to Italian.)

Laura — The main part about her is the need to always be in contact with nature, and this is something very deep inside her — both her personal life and her artistic life. It is really a need. 

(Francesca nods to Laura and speaks in Italian.)

Laura — Me, as well! (Both laughing.) I think this is something that keeps us very close. We are similar in this because I always need to be in contact with nature, too.

K+C — And, how would you describe the work that you do, Francesca?

Francesca — Allora [So], when I studied at the academy, I understood that it was the right choice…(Switches to Italian.)

Laura — When she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts [in Milan], she always knew that it would be her life. Art would be her destiny, in a way, but it was random work. She didn’t exactly know which direction to take, but by chance, she started to practice interior decoration with friends. Ultimately, they opened a studio together.

Francesca — Yes. (Switches to Italian.)

Laura — So, she really didn’t know the direction at the beginning. Then, she and two friends opened a studio [L’O di Giotto] and this became the direction for 15 years. It was in the world of interior decoration. It was painting on the walls and physical decoration. 

Francesca — Private and public. But, okay, when I bought this place… (Switches to Italian.)

Laura — Everything changed a little when she came to this place, where she has a studio. She started to focus on a specific direction that she felt was her own. She started to focus on a personal path. She started her painting research, but the main reason was that, now, she had a place of her own, and it is a large space. The first studio was small. They were three people in the same room, and she had no space. Not only physical space, but mental space to focus on personal research, so it was just decoration. It was artistic, but not like, you know, individual. 

K+C — Yes, I understand.
One side of Francesca’s studio. This particular space has been Francesca’s studio for over twenty years. Once in an industrial area in Milan, it now includes homes, studios, and gardens. | Photographed by Tornaghi.
Francesca often hangs the pieces she works on around the studio or lays them out on the floor. According to her neighbor, photographer Laura Adai, while Francesca is working the studio “is full and there are pieces of everything,” which Francesca then uses as inspiration. | Photographed by Laura Adai.

Everything changed a little when [Francesca] came to this place, where she has a studio. She started to focus on a specific direction that she felt was her own. She started to focus on a personal path. 

Laura Adai translating for Francesca Zoboli

The metal staircase leads to the second floor of the space. | Photographed by Laura Adai.
Francesca’s supply of various types of paper, which she uses in her work. Personal touches, including the chest of drawers hand-painted by Francesca (above), are around the studio space. In general, the interior is a mixture of minimal and industrial elements. | Photographed by Laura Adai.

The impact of a new studio space and a new opportunity

K+C — What impact did the new space have on your work, Francesca?

(Francesca speaks in Italian.) 

Laura — Slowly, slowly, she shifted from the decoration to the personal research and paintings. However, she also realizes that her painting direction is always connected with something else that comes from the previous world. For example, her decoration work is the background of her personal painting research. 

So, the first thing she made was paper, hand-painted papers. She shifted from the realistic painting for decoration and did hand-painted papers with abstract subjects. It was more personal and totally different from the previous work because she focused on more abstract expression. 

She understood that the main medium she was interested in was paper, so she proposed it to architects and decorators as an artistic way of decorating spaces. She used techniques in this new work that came from decoration work, like gold leaf on paper. These techniques came from decoration and she applied them to her painting work. 

Francesca — The technique I used is called frottage. (Switches to Italian.)

Laura — She used candle wax to do a technique that’s called frottage. So, for this technique, she melts candle wax.

Francesca — For example, I used elements (holds up netting) and I used this… (holds up a candle.)

Laura — She puts wax on the textile and then puts the paper on the textile — that has wax on it — and the wax will [make an imprint of the textile] on the paper. 

Francesca — Like a sort of batik.  

K+C — Yes. Did you use this technique in your decoration work, as well?

Francesca — Sì [Yes], for a shop in Paris for Kenzo [in 2006]. (Switches to Italian.)

Laura — So, slowly, she developed a different way to work with decoration that was more artistic.

K+C — And that is what led to wallpaper?

Francesca — Yes. (Switches to Italian.)

Laura — Yes, she started in a way — how can I say? It was not printed, it was unique. Everything was hand-painted, so every piece [of wallpaper] was unique — like all the wall was handprinted. It was like a mural, mainly on pieces of paper glued to the wall. She learned it from a tapestry master. 

Francesca — And I was very clever to glue paper on objects, walls, and so on. (Switches to Italian.)

Laura — The shift came when she met the owner of a very famous wallpaper company [Wall&decò].

Francesca — I began nine years ago, and now I’m…

Laura —  She’s still working for them.

(Francesca switches to Italian.)

Laura —  So, in the beginning, she went on thinking of this job only as handwork, like a painter. It was still like decorating on the wall. But this new opportunity of [working with] the printer and print possibilities [opened up opportunities]. They can make it any size, and also, it’s a very big market. 

K+C — Right.

(Francesca continues in Italian.)

Laura —  What is beautiful, is that you don’t have to think of selling [the work]. 

K+C — True! The company does it for you.

Francesca — Sì! [Yes!]

Laura — You work and they will sell to anybody, but that’s not the point. Your point is the work. 

A wallpaper called Biancospino that Francesca created for Wall & Decò. | Photo courtesy of Francesca Zoboli and Wall & Decò.

The possibilities that come with a new medium

K+C — Was this easy for you? Did it feel natural or was it a new challenge? 

Francesca — No, I find it very natural. I think that my way of working is perfect for this medium, but I have to say that… (Continues in Italian.) 

Laura —  He (Francesca’s contact at Wall&decò) is very open-minded — a very sensitive person, and a clever person. That’s why it’s very easy to deal with [him] because he has a very similar way of approaching the work of art. In the beginning, there was no direction. 

Francesca — No, no. Now, in the last four or five years, we have received — mood board? — some subjects to have a reference. 

Laura — So now they have a mood board with references just to give some idea of what they would like to see. But, they are very philosophical about that. So they give you subject still, but Francesca feels she can do whatever she likes anyway because they know her work. So the mood board is just a suggestion for the direction, but it’s not a storyboard. 

K+C — Wow, that’s so uncommon! It’s so wonderful to hear that you have so much freedom to be creative in a way that feels natural.

(Francesca speaks in Italian.)

Laura — She started this collaboration thinking of the possibilities of the digital medium, knowing already that there would be opportunities to modify or develop the subject. It was also an opportunity for her to develop her approach to her work. 

(Francesca continues in Italian.)

Laura —  So [even though] there’s an effort to make the work with more layers, more elaborative, the starting point is always artistic, let’s say, with paper and color, not digital. Then, she puts everything together and explores the possibilities with that medium.

She doesn’t paint directly in Photoshop. She doesn’t use digital brushes. The starting point is always with the papers, such as the ones you saw in the pictures (above). She puts everything together and explores different kinds of layers, colors, and possibilities. 

K+C — I see. So, you paint directly on paper and then you scan it into a computer to experiment in Photoshop?

Francesca — Sì. [Yes.] (Nodding)

K+C — What has that experience been like bringing a new, digital tool into a very tactile, hand-based process?

(Laura and Francesca speak in Italian.)  

Laura — Since she knows that the destination is a printed wallpaper it changes everything. In the end, the work will be something printed, so she doesn’t need to feel it in such a [tactile] way. When she knows that the work won’t be printed, then this part is more important. Therefore, she doesn’t think she needs or misses anything, because in the end it will not be tactile, it will be printed. So when she sets her mind in that direction it’s easier. Even if she uses papers that have a very nice [texture], that will be lost [in the digitalization process]. So, she must focus on what shows up in the printing. 

K+C — Mhmm. So, because the wallpaper is printed, it makes it easier to work in Photoshop because it’s also “printed,” or the precursor to the printed version?

Francesca — Yes. (Switches to Italian.)

Laura — Anyway, in her work, there is always something hand-painted because that’s always the starting point, whether the result is printed or not. So, the digital side is always a mixture.

She has also done some experiments with photographic techniques. It’s like contact paper with natural elements, like chemical paper, and they made the wallpaper out of them. They made the wallpaper out of this experiment where she puts some natural elements on the chemical paper.

Francesca — I have a print from a photocopy and I use a photo of a plant and the process is like an old image. 

K+C — Like an old plant illustration?

Francesca — Sì. [Yes.]

(Laura and Francesca speak in Italian.)

K+C — I think I know what you mean. Is it like this? (Shares screen to show blue solar photo paper.)

Francesca — I think next year I will use [solar photo paper]. It’s not this, but the result is similar. 

Cyanotype prints of various plants. | Photograph courtesy of Francesca Zoboli.
K+C — Okay, and what inspires you when you layer these different elements, whether digitally or by hand?

(Laura and Francesca speak in Italian.)

Laura — It’s very difficult to explain because she when starts she still doesn’t know what she’s going to do. It comes by doing it, during the process. The work builds during the process. 

For example, she started from the drawing of two birds and the idea of using frottage came to her, and while doing it she understood that that would be the technique to use. However, the stripes that came from printing led to the direction. Before starting, she knew that she wanted to use birds and she knew the technique, but the result built up while she worked on it. 

The color research led the direction. So, let’s say, she knows the results she wants to achieve and this was the direction. 

(Francesca holds up some of her striped works on paper.)

Laura — Now, she’s showing you some of the works in my pictures. The pictures you have seen on Unsplash (image sharing platform), you don’t see clearly because of the royalties. Since I put the pictures on Unsplash, these are free, and anyone can use them commercially. So, I didn’t put any images that were clearly showing the work of art. 

K+C — More the materials. 

Laura — Yes, and it was just details of the brushes or the studio, but not the work of art. 

Francesca — This. (Holds up her striped paintings.)

Francesca experiments with multiple colors, shapes, and patterns for a new series. | Photographed by Laura Adai.
K+C — Yes! I’ve seen these on your Instagram. 

Francesca — This is how I came to begin… (Holds up sheets of paper with painted stripes in different colors.)

K+C — Then you worked step by step?

Francesca — Sì. [Yes.] Step by step. (Switches to Italian)

Laura — Since the beginning, her way of working [has been primarily] collage. She prepares a lot of papers and tools. Then, she spends a lot of time putting them together and thinking about the possibilities of mixing colors and textures. 

Francesca uses an array of tools in her work. This photo illustrates the variety she included in a workshop in Florence. | Photograph courtesy of Francesca Zoboli.
K+C — So this, for example? (Shows a picture from one of Francesa’s workshops from a blog she wrote, as seen above.) 

Francesca — Yes. So, lace, for example, or [stencils]. So, in particular, this image is from a workshop I did in Florence where… (Switches to Italian)

Laura — There was an exhibition and she had a workshop there. For this exhibition, she tried to put the tools together to explore the possibilities of these tools with the people in the workshop.

K+C — I understand. It looks like you surround yourself with different tools to experiment or play, in a way, and then you let the experience teach you.

Francesca — Yes. (Nods. Switches to Italian.)  

Laura — The origin of everything is that she never stopped playing. She uses different tools, different textures, of any kind of origin. I can tell you because when I see her from the window and [the studio] is full and there are pieces of everything, something will come out from that.

She is always mixing. The balance between shades is crucial to this work. So, she spends hours and hours mixing different shades with the same pattern — then changing, then mixing again. And, on the floor, she’ll have fifty pieces of paper with many, many patterns, and then they will come together at the end. So, this is part of this job.

K+C — And the research, I suppose, too?

Francesca — Yes. 

Laura — Exactly.

Stacks of Francesca’s striped paintings. | Photographed by Laura Adai.
Some of the tools Francesca uses in her striped paintings are the combs above. | Photographed by Laura Adai.

The origin of everything is that [Francesa] never stopped playing. She uses different tools, different textures, of any kind of origin…

Laura Adai translating for Francesca Zoboli

Stencils also play a role in her most recent series of paintings. | Photographed by Laura Adai.
Francesca adds paint to one of her striped works. | Photographed by Laura Adai.

Books, interiors, and the influence of many different creative “worlds”

K+C — This reminds me of the colors you have on the back wall. The spots of color on the big piece of paper next to the clock. Are these examples of shades that you’ve explored. (First image below.)

Francesca — Yes. This and this are studies for two little books. (Switches to Italian.)

Laura — She made books out of this. They were a study of the colors, but in the end, they were a book. So every page got a spot of color and you open and you open. It was a personal project, but she made it on request. So, she would make it if you asked for it, but she only made it if somebody requested. 

Francesca — You can open it (gestures as if she opens a book vertically like an accordion), and you can hang it on the wall.

K+C — Since you studied interior decoration, how much dialogue happens between your work on paper and space, now that you’re some years away from your decoration practice?

(Francesca speaks in Italian.)

Laura — She learned the techniques as a decorator, and especially the relationship with space because she was used to working on very big spaces. Now, she still thinks of big spaces when she’s working. Her paintings are often very big because she’s used to thinking of the space as a very large surface. 

Multiple references hang in Francesca’s studio near her desk, including a poster-sized print of what would later become self-made, hand-bound accordion booklets, or Chromatic Notebooks. | Photographed by Laura Adai.
Chromatic Notebooks by Francesca Zoboli. | Photograph courtesy of Francesca Zoboli.
K+C — Ah, I see. I was wondering about scale because seems that it’s a big part of your work. From huge expanses of wallpaper to paintings or even illustrated books and book jackets.

Francesca — Ah, yes, but there is another thing. Fifteen years ago, my sister opened her publishing house, and my husband is an illustrator, so indirectly, I began to… (Switches to Italian.)

Laura — She got in touch with a lot of people from that world — the illustration world. So she got in touch with this world of very small illustrations because of her husband and her sister, and she started to make illustrations.

In the beginning, it was, let’s say, a way of playing with it. So, it was a starting point. However, it was because of this world of editorial illustration that she started to think of illustration on a reduced scale for the first time. This was fifteen years ago. She was working for her sister. Topipittori is the name of her sister’s publication and another one that’s called La Grande Illusion. That’s another publisher.

Francesca —  And, sometimes, I do unique projects. So, some years ago, I, … (Switches to Italian.)

Laura — There was a competition for tactile books, and she won the first prize. It was a tactile book competition [to design books] for people who are blind, so this book was specifically for this project. Francesca makes books that are just one copy because they are handmade. They are artistic books, works of art. 

K+C — So, with all these different experiences in mind, do you still think very big? Or do you now think in smaller proportions?

(Laura and Francesca speak in Italian.)

Laura — More bigger. (Laughing.)

(Francesca continues in Italian and walks away to look for something.)

Laura — She says that when she thinks of a project, she always thinks big. It’s difficult for her with a subject and, let’s say, the words of a story — to think as a small illustration, and another one and another one. So she has made books, but her idea is always to paint big.

Francesca — Do you know this? (Holds up a book with a person riding a horse titled Dame E Cavalieri.) 

K+C — I remember the illustration from your sister’s website, but I’m not familiar with it beyond the cover.

(Francesca continues in Italian.)

Laura — It is to help children to understand and get in touch with classical works of art, through the eyes of an artist or an illustrator. She was interested in helping children to understand the Italian Renaissance through textile art — the clothes that you could find in the paintings of the period.

Francesca — When I was young, there were some books with dolls — paper dolls.

K+C — Yes, I remember them!

Francesca — So something like that. (Holds up the book, opened to a page with two illustrations of a woman’s profile.) This is a representation of two famous paintings and the silhouette. So, you can find a lot of patterns. For example, this is very famous. (Refers to an illustrated silhouette similar to that of the painting Portrait of Federico da Montefeltro by Piero della Francesca, 1467–1472. Francesca switches to Italian.)

Laura — And you can dress the subject with the patterns she drew. So you’ve got the drawing [of the person] and you’ve got the patterns, and you can cut out the clothes from the pattern pages. You can make your own work of art with the drawings in the book — cutting the papers and putting the clothes on the dolls. 

Francesca — And this is the same. (Holds up another book with a mosaic face on the cover.)

The cover of a children’s book Francesca helped create with Marta Sironi for her sister’s publishing company, Topipittori. | Photograph courtesy of Francesca Zoboli.
In a blog post written for Topipittori, Francesa details the process of creating the book. | Photograph courtesy of Francesca Zoboli.
K+C — Oh, wow!

Francesca — The same, you can … (Gestures scissors cutting the paper.)

Laura — So children can learn the history of art through playing with images. You can cut pieces and make your own mosaics. 

Francesca— And you can pick the colors from the book. (Shows pages with different colored patches that have white guidelines to help someone cut out the mosaic squares.)

Laura — It’s a playful way to understand the history of art for children.

K+C — Yes, and how color works together. 

Francesca — Yes. The idea is to think about the illustration, but not only. All the projects… (Switches to Italian.)

Laura — It’s not really the illustration of a story. It’s another way of thinking of the book for the children — well, not only for the children — but, not this is the text and this is my drawing. It’s the idea of an illustration. First comes the images and the text comes later, and she thinks it’s difficult for her to do the opposite. She thinks she cannot manage to work on a text first.

Francesca — And now, the last book I made… (Gets up to look for something and continues in Italian.)

Laura — In a few days, she will have an exhibition on these books. It will be a presentation of these books. I haven’t seen it yet. She’s getting it now [from somewhere in her studio]. It’s a new one. 

Francesca — I studied these shapes. (Holds up a book with solid vase silhouettes in different bright colors.) This is a sort of alphabet, and after, I did these compositions. (Flips to another page in the book.) But this is a digital composition. I painted these [by hand] (refers to a page of different colored vase silhouettes), and after I scanned [them].

Laura — She scanned these paintings as the basis and all the illustrations inside [the book] are a digital mix. 

Francesca — Sort of infinite possibilities. And the text is written by my sister, who is a writer. (Switches to Italian.)

K+C — That’s so nice that you have someone who works creatively in another way in your family that you can collaborate with. 

Francesca — Sì. [Yes.] It’s very interesting. (Nods and smiles.)

The mercurial side of creative collaborations

K+C — I wanted to ask, because you’ve worked with your sister and you’ve done so many workshops and courses. What do these creative collaborations or these shared experiences bring to your creative practice? 

(Laura and Francesca speak in Italian.)

Laura — She thinks that in order to always be creative, to make something new, you always need to get in touch with new experiences and new people. That will help you to grow and do something new. 

K+C — Yes. 

(Francesca continues in Italian.)

Laura — She says something that’s very difficult to translate. 

So, there is something like, mercurio [mercury]. It’s like you’ve got something that can go in different directions. It’s the same thing that can be one way or another way, but that’s it. You are that thing, but you can go in many different directions, according to the thing that you are meeting with, or the way you choose to go. Even though it’s always you.

K+C — Ah, I understand what you mean.

Laura — It’s always you, but the shape changes according to the way you push or the people you get in touch with. They take you in one direction or another. It’s always you, but it can take you in many directions. 

K+C — Right.

Laura — It’s always her, but it’s on a very big scale in the wallpaper, and this is very tiny on a printed book.  

K+C — Yes, it’s a domino effect. You have your style, your way of making, but perhaps someone inspires a new thought and a new way of looking at something. Then, you research it in a way that’s your style. 

(Francesca and Laura both nod.)

K+C — It makes sense, and is natural that way. I wanted to ask about control, as well, because with all these layers — well, with or without the layers — there’s always the question of when to stop. 

Francesca — It’s very difficult. All of the work is… (Switches to Italian.)

Laura — The biggest challenge is knowing when to stop because the [aim] is to reach the perfect moment. In general, she understands that it’s better to take away than to add, but her background as a decorator doesn’t help with this. 

K+C — No, it’s add, add, add. (All laughing.)

Laura — Yes, decoration is more and more, and more. So, that background does not help, but she understands that it’s better when she’s able to take parts away. 

K+C — Yes. I enjoyed the blog you wrote about this on your sister’s publishing website — that you thought about how to show them to be critical of their own work. For example, how to look at different elements and determine if they’re working together or fighting. If I may ask, how do you teach that?

Francesca — It’s very difficult because… (Switches to Italian.) 

Laura — When she teaches, what she tries to do is teach the process of making. You cannot speak in an abstract way. 

(Francesca continues in Italian.)

Laura — Her method of working is to work on the work. You have to start from a practical point. So where she teaches, at this design school, she starts from a project. The students work on a project for wallpaper. This year, the subject was nature. And she tried to show them through images how the subject of nature has always been connected to the wallpaper subject. 

Francesca — For example, the Pompei fresco, or tapestry. (Switches to Italian.)

Laura — The history of the tapestry or wallpaper, [nature] has always been the subject. 

K+C — As I believe you said, the flower is the king of the interior.

Francesa — Sì. [Yes.] So the students tried to work… (Switches to Italian.)

Laura — She has the students work from very small details, not very a big idea, but starting from a small part, a small element, that can be the subject of the final drawing, the final work. It’s not all the work, done and finished. But step by step.

Also, they talk a lot about this. Together, between each other and also with her, the teacher. So, they start with one element and they talk about that, and they have a discussion. 

(Francesca continues in Italian.)

Laura — So, she tries to start the discussion to help them think about, through small suggestions, how this idea can be developed. She’s not teaching this, and this, and this —just starting with the idea and guiding them.

Francesca — Yes. Another thing that is very important is to… (Switches to Italian.)

Laura — To build your own creativity, to look around, go to exhibitions, and see what’s out there, because you build up your own style by looking around. So, you have to be present to what’s outside. 

K+C — I couldn’t agree more! Francesca and Laura, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. It was such a pleasure talking to you both.
One of Francesca’s personal artwork series from 2018 analyzes the iris plant. The project came from an investigation into scientific botanical tables, of which some suggestions remain. | Photograph courtesy of Francesca Zoboli.

Interested in another studio visit? Click here for an interview and studio tour with artist and designer Sara Plantefève-Castryck.
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