The appointment was at 7 pm at IZMADE, a working space that is part design studio, part lab and part factory, where the 4 founders are creative minds who create handcrafted and sustainable design products, and where makers who want to learn, experiment and build are welcome.
As soon as you step inside you can smell cooperation and breath creativity.
If you look sharp, between the clothes racks made from rubber hoses and the desk lamps made with tomato tin cans, you can see elegant wooden sculptures with delicate colours and shiny finishes (and phallic shapes).
Here, within the carpentry area, is where Silvia Picari‘s wooden dildos were born.
And this is where Silvia bared herself to me and told me how her products contribute to breaking down taboos and bring the topic of sexuality into the everyday, in broad daylight, on the bookcase, as a natural aspect of everyone’s life that determines people’s being.
How do you introduce yourself to someone you meet for the first time?
I’m an artisan and I create wooden sex toys.
Now I feel comfortable telling what I’m doing, I felt less secure at first, I couldn’t believe it was real. It took me some time to realize I was really turning a passion into my job.
Over time I became more confident in what I’m doing, and now it’s easier to share it with others.
What’s people’s reaction?
Someone laughs and most people ask me ‘sex what?’, they don’t even really understand what I’m saying. Then come the questions about the material, because when I say ‘wood’ people picture the penis bottle openers for tourists you find in Greece! [I’d never heard of them, so I googled]
Have you ever hesitated to tell someone what you do?
No, actually I’m proud of it because it’s something original. Not everybody designs sex toys, and what I do, the way I do it, is pretty rare. And this is one of the things I’m most proud of. When I meet someone who is not very open-minded about sexuality, I enjoy even more observing the reaction.
What do you call your products? Sex toys? Erotic toys?
No, they are deliberately hard to define, also because I don’t like labels. They can be used as sex toys, but they are also sculptures, handcrafted design objects, unique pieces of art. My products have no label. When I look for retailers, I choose between erotic boutiques, design shops and art galleries. And this is part of the concept. The fact you can find my objects inside a design store highlights that sexuality is something ‘normal’, part of our lives. You don’t necessarily have to knock at the door of a sex items shop to take care of your sexuality, you can walk into a design store where, next to the cutlery and the ceramics, you find a beautiful wooden dildo to put on the bookcase. This approach is also related to my education as an architect. So you keep yours on the bookcase. Yes!
When did you start designing wooden dildos? Why?
I started unofficially about a year and a half ago. The reason why is part of a transition process started from a personal crisis, the will to put myself out there, the need to express my creativity and the desire of doing something that makes me wake up happy.
Partly, it involves my education as an architect and the fact I’ve always been interested in the product designing. In this field, I’ve always preferred to work with my hands instead of sitting in front of a computer screen all day. I often sketched objects, lamps, tables, chairs, and I liked the idea of making them real by experimenting with material, prototyping, creating mockups.
Partly it’s a reaction to a personal crisis on the job front. I felt unhappy and bored doing something I didn’t like, spending hours on Autocad drawing a small detail of something I would have never seen in its whole.
I always feel the need to express my creativity and I can grow impatient when things flatten out. This combo made me realize I wanted to create something mine. That’s when I met the guys who manage IZMADE in Turin. I was looking for a factory, a shared lab where I could turn my drawings into real objects. I came here with plans to work on my projects and I ended up helping them with their works. I realised I needed to learn woodworking skills before to build anything.
Then I learned how to use a lathe and while I was thinking about creating something that I could call mine, that would also have made people happy, I thought ‘sex toys’ … also because when you start working with a lathe, the first resulting shape is phallic. So I started reading up on the sex toy market.
The choice of creating these toys is also the result of some personal reflections on sexuality and came at a significant moment in my life, when I started thinking about the nature of human relationships.
I tend to be very empathic and I always try to connect with people I meet on more than a superficial level. I like to have friends with whom I can feel free to talk openly about my feelings and discuss anything.
Creating an open dialogue, a positive culture around the topic, can help people to live their life fully and freely.
Other meditations on the subject of sexuality made me realise that this is a topic that breaks through people’s intimacy bringing up deep emotions. Sexuality is one of the most inner and deep aspects, but also the most oppressed, misunderstood and censored, and I think that creating an open dialogue, a positive culture around the topic, can help people to live their life fully and freely.
We constantly worry about cultural constraints, social norms, fashion dictates and family rules that make digging into yourself and finding who you really are and what you really want a hard task. When it comes to sexuality it’s even more difficult, because it involves deep feelings. If you feel rejected sexually and emotionally, you end up going to war with yourself, with your own nature.
Did you have the intention to make a sex toy when you created your first one? Or the shape just emerged out of the material?
No, I wanted to make a sex toy, then I give it to the guys from IZMADE.
I still wasn’t as good as now with the lathe, so the shape was simpler.
have you ever used sex toys before you started designing them? How much did you know and how much have you learned?
Before to think about producing sex toys, I knew about them and I always thought they were pretty nice objects, but I never used one, especially since I’d always lived in shared flats where I didn’t have my own space. But I surfed the web to check the latest trend in the sex toy market.
When I started designing my toys I studied a lot and did a search for brands, sizes, types and materials. The first toys I ever used were mine.
What’s your favourite?
Bubbles. It has 3 spheres with increasing diameter designed to be inserted slowly and to make the muscles open and close around the beads building up pleasure. It can be used for either vaginal or anal play.
Did you use other toys too?
Yes, I bought a vibrating silicone dildo but I was disappointed. Compared to wood, silicone caused more friction when used with no lubricant. It felt fake, unnatural. And the vibration was annoying, it looked too mechanical and noisy, I didn’t like it. Even though it was a good quality toy, with tons of vibration patterns, I always saw it as something too machine-like. Then I tried a ceramic one and I liked it more. Apparently, I prefer hard materials.
It looks to me like the silicone wants to substitute or simulate a penis. I’m not thrilled by the fact you turn the vibration on and it does everything itself, I prefer to do my part. With a wooden toy, it’s you playing the game, moving the toy and deciding how to use it and where to make it go.
What’d you have to learn before to start the production?
I studied about ergonomics and human anatomy, starting from the fact that the average depth of a vagina is about 12cm. Then I had to learn about the sex toys sizes, length and diameter. I examined the sex toys on the market, especially those made from hard material.
Then I found a standard size for my toys but it’s customizable.
Wood is a hard material, doesn’t it hurt?
No! First of all, you don’t beat yourself with a sex toy [right!], then I think it’s intended for a different use. It doesn’t simulate a real penis but it gives you the same sensation of fullness and warmth because wood is a warm material. A wooden sex toy is more like a meditative object than a ready-to-use product; it takes time and patience. The fact wood is hard makes the sensation even more intense. With my silicone vibrator, softer and flexible, I wasn’t able to put pressure on the right spots.
With the wooden one, the leading actor is you, not the toy that does the work for you. That’s what I like most. You are masturbating or playing with your partner and the toy is just one more tool.
A silicone dildo is certainly more elastic and flexible, a wooden one needs to be directed: you have to move your body, your hand and the object. Therefore, I believe it involves a better knowledge of yourself and the spots you want to be stimulated. I always say a wooden toy is unlikely to be chosen as the first sex toy (except for me!).
Here started the ‘Harry Potter moment’, with a question from my better half (who was dealing with angles and footages):
so, is it the dildo that chooses the person or the person who chooses the dildo?
All the materials should be tested because they can give really different sensations. I still have to try stone, steel and glass, but I think the only difference is in the temperature.
Once you are familiar with all of them, it’s you that chooses the dildo. Probably. Boh. [moments of HarryPottian confusion] Tell me what dildo you are and I’ll tell you what you want… tell me what you want and I’ll tell you what dildo you are… I don’t know.. it’s probably either way!
Does anyone ask about the splinters?
Yes, a lot of people, and the answer is: no way! First of all, I don’t mean to hurt people! We’re surrounded by wooden objects but we certainly don’t worry about the splinters every time we seat on a wooden chair.
That being said, I follow a pretty complex process to make the surface smooth and safe. I start sanding the wood when it’s on the lathe. Then I use a pore-filler and I sand again with an extra fine sandpaper. From this moment on, the wood surface is super smooth. I apply another coat of filler, the colour and finally the clear gloss finish that is hypoallergenic and makes the wood waterproof and smooth. My toys can be submerged in water while my silicone one can’t because of the battery compartment. [Score one for Silvia!]
Have you ever thought about producing strap-on dildos to be used with the harness?
Yes, but with a slightly different shape obtained by wood carving. The product is feasible but I wonder if it’s also ergonomic. When you use a hard toy on another person, I think the harness can be limiting. And also, the strap-on simulates male sex, so it contrasts with the use of my toys.
How did you tell your parents? Did you tell one before the other?
They are in Rome, so we speak all together when we call each other. I simply told them ‘I’ve come up with this idea, I want to develop this project, I’m doing some research, it looks there’s a market for it, it might work, I like the idea, there’s this philosophy behind…’ I explained every detail of the project. Sex has never been a taboo subject in my family. When I first told them about the project they didn’t quite know what I was talking about [that’s what you think! – I told her]. Obviously, they knew what sex toys were, but they couldn’t imagine the kind of object I would create. Once I showed them the design, then the prototypes and the entire line, they were genuinely happy, they liked them. They also sew the velvet pouches for me! Sometimes my mum reads the magazine columns about sexuality and suggests me the companies I can contact. Do they also sponsor you? Yes, they do! [Here I pictured them ringing around the relatives to suggest Christmas gift ideas]. They are proud of the way I’m succeeding in my project. They can see the effort I’m making in dealing with everything on my own. They root for me! [here’s when I felt a little jealous!]
What role does your partner play in all this? I guess he gets the funny part!
He definitely gets the funny part but he also helps me out with the pictures and every time I’m behind schedule. I involve him randomly during the moments of panic! He comes with me during the events and presentations or when I have to go over to the retailers. He is really supportive.
[She smiles and looks at him: he’s sitting on a stool and I think he’s still overcoming the incredulity mixed with the embarrassment about being in such a surreal situation, in front of his (naked) partner who’s casually talking to a perfect (naked) stranger]
He still can’t believe this is happening.
[I turn to him] How do you respond to people who ask what business your girlfriend’s in?
I’ve been working in a pretty conservative work environment for just one year, among people usually older than me, including someone I don’t quite know yet. So I often feel like I have to be serious. So far, I told a lot of people about it and everyone was happy and curious. I still have to get to the boss!
Sexuality is part of everyday life, something perfectly natural and 'normal
How do your toys help people to live a more free and open sexuality?
I don’t think I have anything to teach about sexuality. Actually, this topic is almost a pretext as part of the product’s concept. Mine are spontaneous objects, designed to stand on the bookshelf next to the books, the calendar, the working papers. They convey the message that sexuality is part of everyday life, something perfectly natural and ‘normal’, nothing to be sensationalized. Normal… this word is really relative, it could be misinterpreted: it’s because of the idea of ‘normality’ that we’re now labelling something as ‘abnormal’.
Did the way people you know relate to you change since you started designing sex toys?
Those who have known me for longer take this as ‘another of my ideas’ and find my objects beautiful. As for those who just met me, what’s frustrating is getting asked ‘ok but what do you do for a living?’, as if what I’m working on for 24 hours a day was just a hobby.
Some people don’t realise how much work has to be done. It’s not just the production, it also involves the communication and the distribution. My objects take time to be understood, there are taboos to be broken and also a prevailing ignorance. As long as you talk about sex toys and dildos, it might happen that someone raises an eyebrow but everybody knows what we’re talking about. The moment you say ‘wood’, 80% of people don’t even know these products exist. So it’s hard to get to everyone. But the way people relate to me has never changed, they appreciate what I’m doing.
Who’s buying your sculptures?
It’s hard to know for sure. My brand is quite new, so my audience is not that broad yet. So far, it’s split between women, couples and a few men, generally over 30. Recently there was a couple who bought my objects for collection, I guess.
Who’s your model customer?
There’s no model customer, also because of the concept: I’d like to get to everyone with my work. If I have to think about a target audience I can base my business on, I probably think about a woman, medium-high level of education, sensitive to art, open-minded and curious, willing to experiment.
You also create bespoke sex toys: have you received some bizarre requests?
Nothing bizarre, usually the requests concern colours and sizes, or minor changes in the shape. When it comes to size, there are no limitations. The design is something I’m proud of and I don’t want to distort: it’s very distinctive and original compared to other wooden toys. No zebra patterns, please!
What taboos did you face?
No one, actually. People I usually hang out with are very relaxed. I know it’s not a given, but I think I am good at choosing friends. [that jealousy again..] I prefer to be surrounded by a few friends whom I can be myself with.
If I talk about my toys to people who have not yet seen them and I say they’re made of wood, I can see appearing on their face the expression of someone who’s picturing the famous penis bottle opener with all the veins embossed. Sometimes they’re just concerned about the material. Once they see my toys, they relax and start observing.
Have you ever been positively or negatively surprised by people with regard to the topic of sexuality?
Only positively. Didn’t you expect someone to distance himself? Or answers like ‘I don’t need that’?
Someone said ‘I don’t need that’, but it was kind of an ironic joke. I answer ‘but your wife does’.
You put your face on this (your name, surname and something more now..). Have you ever regretted it?
On the contrary. This doesn’t exist without me. There’s so much of myself and my life philosophy in this idea.
At the beginning, I started under an English name, thinking it was more appealing abroad. Then a friend of mine made me see that I was my own product and I didn’t need to invent anything.
Do people who know you for your product feel entitle to treat you differently? To think you as an easy girl?
Generally, men get curious and put some malice on it. My being warm and friendly with everybody, combined with the fact I create sex toys, sometimes is misunderstood. But it never gets vulgar.
With women, it happens that some keep to themselves without asking questions, but it seems to me that they are just unfriendly, it’s not about the dildo. I could say I work in a bank and it wouldn’t make any difference. With an object like this, you are more likely to laugh than be scared. Also because you’re not talking with a femme fatale in 6-inch heels. If it were me, I’d stay in my pyjamas all day!
At this stage in the interview, I gave in. I tried by all means to get some inconvenient backstory out of her, convinced that when you raise the matter of sexuality, you inevitably stumble upon people trapped into taboos and prejudice. Silvia proved me wrong.]
So we didn’t dig up the dirt.
No, it’s been a happy experience so far. I just had to deal with the difficulty in starting a new business on my own and finding sources of funding. The only microcredit fund I found was managed by a Catholic organization!
It can only be two things: I underestimated humankind and sexuality is finally a non-taboo topic people are comfortable with, or Silvia is really good at surrounding herself with people who go through life with an open mind and naturalness.
Having had the opportunity to get to know her a little better, both during the interview and over dinner the same day (with the clothes on), I’m pretty sure it’s the second option.
But starting today, I believe in people a little more and I’m confident soon we all will live a more free, spontaneous and natural sexuality. Thanks in part to Silvia.
Video & Fotografie I’M