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June 2014

Mario Trimarchi

On Wednesday morning we went to Mario Trimarchi's multidisciplinary design studio FRAGILE. Mario is one of Allessi's design collaborators that we heard about the previous day.

Like most places in Milan, the studio on via Ariosta sits behind a large wooden door and through a courtyard, secluded from the noise of the busy city street. The courtyard is lush with flowers, yellow mosaic walkways, and pale pink, paisley walls. Image
The studio entrance is at the top of an ornate marble staircase, and opens up to a bright office with high ceilings that, according to Mario, "let you fill the room with ideas from the top of your head." Image
He is an animated man with round glasses and frequent hand gestures. His passion and energy for his work is apparent as he tells us, "we are not eternal, but most of the objects we design are," and, "some of the best designs use humor" (another theme for the week). Image
He shared several of his designs with us, explaining how they went from concept (which he comes up with and draws by hand) to production (which is done with the aid of a computer and his Swiss assistant, Didier) and package design (which he also has a hand in). By way of example, he explained how as a boy in Sicily he was fond of playing cards. When the Scirocco winds blew off the coast of North Africa, they not only deposited Sahara dust on everything, they also caused his cards to flutter through the air. This image led to the "La Stanza Dello Scirocco" collection of stainless steel, geometrically irregular items like the below fruit basket: First he sketches his ideas. Image
Then they design a prototype with the aid of a computer. Image
The design gets manufactured. Not only is it functional, but it's a thing of beauty, where even the shadows it projects become part of the design. Image
Lastly, packaging is designed with the same level of attention as the product itself. Image
This was another great example of how everyday items can be beautifully designed. And how visually interesting work spaces can provide a lot of creative energy.


Tuesday afternoon (yes, that is only as far as I've gotten with these posts because we have done so much I can't keep up!) was the trip that most of us [women] had been waiting for: a tour of the Missoni factory and talk with Angela Missoni herself.

We drove to Varese where all of their iconic knitwear is made in a pair of low buildings surrounded by towering white birch trees and other greenery. The main office appears to be in a rather unassuming building, until you get close enough to see the enormous vase sculpture out front, covered with their signature zigzag pattern. Image
Funny story: Angela's parents, Ottavio and Rosita Missoni, started the business in 1953. In 1967, they were invited to show at the Piti Palace in Florence, and Rosita asked the models to remove their bras because she didn't like how they showed through the thin knits. When the lights hit the models, it created quite a sensation and the Missonis weren't invited back! Thankfully Diana Vreeland, then editor of American Vogue, was a big champion of the label and the business went on to great success.

Angela took over the business in 1998. She was great - so warm and funny, and willing to take photographs with us and to share anecdotes about her family and business - from its modest beginnings to the 2011 Target collaboration that sold out in 24 hours and caused Target's website to crash. Despite their commercial success, Missoni has purposely stayed small (250 people at this factory). Matriarch Rosita still lives next door, and Angela's daughter Margherita is now an accessories designer at the firm.  

Their workspace is colorful and elegant, as you would expect. This is a large family tapestry (needlepoint) that hangs in the entryway, commemorating all of their milestones (e.g., marriages, births) - Angela provided the backstory on each one. Image
And check out the bathroom! Image
We walked through the factory next door and witnessed all steps of the production line, from pulling individual threads off of spools into a mechanical loom, to the resulting swatches of zigzag knitware, to huge bolts of the fabric in a variety of colors, and all of the men and women piecing items together by hand. Image
I took some amazing behind-the-scenes photos, but they asked us not to publish them because they are next season's designs and they fear copycats. Suffice it to say, theirs is an incredibly colorful and energetic work space, with heaps of fabric, jumbles of sketches and swatches, half-finished garments, whirring machinery, and smiling workers intently marking measurements on mannequins and hand stitching the final pieces. I will share the detailed photos with those of you I see in person; it was really a remarkable operation.

The Lake Region

After our visit to Alessi we drove through the nearby Lakes region, past the beautiful Lake Como (currently famous for being George Clooney's second home, but rich in true history: it's one of Europe's deepest lakes at 1,345 feet; the town of Bellagio on its shores has been an English enclave for 200 years; Pliny the Elder (born AD 23, Roman author, naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire) and Pliny the Younger (lawyer, author, and magistrate of Ancient Rome whose letters are one of our main sources of info on Roman life) both lived here; Alessandro Vota (self taught physicist who invented the battery and for whom "volts" are named) was born here in 1745; and Benito Mussolini and his mistress were executeed here before being taken to Milan where his body was put on display.

But my favorite bit of history is that many of the Romantic poets that I studied in College - Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, and fellow Bowdoin grad Henry Wadsworth Longfellow all wrote here. And I can see why: it's a beautiful landscape to draw from. We drove on to the smaller Lake Orta at had lunch at Ristorante Giardinetto on its shore. There, we sat outside on the terrace with the Italian Alps as a backdrop: Image
Dozens of swallows (rondinello) were busy making mud nests in the rafters above us: Image
And I ate the most delicious lake fish made with butter and sage followed by Liquid Naples Pasteria (a sort of pudding with chunks of yellow cake and citrus bits, cinnamon ice cream, and pastry crumble). Image
Heaven. Image


On Tuesday we drove up to Crusinallo di Omegna (Verbania) to visit the Alessi factory. Alessi is the market leader in innovative kitchen utensil, and they have a museum and archive here to document the history of the company, plus all of its domestic utensils and appliances. Image
With its location near the Italian Alps, and its colorful headquarters full of humorous designs, it felt like being at Santa's workshop. Image
These are demo bathrooms on their front lawn: Image
They also have a lovely mosaic in their lobby that is made up of thumbnail images of their employees and reads, "Buon Lavoro" which is loosely translated to "Enjoy Working Together." Image
Their space is bright and quirky, like their products: Image
They are in constant product development, and even items that don't go into commercial production (sometimes the prototype just doesn't please the designer and they scrap it) are "frozen" and archived here, because they feel that they can learn from every experience. Image
So the archive is full of all sorts of colorful bowls, flatware, clocks, vases, juicers, toothbrushes, cookware, and on and on! In all, there are about 17,000 objects on floor-to-ceiling glass shelves, along with 14,000 drawings and 20,000 photos. Image
Included in the collection are some of their most popular items, like the Bombe teapot designed by Carlo Alessi in 1945, the 9090 espresso coffee maker designed by Richard Sapper (the first company piece to be added to New York's Museum of Modern Art permanent collection), and items from Phillip Starck and Salvador Dali! Here is our guide holding up a scrapbook with a photo of Dali and one of his designs: Image
And then there was this: Image
In addition to highlighting certain pieces in the collection, our guide shared the history of this family business, which was founded by Giovanni Alessi in 1921; he wanted to produce hand-crafted items with the aid of machines. His son Carlo, a trained industrial designer, went on to become CEO in 1945. In 1955, Carlo's younger brother Ettore, a technician in the business, introduced collaborations with external designers. From the 1980s onward, Alessi has been known for its designer objects - ordinary tools executed as high design (particularly post-modern). This was a recurring theme at the various studios and workshops we visited this week. And of course we got to shop at the end of the tour, at the wonderful Alessi outlet. Image
Another theme of the week is bringing humor into design, and Alessi nailed it.

Piazza Della Scala

On the opposite side of the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle II from The Duomo is Piazza Della Scala. It is named after the famous Teatro alla Scala opera house, which sits on the northwest side of the square. On the southeast side sits Palazzo Marino, Milan's city hall, which was built in 1563 and is the oldest building on the square. Image
Teatro alla Scala was designed by neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini and opened in 1778. While the exterior is rather dull, the interior is more interesting (so I'm told) and rich with history. Or, as author and photographer Robyn Lea noted in her book Milan: Discovering Food Fashion and Family in a Private City, "Austere on the outside, vibrant and evocative on the inside, it is the perfect metaphor for Milan itself. Image
In the center of the plaza is a monument honoring Leonardo da Vinci, which was erected in 1872. Da Vinci is considered one of the most multi-talented people of all time. Reliefs depict some of the disciplines that da Vinci mastered (painting, sculpting, engineering and architecture), as well as his four favorite students who stand at his feet. One of his most famous works was created during his stay in Milan: The Last Supper in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church (which I also saw, and will appear in a subsequent post. Image
Lastly, this chain and locks was on the small fence around the statue, but I don't know what they symbolize. Do you? Image

Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II

The 157 foot, glass-domed, octagonal Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle II is an enormous, ornate shopping arcade linking Piazza della Scala and Piazza del Duomo, and is home to the likes of Prada, Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, and Versace (separate locations from the those located in the nearby Quadrilatero d'Oro). It opened in 1867 and is one of the oldest, chicest shopping malls in the world. Image
Known as il Salotto di Milano (Milan’s drawing room), the Galleria was designed and built by Italian architect and engineer Giuseppe Mengoni between 1865 and 1867. Tragically, he slipped and fell from the central dome the day before it opened. Image
The floor plan is in the shape of a Latin cross, with an octagonal centre adorned with mosaics representing four continents: Europe, America, Africa and Asia. There are also signs of the zodiac, one being Taurus the Bull – tourists spin on its genitals (!) which is said to bring good luck. Image

The Duomo

The Duomo is the cathedral church of Milan and the seat of the Archbishop, Cardinal Angelo Scola. It is just breathtaking. Image
One of the largest churches in Europe, it stands 354 feet tall and has 3,500 statues, 135 spires, 95 gargoyles, and a copper figure of the Madonna covered in 3,900 sheets of gold leaf. Image
Construction began on the Gothic structure in 1386 and took 500 years to complete. It was Napoleon who pressed for its completion; he crowned himself King of Italy there in 1805. Image
In addition to going inside the Cathedral, I was able to go up on the roof, where the architectural detail (as well as the view of the city and distant Italian Alps) is just mind boggling. Image
Sadly, given the poor state of the Italian economy and resulting cuts to its culture budget, it's proving difficult to raise funds needed for ongoing repair and maintenance of a structure that old and large. So they've resorted to putting the gargoyles up for "adoption" (for a 6 figure donation you can get your name carved under it) and running a large video advertising screen on the repair scaffolding. Gross. Image

Quadrilatero d'Oro

The shopping in Milan puts every other city to shame. Newbury Street? HA. This is just a sampling of the stores in the Quadrilatero d'Oro, a fashion neighborhood along four adjoining streets north of the Duomo, collectively known as the Golden Quadrilateral (Via Montenapoleone, Della Spiga, Via Borgospesso, and Via Sant'Andrea): Image
They also have plenty of non-luxury options like H&M, Zara, and Banana Republic just blocks away, but those aren't nearly as fun window shopping! And yes, the women really are as glamorous as you've heard. I've spotted more than one riding city bikes in 3 inch heels. This woman in front of Prada (and on cobblestone streets!) will show you what I mean: Image

Ornamenti d'Autore

"Even in a piece of non-precious jewelry, you can see the world."
-Deanna Farneti Cera
On Monday morning we visited Oramenti d'Autore, the atelier of Deanna Farneti Cera, a world renowned collector and scholar of fashion jewelry (also referred to as "Bijoux," but preferably not "costume.") Image
Deanna has thousands of pieces in her collection, including notable items from Chanel, Givenchy, and a necklace Audrey Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Interestingly, I had seen some of her pieces before, as she supplied a lot of the items featured in a recent exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design in New YOrk City. That one featured the collection of Barbera Burger, who is the top collector of fashion jewelry in the world, and to whom Deanna sold many pieces. Image
Deanna has incredible knowledge of, and passion for, the world of Bijoux, having spent over 30 years in the industry and written a dozen books on the topic. Listening to her speak, you realize that every piece of jewelry is an artifact with cultural significance. Image
She talked about how this type of jewelry came to be - in the 1800's the bourgeoisie wanted to have the kind of jewelry that the nobility had, and new materials became available to make similar, but more affordable versions - and how this kind of jewelry evolved based on the decade and the character of the country of origin. For example, Dior in the 1950's loved the work of Claude Monet, so his brooches were very delicate and flowery; in contrast, costume jewels coming out of the U.S. in the 1980's were very ostentatious, like the times. She also reviewed major turning points in the history of Bijoux, like in 1895 when handmade crystal stones transitioned to industrial cut thanks to Swarovski's patented machine. Image
After her talk, we were allowed to explore the atelier and all of the jewelry and books it houses. It's a cool space: white walls and ceilings with a wrought iron spiral staircase joining the ground floor with a second floor loft, both ares full of jewelry trays, display cases, and stacks of books. Image
Here I am sporting an elaborate Givenchy necklace (pictured above)... Image
...and holding a hand-made beaded clutch that was carried by Jackie Onassis (pictured). Image
What an interesting and enjoyable visit - Deanna was so kind to spend so much time with us, especially on a holiday!

Republic Day

Today is Republic Day in Italy, a national holiday commemorating the establishment of the Italian Republic in 1946 following the Second World War and the fall of Fascism. Here, a band prepares to march near the Plaza la Scala. Image
They also opened up this "Government Palace" one block from our hotel that had previously been closed. It has a beautiful courtyard but I got reprimanded by four policemen when I tried to photograph it, so you'll have to settle for this exterior shot, and a glimpse of the back garden. Image