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Modernistic floating cubes placed in deconsecrated churches, marble stools shaped like plastic ones, and storage spaces retrofitted into stunning galleries: The creations of designer Massimiliano Locatelli are the epitome of Italian cool. On this episode, Dan speaks with the sharp-tongued architect about his stunning portfolio, and his new line of furniture created from a lifetime of wild experiences and extravagant clients.
Massimiliano Locatelli: I’m not scared to show anymore something. I’m not hiding what I’m developing more and more and more it’s a little bit the truth. I think that the house is to represent your social class and whatever, because it does at the end of the day. Now it’s an important way of imagine when you dress up or whatever. It’s about freedom.
Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein, and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for nearly 20 years and this is my personalized guided tour through the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel, all the elements of a well-lived life. On today’s episode, I’m starting with a simple question. Why is Milan so cool? From the food to the interiors to the people, we’re always drawn back to what most people would consider Italy’s most corporate city. One that most tourists outside of fashion and design typically skip. My guest today epitomizes the style and values that make the city the barometer of chic, Massimiliano Locatelli.
Of course, he’s not from Milan originally. You know how sensitive Italians can get about such things. But for decades, this architect has been creating spaces that have been widely influential in that particular look. Minimal but not cold, colorful sometimes, but never garish. Clever, but never gimmicky. Massimiliano first entered my consciousness in 2015 when WSJ Magazine published his office. Boring sounding, I know, but this wasn’t just any office. He renovated a deconsecrated church in the city center placing a multi-level black steel and glass cube in the center. Elaborate paintings and frescoes and Greek columns contrasted with a stark white floor. Later he convinced our previous guest, Nina Yashar, the owner of the famed design gallery, Nilufar, to convert a storage space into a new curatorial destination that would influence the collecting world for years and still does. More on that later.
Locatelli has offices in New York and Milan and has made a name for himself designing fashion boutiques starting with Trussardi. And then later everyone from Jill Sander and Valentino to Michael Kors. Today he splits his time between creating these commercial spaces and truly unique homes for private clients. Like so many designers at his level, he produces his own unique furniture for the homes he creates. And today he has his own collection of truly unique pieces called Massimiliano Locatelli Editions.
I caught up with Massimiliano from his offices in Milan to talk about the extravagant clients that inspired for such inventive pieces in his collection, how he converted a church and former convent into an office, and why Milan remains a uniquely incredible place for everything cool.
So of course I’m a fan of your work and I’ve known your work for a long time, but I know almost nothing about your early life. Tell me a little bit about some of your earliest memories and where are you from?
Oh, that’s interesting. I’m from Bergamo, and Bergamo is small town like 40 miles north of, 40 kilometers actually, 30 miles north of Milan. And it’s a beautiful town because it’s a medieval town and it’s divided in two and in dialect we say Berghèm de sura, Berghèm de sota, so it’s the upper Bergamo and the lower Bergamo. And the upper Bergamo is a medieval town, as I said, close in a big wall. So there is a stone wall and the city is protected by the wall inside in this huge wall.
I’ve been to Bergamo. Yeah, no it’s…
It’s really special, I have to say.
It is. It’s like two cities completely different.
Yes. And the lower parties its small, like contemporary and it’s more beginning of 20th century and it’s the developing part. And I was living basically on the street going up to Bergamo Alta and yeah, it’s really a different, it’s very close to Milan, but it’s totally different from Milan. The dialect first is a dialect which is used a lot in the job sites because a lot of the contractors are from Bergamo. So as soon as I step in a job site, I say, “Listen guys, I understand dialect, so do not talk bad about me because I know everything.” And it’s true. It’s like a dialect is really another language.
How is it different?
The language you mean?
Oh, the dialect is really like… I have to say it sounds a little bit German, but it’s very… Bergamo was under the Venetian influence for a long time. So it’s a little bit connected to the Venetian dialect, but it’s developing its own way and it’s really another language.
So it’s very similar to the dialect from Brescia. Italy was not the country was, a group of country and unification was at the end of the 19th century. So it’s like if we are a lot of country one into the other and everybody has his own food, his own language, his own thing. And it’s really interesting because these roots are still there.
And our food in Bergamo is the polenta, the yellow polenta…
Oh, I do.
The corn, the flower. Bergamo was in the medieval time a poor city and the polenta was the only food that the people there had. So it was interesting how polenta and formaggio and cheese or polenta [foreign language 00:06:48], it’s birds. So they were hunting birds and they were little birds on the polenta. Now it seems crazy to eat the little birds, but it was it was. It is what it was. And it’s really interesting that Bergamo was where I grew up and it’s a very small reality and the Bergamasque very introverts somehow.
My father was from Piedmont and my mother was from Brescia nearby anywhere north of Italy. They met there. But the reality of Bergamo, everybody’s very proud to be from Bergamo. They basically… We don’t give a shit about Milan or being the big metropolis next to us, but it’s like we are in the privilege to be in that beautiful medieval city and the city is very intact. It’s like you step inside in the walls and you really step back a thousand years. And as you have seen and you’re really in this crystallized medieval city, fantastic.
As I was saying, I was there until my high school and then I moved to Milano for college where I studied at the Politecnico Di Milano. And we don’t have interior design, we are faculty of architecture. That’s it in Italy. So you study architecture and as we say, from the city to the spoon, they teach you everything. It’s a five years college where you like a really pumph inside. And I loved it because it’s really, it was, and it still is really a beautiful school. But I escaped one year and I was for one year in Dublin. I switched with a program and one year I spent the fourth year of the university in Dublin and NCAD, National College of Art and Design.
Did you study, what was that like for you to go to?
That was really fun.
Was it because in Italy really had, I mean colleges are really intense. So for me that was a year, a fun year. And when I came back I had to study double because I have to prove that I was working a lot there, but it was really fun. And Dublin was 1990, 1989. So Dublin was still a beautiful city, the horses with the [foreign language 00:09:06], and for me it was like a Bergamo, a little version of… It was a small, it’s not a big city. So was really interesting.
And then I come back, study, I finished my college and then I moved to the Big Apple and I did my PhD in New York. Where of course was a different scenario and was a big, big story because I remember I went to the Columbia University. I was there for vacation the summer, and I went to the Columbia University and I saw Kenneth Frampton. I was like, what?
When we study in Italy, we called the books with the name of the writer. So we were studying The Frampton, [foreign language 00:09:48] Frampton was the history of architecture book was one of our big book in university. So when I arrived at the Columbia I said, “Wow, so there is a Mr. Frampton who is…” So I went to talk to him and I said, “I really would like to see something from your side with your eyes.” And he said, “Okay, come over. We can start in September.” And we started and I did my PhD there for three years. And so I became really familiar with the city and then so, let’s say from Bergamo to New York and it was a big jump.
That was a big jump. How long were you in New York?
From there since ever, because then I got a little place and then I kept it and then I got a bigger one, and then I became part of the city and of the scene there. And it was really interesting because at the beginning I had Italian friends as Italian do, and then you start friends at school, friends around and opening up and then you become part of the city and you feel part of the city. And I remember the day when I was, and I was flying a lot back and forth because after the PhD we opened the office and everything, and I was flying back and forward. And the day that I was flying to New York and I was not feeling enthusiastic or with a butterfly in the stomach, like, “Wow, I’m going to New York”, which was normal to go to New York. I said, that’s really sad because now maybe I can consider myself a little bit one finger, New Yorker, but I don’t have the emotion that, “Oh my God, I’m landing in New York.” And then I was really sad. I was really sad.
But at that point I could understand it was quite normal, unfortunately to be back and forward. And then that’s what I’ve done since ever now and after the COVID I have to say that I was excited and happy to be back because we couldn’t come for a couple of years to the United States as European. So it was really nice to be back and was full of enthusiasm. But then it’s normal.
To me, your sense of style and your sense of design is… I immediately connected with Milan as a city and what I think of as Milanese design today, very contemporary. What defines that sense of style? And I think a lot of designers in Italy have used your furniture or have used some of the look, but I’m wondering now that you work abroad and you work all over the world and we’ll be speaking about some pieces that you’ve had in Asia and other projects, what do you think you have absorbed in your career that separates you from other Italian designers and your contemporaries that makes you unique?
Yeah, that’s interesting because I was talking now at lunch with a journalist about a house I’ve been designing in India and that was really interesting and this is really reflecting what you are asking me because in Milan we are very low-key, low profile, you don’t have to show at all. If you richer you are, less you show. So quiet, no show off. That’s really in the culture. Now, it’s interesting because a lot of foreigners are coming to Milan, especially from London because there is this flat rate tax. You pay a hundred thousand if you’re arriving from outside and for 10 years you pay… Like London was doing before like now this is the moment for things. So a lot of people from England, all the bankers are coming to Milan and they want an apartment. And they want apartments around 8,000, 10,000 square feet.
But we don’t have them in Milan, a big apartment in Milan is 3000, 4,000 square feet. It’s considered a big family apartment. So they’re like, “Oh my god.” I was talking to a broker yesterday. He was like, “Oh my god, but why you don’t have 9,000, 10,000 square feet apartment?” It’s not, maybe you can buy two, you have to find two on the same floor and combine them. But it’s not what we have. It’s not in our tradition, like 3-4,000 is already a big apartment in Milan. And families live in 2000 square feet.
And New York has different situations because there are townhouses. We don’t have townhouses. So a townhouse can be a bigger space and if you buy the whole townhouse can be a bigger space. There are apartments on Park Avenue in that area and Upper East Side where there are really big apartment. But in Milan we don’t. And they were asking me, “Why you don’t a big apartment?” Because people here don’t want to show off too much. Really is what it is. And if you see people, especially in winter in Milan, and I don’t think it’s sad, but it’s like the static here, gray maybe beautiful fabric, but very simple, very think about Prada.
Think about the austerity of Prada, the elegance and the austerity of the way [foreign language 00:15:05] Prada thinks the women. No? Like kind of monastic culture and really not too much. So the same is into the interiors, the same is into architecture. The same is into that kind of aesthetic. And when I was called a few years ago, to design the house of the Ambani family in Mumbai, was really interesting because there are two brothers, one of them Mukesh has the 1 billion dollar house, called the 1 billion dollar house. They call the house with the quantity of money is being spent to build the house.
Mukesh Ambani is the richest guy in India, and he lives in the 1 billion dollar house. So the wife of the brother Anil Ambani came to my office. My office at the time was in the church, came to my office and I didn’t know who she was. She arrived. I remember vividly the memory of when she stepped in was a beautiful Indian woman and she was arriving from a wedding in Venice. So, okay, for me it was Venice, India. Okay. And she arrived with this beautiful necklace, with this green crystal, big bubbles and a big Buddha in crystal like that.
Right, like… large.
Buddha, India like beautiful, no? And I said, “Wow, I didn’t know that in Venice they were blowing glass with a Buddha shape. That’s really interesting. I didn’t know that Venice was into Buddha or [inaudible 00:16:38].” And she said, “Dear, this is an emerald.” And was big as a statue and the glass, it was so big and it was like, “Okay, let’s talk.” And I didn’t know who she was and what was impressive because they are not scared to show. And then I worked on the project of their house and they were like, “You know what, we are competing with my brother-in-law.” She was saying, “And he has the most expensive house in the world, so we have to design a house which is better than his house.” And I was like, “Wow.” That’s for me a big different point of view. You know?
And I remember when I was going to India and we were discussing the project, et cetera, et cetera, they were giving parties and the wife of Anil Ambani, this guy was designing the house for, she was an ex Bollywood actress, so she was inviting all the Bollywood people and everybody was showing huge jewelry. Huge, huge jewelry. And I was like, this is a way of being, which is exactly the opposite of how I grew up. No, it’s like we feel guilty if you have a little bit too much, you don’t feel right if you’re showing what you have and you really think in Milan and in Italy, but in Milan especially, you don’t feel in the right place if you are in this kind of ostentation, you have really to keep it private. And if you never talk about money, if you talk about it, you talk like half-and-half and half of what you have, you turn it down.
India is the opposite. They enjoy it, they love it, and they show it. And so that was for me, a huge learning process. And they were not scared or shamed about their richness. Everybody knew they were really rich and they wanted to live with it.
So have you picked up on some of that showmanship a little bit? You think that over time you’ve become a little bit less?
Not so exactly. That is the point. Then now I look things from a different point of view. And of course I’m not used to emerald like that and it’s not my aim, but I’m not scared to show anymore something, I’m not hiding. Let’s say what I’m developing more and more and more, it’s a little bit the truth. So I think that a house is to represent your social class and whatever, because it does at the end of the day. I’m not scared to represent it or to try to represent it for yourself. I’m quite open to read your desires and fly with you if you want, without cutting out everything and canceling everything. And that was very important for me because I was really, “No, no, no, no, we cannot. We cannot.” Now yes. No, it’s an important way of imagine when you dress up or whatever. It’s more freedom.
And before we get to the products part of our conversation, of course it’s hard not to mention Nilufar Depot, probably the first stop on everyone’s calendar for the Salone del Mobile.
And Nina has been on the podcast in the past. So how did you meet with Nina and how did the depot happen?
Nina, I know since ever, let’s say. Really Milan is not a big city and in the design world we know each other. And she has been a friend for a long period. And when she bought the depot was supposed to be a storage place, but she had and still has a store in Via della Spiga, which is next to Monte Napoleone, the fancy clothing fashion street. And she had a gallery there, but it’s a small place of course compared to the depot. And she loves putting things together, reorganizing spaces. It’s her job and combining family of objects, reading an object in a different way. And that what she’s really good at, I have to say.
So when she bought that as storage space, we went out, I remember we were at Nobu in Milan and was her daughter, Nina and I, and she was telling me and she was talking to a friend of hers, a guy who recently unfortunately died and was not an architect, was let’s say he was a little bit an interior decorator. He was an old guy who had a great taste and was helping Nina sometimes in developing her space and et cetera, et cetera.
So he was trying to organize the space as a storage in the best way. And he was saying, “Nina, you have a huge storage, but let’s build a little structure in the middle of this huge storage. So you have a room which is a thousand square feet where you can do something nice in the chaos of the storage.” So they were building this little room, this little space in the middle of this big cathedral, which is the depot. And she was asking me, “What do you think about this project? What do you think?” And I was like, it’s her friend, what can I say? It’s horrible. It’s exactly the opposite what I would think was like, so she made me really drunk.
That’s really Nina method. She made me really drunk with sake. And then I was like, “You know what? I would do exactly the opposite. I would do all the rooms inside,” and I always was calling Nina, Bambula like doll, and I was like, “Bambula, Bambula.” So I said, “I would do like a dollhouse.” You know the dollhouse, when you take the facade out and you see all the rooms of the dollhouse, the bathroom, the bedroom, the living room, and you take the facade out of the little building and you see all the house. So I was like, “I would do a dollhouse or La Scala theater where you have all the little [foreign language 00:22:59] around the space and at central square, empty. And I would divide in three floors and I would do this blah, blah, blah.” What the depot is right now.
And I would do every room, a room. Like you can invite friends to reorganize a room, you can invite people, you can organize all of them, but it’s a space where you can… And if it is your real storage, organize your storage and show your storage to people because the storage for a gallerist is the power of the gallery. So instead of keeping stuff wrapped up, display stuff in all the storage and made a huge building with your merchandise displayed properly. Open on a square.
And so she was like, Nina, I have to say she has a lot of bad things, but a lot of good things and she’s really fast. And she said, “You’re right.” The following morning called, destroy the little room in the middle of the depot and build that story. And she had a huge fight with her friend of course, who hated me at that point that I demolished his project, but really I was drunk and I didn’t want to go there. He was really a nice guy.
And then the depot I guess became the space where Nina can really express herself in the best way and she can really, I guess I was… You know what I think that architecture is you don’t have to do everything for yourself or print your name on everything you do. You really have to make spaces for the client and understand the needs and make a custom-made thing for the person. And I think that the depot was the best thing I have done because was really what Nina needed and was really what could make her, like she can express herself in the best way really, and she can play and enjoy her everyday life.
Yeah. So I guess that is like, it’s very a psychological thing, our job, and really to get in somebody’s head and understand what… I spend a lot of time in talking and in understanding you before working with you. Now today I got a phone call from a beautiful project, from a big foundation, by the way, in Bergamo. So I’m really happy because it’s the first thing I’m going to do in Bergamo. It’s a huge job. It’s a huge job. And they said, “Okay, you can do everything.” I said, “You know what? Calm down.” Not to be arrogant, but I said, “Before marrying, we have to become boyfriend and girlfriend, boyfriend and boyfriend, whatever you want, but we have to engage a little bit and then maybe we get married. So let’s start from a small thing and let’s see if we like each other, but let’s try to understand each other.” And this is what I really like.
And you really, one of my best friend, and I was telling you in Milan, it’s really a psychologist and I very often talk to her to understand what is the need of another person and what she can read through the words that another person is telling me. I guess that we should be really in touch with a psychologist to understand the person we have in front of us.
And speaking of freedom, one of your most popular projects was a conversion of a church in Milan. Are you still there by the way? This is just…
No, no, no, no. It was my office.
Yeah. And tell me a little bit about that story, how that started.
It started that they came to me, the church people and they… At this big church, which was a very beautiful church because it is a very beautiful church. It’s called Sao Paolo Converso, and it’s a double church because the church was connected to a cloister nun monastery. And so the backside of the church was for the cloister nun and the cloister nuns, they cannot see anybody for the entire life. They’re devoted to God and they close themselves into the monastery and they cannot be in touch with anybody from outside the monastery. And that was very important in the 17th century, 16th, more in the 17th century because if you were from a rich family and you were a girl or there were two ways, or you could marry a very rich guy from another family, fine. So you were going to the other family at the same level where the family you are coming from or you are going in a convent because usually the guys were the one keeping all the properties, keeping the strength of the family without dividing the money of the family between all the kids.
So the girls, they had two possibility or to find a rich husband or to go in a convent. This girl was in the convent and then her father died, so he narrated all the money that she was supposed to have because the brother died. And so she built a new convent in Milan and was the end of the 16th century was 1592, something like that. She built a huge convent for all the other girls, but she was the boss of the convent. And then it’s called the Badessa, the Badessa of the convent, which is the boss of the convent and the Badessa decides everything in the convent. So she had the power to decide all the roots of the convent. So she decided to keep the convent even if it was supposed to be foreclosed and nuns closed. She decided to keep the convent a little open, which was quite normal in that period because the girls were locked in a convent, but they wanted to live their own life.
So there were guys going in and out from the convent and it was somehow formally a cloister nun convent. But then there were a lot of stories of nuns pregnant in the convent, having their own life, having their own affairs. This church which was connected to the convent and the church was cut in two. So the back part of the church was for the cloister nuns, and the wall in the middle was dividing them from the normal people in the front of the church and the priest, they were there for the mass. So the church was built for the acoustic and the nuns in the back were singing for the whole mass. And so the acoustic was the best acoustic running around in the whole church. And the voice from they were calling in that time, the voice from God was filling up the whole church and was this magical voice jumping on the dome of the church and filling up the whole space also for the normal people in front, staying in the front part of the church.
So there were really two church with the wall in the middle and the back was for these nuns entering from the back door and then the other people entering from the front door, and was a very special church because of that. So on top of that, she became very rich. So she decided to paint the whole church with an important name. And there were two brothers called I Campi. I Campi means the fields and the brother Campi were the teacher of Caravaggio. So the story says that Caravaggio was going every other day stepping by and stepping in the church to look what his teacher was, his teachers were doing and how they were painting the church. It’s the only monument is a national monument who was entirely frescoed by the Campi brother. So it’s really impressive.
And the roof is round as a tunnel, [foreign language 00:31:08], but it’s not like that, but it’s like a dome in that way is like a tunnel. And the wall, the device, the two spaces ends at the beginning of the tunnel. So the semi arch on top of the wall, it’s open on the two sides. So when they offer me the church, I was like, “I’m not Baroque, first of all, it’s one of the emblematic monument of the Baroque.” I said, “I’m not baroque and what I do here?” I put my little tables with my people and the church is 18 meters tall. So it’s like…
Wow, that’s like…
30, 45 feet.
Like it’s huge. And I said, “What should we do? We stay down on the floor.” So I said, “Okay, I take the church, I renovate the roof, I do everything I have to do. I renovate the whole space, but I want to build four floors inside.” I was thinking, I built in the back four floors and my meeting room sticks out and spies on the front part. So I built sort of a building in the back, but there was all the landmark and it was a problem because to build in the 16th century churches, really. So the church was pushing the project to happen and at the end of the day we did it, we made four floors. It was like an iron structure, just…
Like a floating glass box, almost like in the center of the church.
Yes, it’s iron and glass. Exactly. And the meeting room was overlapping the central wall. And so when you were in the meeting room, you were spying in the front and the front became an art foundation. So it was really interesting. And the relationship with the space became really interesting, was really dark though, because there was no light in that church. So after five years we moved out of the church and we kept it as an art foundation for a period and was really interesting.
But again, there I learned again, living in a Baroque structure full of frescoes and all colors and everything was another big input to let’s not be shy, let’s not be really Milanese and be really minimal. But let’s see the world from another point of view and another perspective.
And the church that was deconsecrated, because I think someone died there. Can you tell…?
No, the church was deconsecrated, first of all, because Napoleone, when he was trying to decreased the power of the church, especially in Italy where the power of the church, as always and still is, very strong. So he wanted to deconsecrate few churches in Italy as much as possible. And he had the right to deconsecrate that church because was on the same square with another church. In the same square there were two churches and then on top there was a martyr person in the church. So they used the martyr as an excuse. But the real fact is that on the square there were two churches and they had to give to Napoleone at the time at the strong power, and they had to give the possibility to close some of them. So especially that square who had two churches that decided not to lose any power in the territory to give one of that churches as a place deconsecrated.
And then it became a place for classical music, became record place where Mina, our singer Mina, she’s really a fantastic Italian singer, the best voice, especially in the sixties and the seventies. And she was recording all her songs there.
And then when we opened our studio, we were really lucky because we opened up with a concert and [foreign language 00:34:56] this friend of mine, she came from L.A. and she gave a concert in the church in the honor of Mina and singing, and again filling up the space with her voice. And she’s a tiny little girl, and the voice in the church was like waaa, becoming huge, and was really beautiful, I have to say.
And speaking about your career and the sort of relationships you have with your client, I’d love to talk about four or five specific pieces in your career because now you’ve been showing with Nilufar gallery for a while, and now you’re striking out with your own collection. And the first one I wanted to bring up are these sort of [inaudible 00:35:44] stools and tables. Which if I were to explain them to a listener, they look like they’re made completely out of marble, but they look like a kind of monoblock shape of something you might see in Asia as a kind of monoblock plastic piece, but it’s of course made completely out of marble.
Yeah, molded. Yeah.
And tell me a little bit these pieces and how they came to be.
Yeah. They’re one of my favorite things and I haven’t done anything on them, but I’ve done everything with them. So it’s like a really thin line. If you go to Asia and if you go especially in Vietnam, but in all Asia, but still here, also here a little bit, there are these bus, like this, life in the streets is very important. And life, like a little bit in the south of Italy, in the south of Italy, we are not so aggressive, but we have a chair outside the house and the lady, they stay on the chair and they chat with the other lady. So the street become a little bit your living room, the extension of the living room. But it’s more a lady outside every house chatting with the lady in front of the street and a small community.
In Asia, the street is really the commune, it’s really the living room and the house of everybody. And then they go in the house sleeping. You see that in China, in Vietnam, everywhere. But in Vietnam, they organize the sidewalk with this little plastic table and these tiny plastic stools, colorful, beautiful, where they sit on and then they can overlap them, close them, put one on top of the other, and they disappear at night. So bars, place where you go gambling, you go playing cards, you go, you stay chatting, you drink a tea. They’re organized during the day in the streets on the sidewalk, and they’re really beautiful. They’re really full of life and they are the expression of… But they are all the same with all the colors.
So I had a big research in Vietnam. I have designed the house of the one I call the princess of Vietnam, who is the daughter of the prime minister of Vietnam. And I wanted to represent the beauty of Vietnam and the strength of Vietnam. They really crazy, beautiful hands. They can do the best of the best, really it’s a country where they are amazing in manufacturing things.
So I wanted to use the marble in a proper way. And I discovered a guy who is really a special guy, sort of a local Michelangelo nowadays. He designs, he makes a huge Buddha for the temples and all his assistant make the huge statue like 10, 15, 20 feet tall. And then he finishes the face and the hands because he’s the guy who gives the life to the statues. So he’s a very modest guy, super sweet, no age, always with this face that can be 12 or 89 and is always the same super, really deep guy. Deep, deep, deep, deep soul.
And this guy, I met him. So I started working with him and when I was seeing constantly these objects in the street and I was like, not to be anti-plastic, I was like all this plastic, they’re so beautiful, how we can make them really special and really beautiful and really Vietnamese. So let’s try to make them in marble. So I bought two of them, a table and a stool, and I went to his space and I asked him if he could make one in a solid piece of marble, like carving it.
So we studied the way how to… Because a table with four legs, you throw away a lot of marble. So the guy is very careful and he loves marble. So there is a mountain in the middle of Vietnam called the White Marble Mountain. In Da Nang, in the center of Vietnam, Vietnam is quite flat. There is this bubble, it’s a mountain called the White Marble Mountain. And there is this [foreign language 00:39:55] white marble like the one that Michelangelo was using in Carrara, from Carrara. But now the Carrara marble has these gray veins and the absolute white, it’s almost finished. It’s impossible to find. So we say the Michelangelo was going personally to Carrara picking up the whitest spot of the marble to make his own statue.
And in Vietnam, they still have this beautiful mountain, but the mountain is really disappearing. So they’re very careful and they really love the white marble. And so with him, we found a way not to throw away too much marble. And we decided to organize the table in one piece. And the stool stays, two stools, stay inside the table. So we take out the central part and then he takes out again the central part of the stools and makes a table and the stools from one block.
But tables and stool are made in one solid piece, all hand carved. And when you look at it’s perfect white. You look at it, now I’m looking at them in my office terrace. They really look like white plastic, but then the eye sees that they are solid and then when you go close to it is not flat, the surface, because its hand carved its a little bit soft, the surface of the table. And if you pass your hand, it’s like a soap when you wash your hand with the soap after a bit becomes smooth, but a little…
Yeah, exactly. And when you start touching it, you want to touch and touch and touch and touch it again, you become addicted to that object and it’s really full of light, energy, and beauty. And so we made them, and in Vietnam, they were in his factory, let’s say, and everybody was stepping, it was getting crazy because it was their own sign was something from their own culture, but upgraded so much. And so the language was their language, but was a beautiful object. So everybody wanted them.
And it’s interesting how when you touch the cultural elements, but they understood that I liked this life on the street and I loved the way life goes by in Vietnam. And they understood the way could be even more beautiful than what already is.
And one of your very popular and probably my favorite piece is the Westlake table, which is incredibly thin with very sort of naturalistic looking legs that are quite minimal. And they almost look like stalactites coming from a cave. And they can kind of be arranged in different shapes and very curvy. And you can make a table that looks like the letter S. Tell me how the Westlake, how’d that came to be, because that’s something that seems very, very particular for a project that now has become such a signature move. And I’ve seen it in so many projects.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That table it’s interesting too because first of all, I never design a table to design a table. Can you imagine? Can you please design a table? What is four legs? How can you imagine to design a table? All the things that I’ve designed until now, they came out from a need or from a project, from a special thing that is not on the market and we should make something and to fix the problem. So this again was made for the same house of the princess of Vietnam, and she wanted the dining room and the living room in the same space. And I was like, “No, we are like… You are the princess of Vietnam. You cannot eat and have the living room in the same space. No.” And she was like, “No, no.” So we said, “Okay, you know what?”
And I was thinking, I take a table and I cut the table in pieces and I distribute the table around. So when she has a dinner, she can put it together, but every day she has little table that becomes next to the couches, become a table for two, become something else, and not a huge table in the middle of the living room with a living room around. It’s what we don’t do in our culture. And she was insisting. So the idea to cut the table and assembling the table according if you have a dinner for two, you have a small piece and then the second version if the dinner is for four, another piece of table if the dinner is for six, and then you can make a big table, but you don’t have constantly a big table. So I thought that that was a way to avoid a huge constant table in the middle of the living room that, and I know her and probably big dinner are twice a year, so the majority of the time she could enjoy the living room in a normal and different way.
And so I had to give a shape to this idea and these houses floating on top is the three last three floors of a skyscraper on facing on the Westlake in Hanoi. So I look at it at the Westlake and said, “Wow, that’s really a beautiful shape. And we are flying on top of the lake, so let’s use this lake as a shape and let’s cut the lake in pieces.” And so it’s very organic. The lake was very organic and the pieces, all of them are very organic themselves too. So when they’re around, they’re soft and they really can work with the space.
And so I was using again, the material and I was thought bronze is a material that in Vietnam, they use a lot for the bells of the temples and it’s very special material. It’s more than bronze, it’s tin, which is a bronze with a bit of silver because the sound of the bells is better. So I try to make that table in Vietnam, but I have to say that that was really a difficult piece to create the mold, et cetera, et cetera. So at the end, we made the table in Italy, but the material and the inspiration of the material comes from the Vietnam and her house.
And then I have to say that became really a popular table because there was nothing on the market like that. And I have the same table in my New York apartment, for instance, and it’s divided in [inaudible 00:46:27] one is like a little table where I write my letters. One, it’s another table in another room and blah, blah, blah. But when you have Thanksgiving dinner, you put all the pieces together and you have a huge table for 30 people in the middle of the house. No? So that’s really a way to use the space in a different way and to solve the problem of sitting down a lot of people, not every day, but whenever you want.
And then the problem, the second problem was how do we sit people? Or you have 30 chairs around in the house, or how can I accommodate people when I put all the pieces of the table together? So I designed the chair that opens up and becomes a bench and can sit two people. So it’s a chair for one person every day, but you open it up and becomes a little bench and you can sit two people on the bench. And so if you have 12 chairs, you can sit 24 people with a small gesture opening it up and transforming the chair in a bench. And so the whole problem is solved.
But really it came out from trial, to try to give an answer to a need that basically everybody has. And then I work with different materials and I developed it in marble and I developed it in glass with a company Glass Italia. I developed it in enamel, using the enamel from the jewelry company. So making it really precious sometime or making it really basic in iron and linoleum. So it’s interesting that also the table can be made for your own space, but also for your own taste according also on how much you want to spend and different levels and different beauties and different [inaudible 00:48:27].
And that’s also related to a chair that you’ve made, the ML, I think it’s 1.2, right? Which also is similar with the legs and in different materials and colors. Was that sort of for the same project or did this come after?
Yeah, yeah, because the idea of the table, the chair was the bench was transformed into it, but then the chair/bench is a little bit, let’s say heavy or strong. And different client asked me to try to make a chair that could really go with the table. So the legs were really special. The legs of the table are a little trumpet. They’re made from big to small. They’re very feminine if you want. It’s like a big heel, a high heel of a shoe, and it looks very fragile. So when we make it in marble, it’s very complicated because it’s so fragile being so thin that you start from a big block of marble, you drill it, you put a titanium, small cylinder inside, and then you carve the whole marble out and you make it very thin. So it’s quite complicated somehow.
So I thought to start from the beauty of the leg and make a chair around the four legs starting from the four legs, but I thought again, the table can become a lot. So we need a small chair because we can put one after the other after the other end and have a lot of people around the table. And I didn’t want to have a big chair. So I worked really on the minimal surfaces of the human body and trying to sit a human body in a small way. And then having this chair, and I wanted to have one block, so I tried to make it in brass, but was really heavy. It was like 60 pounds.
Okay. Not movable. So we understood the aluminum could have been the best way, and the best aluminum people are in India, in Moradabad. And so I went there for a week and we made one. I went with my brass one, very heavy, and I said, I want to make it in aluminum, one piece and have a mold. So we made a quick mold and a temporary mold, and we made the first one and was really beautiful. But with the aluminum, when you open up the mold, the aluminum has some dirty things on top. So it’s like the land when it’s very hot and cracks in Africa, if you have imagined a field with all the crack lines, like the earth cracks because it’s too dry. So the surface of the aluminum is very regular in a beautiful way, like a [foreign language 00:51:24] painting or so I was like, wow, it’s really beautiful. So we worked on the imperfection, making it not scratching, not too… Not dangerous, but just beautiful.
And probably one of my favorite, personal favorite pieces is the Converso lamp, which is a stand…
Which is here.
Which is out here in your studio. Is a tall table lamp. It’s sort of like a tripod with connected LED, long LED bulbs. But there’s a crossbar that kind of makes it look like a giant crucifix. So tell me about how this probably the most radical piece came to be.
Yeah, it’s true. That piece, again, the project started from the bulb because I’ve been called by OSRAM, the bulb company, to design a bulb, which looks like neon, but is an LED. So we worked a lot around this bulb. And now it’s still quite expensive because of the technology, because the neon has a glass with a kind of white powder, which is like a talc, right? Do you understand talc?
A talc that gets sprayed around the glass and makes the glass kind of frosted, but it’s not frosted, is not sanded. It’s a white thin powder attached to the glass. Very delicate. Because when then the bulb is closed, the neon normal bulb. So it’s like diffuses the light in the beautiful way, and when it gets attached to the glass, stays attached to the glass, but it’s very delicate. If you touch with the finger, you can remove the powder from the glass. Of course nobody opens the bulbs and touch the inside…
With the finger. So then I was thinking how to make a nicer support than just two screws. And so I was in a job site in Poland, a very nice job site in Poland. This guy who was, it’s funny because this job site was based, the whole design of the house was based on two cheetahs that he wanted to buy.
Like cheetahs like tigers, like animals?
Yes. Two real ones. Live cheetahs.
Real actual cheetahs. Okay.
He wanted to have two cheetahs. He was quite eccentric and he wanted to have two cheetahs, and his wife was pregnant at the time. It was really funny because I was thinking about the baby, the cheetahs, I don’t know. Fine. And so everything should be strong for cheetah, cheetah proof, and you know, sure. So it was quite complex, the project. And it was a big house and I went to Poland, outside Warsaw one day. Snow everywhere. And the house we were building, the house, the interiors, the materials, it’s difficult to think anything cheetah proof. But in this beautiful garden, there was a cat and I really adore cats. And for me it was like, “Oh my god, there is a little cheetah here.” The normal European, like a cheetah, normal cat, and no special cats. It was really a normal cat. Quite wild because living in the garden around the house, but I am quite good.
I grew up with cats. So I was like, “Oh, [foreign language 00:55:05].” And the cat came and jumped on me, and I was going around in the job site with the cat on my arm and petting the cat. The owner came and was like, “What are you doing with that cat?” I said, “I don’t know. It was jump on me on the outside.” He was like, “I’ve been trying to touch the cat since seven years. He’s so wild. He doesn’t want to be touched by anybody. This cat is a problem. He’s so aggressive that… How can you touch it?” And he tried to pet the cat on me and the cat was like… And nobody could touch it.
So I discovered in that time that nobody could touch the cat. We had a connection. Weird, but it was really fun. So every time I was going to the job site, I had this cat jumping on me, every time. And the owner was like, and now we finished the project. He called me back after four years. The reason he was like, “You know, your cat is still here. I cannot touch the cat. You have to come back. The cat is still with all this problem. You are the only one connected to the cat.”
But to make a long story short, I was in the job site with my cat and I turned myself and the walls in the job site to the job site, the constructor guys, they build beautiful objects and with pieces of wood, they hammered five or six different pieces of wood and they hang on them these two or three neon plastic lamps. And I look at that and I was like, “Wow, that’s exactly what I need to support my neon lamp.”
So I took the picture and I said, I have to make something very similar but very basic elements in metal and hang my lamps as if it was a job site and [inaudible 00:56:50] every bulb can have its own cord going down. And so they made, of course different tries, but the idea came out from the spontaneous guy in the job site and my beautiful cat. So that’s the real story of that lamp.
What happened to the cat?
As I said, he called me back recently saying, “The cat is still here. I cannot touch the cat, but he’s waiting for you. Come back.”
Okay. So you haven’t gone back yet?
No, I haven’t gone back yet, but I will, I will. I guess after the summer I will, we have to start a new project, so I will. But it’s nice to know that, no? That the cat is still there.
Was really fun. Now I’m working, I’m trying to work more with glass and I’m designing a beautiful and intense wall sconces with Venini, and it’s really for a special project, and that’s really important. And then I’m working on, let’s say, let’s use the word collection of rugs. And that’s why I will be in India in August in Nepal, where they are looming them. And I think rugs are very difficult. Like the traditional Persian rugs, they’re beautiful, but they’re so full of things that sometimes it’s difficult for the eyes to, they fill up the space a lot. The super minimal rugs are sometimes very, nothing. So I’m trying to give my point of view, and I’m developing a project, a hotel where we need rugs. So I am starting from that as a real need. And I’m designing, now we have designed 28 of them different, and they’re starting making them. So in August, I will see the first couple of them, and I’m really into the rugs now, so we’ll see.
And a special thanks to our guest, Massimiliano Locatelli. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, don’t forget to visit our new website and sign up for our newsletter, The Grand Tourist Curator at thegrandtourist.net, and follow me on Instagram @danrubinstein. And don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen and leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Til next time!
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