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Hot designs and cool palazzos

Blog | By Annabel Sampson | Apr 26, 2018

Milan Design Week is not obvious oldie territory. It’s a frenetic hullabaloo of design's most ambitious makers, creators and followers which has been going since 1961. The Milanese districts of Brera, Porta Nuova and Tortona are awash with the chic set – bright, citrusy Aperols to hand from 11am through to aperitivo hour. In the midday Italian heat, it’s a lot to take in. After day one, I wanted to shut my eyes for two weeks to slowly digest all that had flashed past. 

By day two, I’d cracked it. Now I pass on my advice to design-loving oldies curious to try the world’s biggest furniture fair.

First, the best part of Design Week – at least for me – was the privately owned palazzos and villas that were opened up to stage the shows. GUBI, the high-end design company, set up shop in the late-18th-century, neoclassical Palazzo Serbelloni. CLEAF work surfaces took over the imposing courtyard in the baroque Palazzo del Senato, the two-storey terraced colonnade, with pleasingly symmetrical Tuscan columns. The peaceful cloisters of San Simpliciano were taken over by Mindcraft, a Danish Installation, which focused on sensuous materials. The cloisters were lined with plump, woollen blankets and knitted sculptures dangled from beams, in the shadow of the crumbling, red-brick church. 

The gates of these palazzos, or villas of delight (ville di delizia), as they were known in the 18th century, are swung open. They are normally closed off, serving as administrative and state headquarters. It’s only for the six precious days of Design Week that the golden-detailed, stucco-adorned interiors and princely courtyards are open for perusal. Flower displays cascade from marble tables as wisteria in full bloom brightens the corner of a cloister, the youthful petals disguising the old, wizened trunk. Glamorous Milan is spruced and primed to its most enchanting.

My advice: plan in an idle way. I overcomplicated my first day with an ambitious, geographically complex road map which I felt a duty to fulfil. The plain truth is that some of the shows were less good purely because of where they were staged. Although I’m somebody who’s into design, art and architecture, but without practical knowledge (ie I’m not going to be the one ordering or ‘speccing up’ the pieces of furniture), this ought to provide something of a compass for you. Have a look at the shows, then check out the location. If it’s in an extraordinary palazzo that will talk to you about Milan’s heritage, while showcasing the new – make it a priority to visit. 

In my last blog entry, I wrote that ‘home is where the art should be’. This same line of thought can be applied in Milan. There is a clutch of modern villas, two in particular, that are well worth a look. They are as pioneering for their architecture, as well as for their furniture and art choices. The delightful two-pronged role of the home-owner/curator, which I admired in Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard, can be seen in action here. 

Villa Borsani is a scrupulous masterpiece that was created by Osvaldo Borsani, the late Italian architect, in 1945. Borsani founded the furniture brand Tecno in 1953 with his brother Fulgenzio. Unoccupied for over a decade, the villa was opened for the first time as part of Design Week, ahead of a retrospective in May, curated by Borsani’s grandson, the architect Tommaso Fontani, and “starchitect” Norman Foster. The house is filled with Tecno furniture, straight from the old factory which sits adjacent to the house. Tecno’s trademark kinetic style is echoed all around. The simplicity of design shows absolute dedication to modernism – true to the architect and home-owner’s tastes. 

Villa Necchi Campiglio was designed as a utopian country villa in the centre of Milan in the 1930s by the architect Piero Portaluppi. It was built for the sisters Nedda and Gigina Necchi and Angelo Campiglio, husband of Gigina – without a budget. No expense was spared in sourcing the finest materials. The house is clad in walnut and rosewood, semi-precious stones and alabaster marble. It is as functional as it is beautiful. It was designed to facilitate living. Intricate sculptures are scattered between modern art works and minimalist sofas. The two houses were revolutionary at the time and breathe their owners' desired aesthetic.

The Osvaldo Borsani exhibition at the Triennale di Milano runs from 16 May to 15 September www.triennale.org

Villa Necchi is open 10am-6pm all days except Mondays and Tuesdays www.fondoambiente.it