Melbourne interiors wunderkind David Flack meets Arianna Lelli Mami and Chiara Di Pinto, the creative directors of Milan-based Studiopepe.
The pastel-hued surrounds of Club Unseen, Studiopepe’s installation at Fuorisalone, are everything you’d expect of a discreet, invitation-only club. The company’s creative directors, Arianna Lelli Mami and Chiara Di Pinto, drew their inspiration from the latter works of Italian architect Gio Ponti, and comprised their own bespoke designs created in collaboration with brands such as French-Italian rug company CC Tapis, Italy’s Agape and LA’s Atelier de Troupe, styled with artworks and classics from the likes of Tacchini and Cassina.
Central to the 19th-century former warehouse space was a glowing, backlit bar counter, where only the white-gloved hands of the bartenders mixing cocktails were visible. The mesmerising, theatre-like effect served to elevate cocktail creation to a whole new level of performance art.
David Flack: It’s wonderful to meet you, Arianna and Chiara. Vogue Living asked me who I would like to interview for its Milan issue and you were both on top of my list. What was the initial concept for Club Unseen?
Arianna Lelli Mami: The starting point for us is always the same — things we personally love. This year we wanted to create a place where people can sit together and relax. Chiara Di Pinto: We wanted somewhere away from the hectic life of Salone del Mobile. We wanted somewhere calm but where we could listen to music…
Mami: A place where we could meet nice people. That’s why we decided on a club. It’s a secret club because in the beginning, we really wanted to just invite friends and people we like. We really don’t want it changing into a party — that’s not our idea. From a style point of view this year, we have been fascinated by the Radical Design movement in architecture from the 1970s.
Flack: Such as Gio Ponti?
Mami: Yes. Last year, our installation felt almost middle class, with minimalist materials mixed with high-end velvet curtains and brass details. This year we wanted to reference something more contemporary, so we looked back to the utopias of the 1970s. The glass bar with the neon light is very [Italian designer and artist] Nanda Vigo — we admire her work. We’ve used subtle colour but with a hint of a strong accent like a blue neon light — things that remind you of the ’70s and early ’80s but with a modern twist. Even the cocktails are a reinterpretation of classic ’70s cocktails. Flack: How does your creative process evolve?
Di Pinto: We always start with an atmosphere that we would love to create, and then we find different things that work together. One of the first ideas for Club Unseen was the counter for the bar. We don’t like the fact that, in clubs, people should be in front of the counter to order, to have to queue, and get pissed off about having to wait.
Mami: We wanted to turn the waiting time into something pleasant, something that is a real experience.
Flack: In other words, an experience of design rather than an experience of hordes of people.
Mami: Yes, that is correct. And sometimes people forget they are waiting for something, when it is just beautiful to watch and they stay there.
Di Pinto: We wanted to put the focus on the movement of the [gloved] hands. We thought about the theatre that’s created when this happens. It’s one of the most important things in the whole project because it’s about focusing attention on quality, on the handmade. Hands are the basis of many of our designs.
Flack: When did you start planning and first working on the concept for Club Unseen?
Mami: The first real idea for it came from a visit to Montreal a year ago, where we found a secret bar where you had to knock on the door to enter. Inside, the atmosphere was amazing, but it was very 1920s with velvet cushions. We loved the mood but the style was too old for us. We wanted something different, but we both very much liked the idea of a secret bar — a speakeasy with a twist.
Flack: There are so many facets to creating these sort of spaces. The lovely thing about you both is your approach — you reference history but are also so contemporary.
Di Pinto: We are very much the clash between the old and new, the fine and rough. It’s very layered.
Flack: What does Milan Design Week mean to you? Mami: We love it. Ever since we were students, we’ve been going. It’s always a nice time to discover our city and, apart from seeing the designs, meeting new people.
Flack: And there’s also something really electric about the atmosphere surrounding the event…
Mami: Yes. It’s spring time, with the sunlight, when you discover a hidden courtyard, and the wisteria is blossoming. So it’s a beautiful time for the city.