New Zealand designers collaborate on the reopening of a 1940s masterpiece
For a festival that prides itself on showing the very best contemporary design, it was an interesting slight that the word on everyone’s lips at this April’s edition of the annual Salone del Mobile in Milan was a 70-year-old house that has been empty for a decade. Villa Borsani is a residence designed by Osvaldo Borsani – an Italian architect, designer and founder of furniture manufacturer Tecno – and built between 1939 and 1945. It was a labour of love, with Borsani roping in numerous peers (Lucio Fontana on a fireplace, Arnaldo Pomodoro on a brass headboard, Adriano Spilimbergo on a bathroom mosaic) to create a home for his brother’s family. It was located next to the workshop first set up by Borsani’s father, which eventually became the Tecno factory. Three generations lived there until 2008, when it was closed up. A decade later, the villa temporarily re-opened as Casa Libera – a living, breathing open house curated by London-based design consultant Ambra Medda. “The house was pure perfection, so there wasn’t really a lot for me to do,” she says. Medda worked closely with Auckland-based stylist Katie Lockhart on jumpstarting the space. This was no simple matter of dusting off old curtains, nor just restoring furniture, although both happened. Santa Maria Novella soap was placed in the bathrooms next
Right The staircase is a remarkable statement and achievement in white marble and Murano glass.
to new, handwoven towels, and a soundtrack of lounge music was played throughout the home. “I didn’t want to meddle with perfection. The idea was to just breathe a bit of life into it and make sure people felt welcome,” says Medda. Medda and Lockhart flew over New Zealanders Sophie Wolanski, founder of florist Muck Floral in Auckland, and designer Harry Were, to help invigorate the space. “I regularly collaborate with both Sophie and Harry for my work; it was a natural progression that they help with this project and fill it with their wonderful energy,” says Lockhart. The link with New Zealand was more coincidental than conceptual, but invigorating nonetheless. “I had never stepped into a place like it – the ingenuity and attention to detail,” says Wolanski. “It was like a time capsule, good and bad.” The first sign of her hand was revealed on entering the militantly architectural arches that frame the loggia. There, two upturned and suspended ‘Arnold Circus’ stools by Martino Gamper were filled with blooms. “It was the first hint of a new energy in the house,” says Wolanski. Arrangements were placed throughout the two-storey home – a huge display under the marble and Murano glass staircase; more rustic floral bunches next to beds and on tabletops. Wolanski also commissioned Auckland’s Monmouth Glass Studio to create vases for her displays, arriving ahead of Salone del Mobile to source and order flowers. The collaborators’ joy at the chance to reinvigorate this architecturally significant space was palpable – and certainly timely. Borsani died in 1985 and despite his peers being all the major Milanese modern masters, such as Gio Ponti and Carlo Scarpa, Borsani’s name is not as prominent in the history books. This exhibit and a retrospective at La Triennale di Milano over the summer, curated by Norman Foster, aims to correct that. All those learning about Borsani’s work are set to be astounded – whether from near or far. As Lockhart says: “It’s amazing for us as New Zealanders to work within such a space as Villa Borsani – there really isn’t any architectural equivalent from this era here to experience.”
Above ‘Arnold Circus’ stools by Martino Gamper are upturned and filled with blooms in the loggia.
Top A loose display of tulips by Sophie Wolanski.
Above Handwoven towels hang against a mosaic bathroom wall.