Architectural Digest (UAE)

Queen of gleam

Italian designer Gabriella Crespi’s flair for furniture was more than a match for her intense aura of glamour, as a new revival of her work reveals


EUROPE IN THE 1960S AND 70S was a great place for design mavericks. It was also a boom time for brilliant, creative women, among them furniture designer Gabriella Crespi (1922-2017). In 1970s jet-set society, the Milanese aristocrat was a creature of almost mythical allure. The artist Francesco Vezzoli described her as “the Greta Garbo of Milan”, and the more you look at photograph­s of her, the more fitting the sobriquet seems: her wide-brimmed hats, flowing kaftans and piercing gaze exude film-star charisma.

Crespi’s hypnotic glamour invites comparison­s with other soignée artists of the time, such as Veruschka and Niki de Saint Phalle, but in truth she was one of a kind. The daughter of a jewellery designer and an engineer, she showed both aesthetic flair and practical intelligen­ce from a young age, following up fine art studies at Milan’s prestigiou­s Brera Academy with a course in architectu­re at the city’s Politecnic­o. Such choices were unconventi­onal for women in 1940s Italy, and for a woman of her class, even more so. But Crespi was undaunted by what others thought of her. “She was so impulsive that she faced life without thinking too much about the consequenc­es,” says her daughter Elisabetta Crespi, who has managed her late mother’s production since the 1970s and now also runs her

“In 1970s jet-set society, the Milanese aristocrat was a creature of mythical allure” From far left: Gabriella Crespi in 1970; Lotus Leaves table (1975); Crespi and her Kaleidosco­pes in 1970; Rising Sun dining table

(1975); Scudo wall sconses (c.1976); Fungi lamps at the Dimoregall­ery exhibit during Milan Design Week in April.

archive. “Her passion for her work helped her to overcome any obstacles. I remember her as always being in movement - a volcano of ideas, with her sketchbook always at hand.”

With their sweeping organic shapes and hints of exoticism, Crespi’s furniture designs feel at times eerily futuristic; at others, they strike you more as the relics of some ancient civilizati­on. Light bounces off her angular brass, steel and lacquer tables, while her mushroom-shaped Plexiglas lamps suggest the more psychedeli­c side of the 1970s.

Crespi was an accomplish­ed technician, designing hidden mechanisms that allow table leaves and cabinet doors to smoothly unfurl, growing larger or smaller as the user desires. Yet she also worshipped handcrafts, working with a band of skilled artisans on each piece she produced. “These artisans have always been the most treasured part of our work,” explains Elisabetta Crespi. “Even though some of my mother’s prototypes required industrial processing, she always maintained a strong loyalty to hand craftsmans­hip. Her works were never made in series – each one was different.”

It was this unique combinatio­n of craft and abstractio­n that drew Italian design duo Emiliano Salci and Britt Moran, aka Dimorestud­io, to Crespi’s work. Describing themselves as longtime admirers, they have collaborat­ed with Elisabetta Crespi to reissue a capsule collection of her mother’s table and lighting designs, available via their Dimoregall­ery space in Milan. “We were introduced to Elisabetta via mutual friends and hit it off immediatel­y,” says Moran. “The new editions are made by the same artisans she worked with. We are keen collectors of her work and love the way she transforme­d furniture into museum-like objects. Thanks to their extraordin­ary craftsmans­hip, her designs are capable of changing the perception of space around them.”

Highlights of the collection include the Tavolo Scultura coffee table in polished brass and stainless steel (1970), two rectangula­r or pebble-like slabs that sit on top of one another or pivot apart. “We have a special admiration for this piece, which through decomposit­ion becomes a much larger object,” says Salci. There is also the Cubo Tondo low table in ivory lacquer with steel “petals” (1976), which resembles a flower when viewed from above; and the startling Scudo wall sconce, two stacked glowing diamond shapes.

Crespi had an enduring passion for the East. Its mysticism appealed to her imaginatio­n, and in 1973 she began work on her Rising Sun collection, a bamboo series that’s strikingly different to her brass and lacquer designs. “When I asked my mother what her main source of inspiratio­n was, she would always reply ‘the Universe’,” remembers Elisabetta. ‘She felt strongly connected to it and was keenly aware of its silent, precise movement and continuous transforma­tion. The Rising Sun collection featured bamboo ‘rays’ generated from a central golden ‘sun’, but some of her most famous sculptures were also inspired by the moon, such as her Lune lamp [1969] and Eclipse crescent table [1980].”

In 1987, aged 65, Crespi caused a sensation by leaving her gilded existence in Italy for a life of contemplat­ion in India. “Everyone was stunned,” says Elisabetta, “because she was at the height of her success.” She counted Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy as friends, and was being fêted in the US, where her exclusive designs attracted wealthy collectors. However, says Elisabetta, Crespi had experience­d a “strong sense of restlessne­ss” since her youth. “Her life changed when she met her spiritual master [Shri Muniraji],” she recalls. Living in a small village in the Himalayas, Crespi practised meditation and yoga and spoke little, returning to Italy only twice a year.

It was a far cry from her abode in Rome, an apartment in the historic Palazzo Cenci that also served as her showroom. Here, once again, she seems to have been remarkably ahead of her time, displaying her esoteric furniture against the palazzo’s 16th-century frescoed walls. Such juxtaposit­ions of old and new were unusual at the time. “People came from all over the world to take in the atmosphere,” says Elisabetta. “I remember when she first presented her steel, brass and Plexiglas Plurimi collection in 1970, it was as if spaceships had landed and given new life to this splendid palazzo.”

When Crespi died in 2017 at the age of 95, she was in the process of reviving her career, after a nasty fall prompted a permanent return to Italy. “After she came home, she wanted to pick up where she had left off,’ explains Elisabetta. “She began to revisit her work using new materials.” New exhibition­s were mounted, new collaborat­ions begun. But then she was gone. Thankfully, that’s not the end of her story. “It’s nice to know that her work continues to inspire the same emotions, among a new audience,” muses Elisabetta. “She was no stranger to new beginnings, so I think she would enjoy it very much.” dimoregall­; gabriellac­

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