Inside Milan’s revered Dimore Studio
HOW THE DESIGNERS BEHIND DIMORE STUDIO CREATED THE LOOK OF THE MOMENT
putting the work of the designers Emiliano Salci and Britt Moran into words isn’t at all straightforward. If you’re talking to someone in the know — and that someone would likely come from the worlds of fashion or interior design: the Fendi family, Sonia Rykiel or the pilgrims who attend the Milan furniture fair Salone del Mobile each April — then their Dimore Studio might conjure up a certain aesthetic: exuberant but refined, chaotic yet intelligent, nostalgically lavish. But try to describe the duo’s projects from a standing start, projects that run from furniture to fabrics to shop overhauls to interiors for private residences, then you really need to experience them yourself.
Take The Arts Club in London’s Mayfair, where a rose-pink mirrored tunnel plunges guests into an underground lair lined with negronicoloured curtains and patterned bamboo screens, and where retro-striped brass-and-lacquer tables nestle against black Saarinen Tulip chairs padded with Mantero palm-print textiles. On paper, it sounds migraine-inducingly overloaded; in the flesh, it’s a masterfully choreographed swirl of artfully-lit, sophisticated opulence.
At the Milan department store Excelsior, Salci and Moran took French architect Jean Nouvel’s high-tech conversion of an Art Deco cinema and reworked it with boisterous abandon. Granny-carpeted stairways collided with glass walls, violent purple plinths were juxtaposed with scaffolding frames, and fitting rooms blended raw plywood panels with light bulbspangled mirrors. (You’ve not been yet? Too late; it disappeared in December to make way for a Victoria’s Secret outlet, depriving shoppers of one of the most joyous experiences in contemporary retail.)
Or take any of the residential projects with which Dimore Studio
originally made its name (in Italian “dimore” translates as “dwelling”), not least the vast space Salci and Moran moved into a year ago, beyond the city’s main cemetery in the kind of district Milanese estate agents would probably label promettente (“promising”). There, nestled beside a bingo hall and facing a petrol station, they’ve created a palatial yet intimate home, filled with a stunning collection of vintage furniture; the kind of apartment for which “bachelor pad” feels desperately one-dimensional.
Perhaps it’s easiest to simply say that the designers of Dimore have, almost single-handedly, turned this decade’s interiors zeitgeist on its head. The Nineties were defined by white walls and high-gloss minimalism; the Noughties by retro irony and colourful comfort; and this decade, until recently, by mid-century teak and industrial brick. But in the past few years, that stripped-back hipster look has slid quietly out of favour-replaced by intense colour, no-holds-barred prints and sumptuous compositions of shape and texture. Theirs is a lavish, lovingly-detailed aesthetic which appeals to a glamorous international clientele: hoteliers Ian Schrager and Thierry Costes, luxury giants Bottega Veneta and Hermès, and a string of powerhouse Italian brands, ranging from high-end jewellers Pomellato to menswear labels like Larusmiani and Boglioli.
On the surface, the duo are a study in odd-couple contrasts: business versus creative, affable American versus introverted Italian (a somewhat misleading impression, aided by Salci’s aversion to English-language interviews), blonde curls versus dark stubble, sober colour blocks versus animal print and sequins. Their backgrounds, however, are surprisingly similar: Moran’s father owned a flooring company in his hometown of Asheboro, South Carolina, and both his parents collected antique furniture. Salci’s father ran a respected modern furniture store in the Tuscan city of Arezzo.
They met two decades ago, not long after Moran — at the time, a premed student — arrived in Milan, to visit Italian friends he’d met at college. “I was going to take a break,” he laughs. “I was thinking, ‘I’m going into medical school and it’s going to be another eight years of my life!’ So I took a year off, and my year off has turned into a long sabbatical.”
He got by thanks to stints as an English teacher and graphic designer, before being introduced to Salci, at the time creative director of the prestigious Cappellini furniture firm. “We met socially; we had some friends in common. We both shared the same interests in terms of furniture and design. And we were both looking to make a change. We worked on a project that Emiliano initially had — someone had contacted him — and he asked if I would help him. And from there, we were like, ‘That went well. Maybe we should do something else together’.”
They moved into apartments across the hallway from each other in Brera, the ramshackle-romantic quarter of Milan that stretches roughly between the Teatro alla Scala opera house and the city’s grand Centrale railway station. And there, in 2003, Dimore Studio was officially born. As with many young design agencies, its early residential work went discreetly under the radar. But industry insiders gradually began to take note: early adopters included fashion designers Dean and Dan Caten of Dsquared2, who commissioned Dimore to design the Ceresio 7 restaurant on top of the label’s Milan headquarters.
“We’d been avid admirers of Dimore Studio’s work for many years,” say the Catens. “And we wanted to create a Dsquared2 experience in the warmest and most intimate way. To give a touch of ourselves, our experiences and preferences we have collected around the world. We feel as though their interior décor preferences really align with our style.
And we felt that our vision corresponded perfectly with their interpretation of design.”
The result was a slimline, Rat Pack-ready bar and restaurant, with angular brass light fittings and low-slung velvet furniture, petrol blue walls lined with elegantly hung photographs, paintings and prints, all facing onto a cabana-lined pool with spectacular views of Milan. Ceresio 7 quickly became the ultimate see-and-be-seen hotspot in a city not exactly shy of chic destination venues. And it marked the start of Dimore Studio’s swift rise to international success. “It was,” Moran acknowledges laughing, “like a trampoline.”
milan has always been a stylish city. But even its most diehard fans would probably admit it’s been a while since it was actually “cool”. For that, you’d have to go back to the Nineties heyday of Versace and Gucci-era Tom Ford. And from an interior design perspective, you’d have to go back even further, to the days when the Memphis Group’s witty, wayward aesthetic conquered the world. Since then, Italian design has largely retreated to a place of lucratively tasteful safety. Recent years have seen the arrival of a new Italian sensibility: quirkily opulent, subversively historicist, playfully retro. What Alessandro Michele’s Gucci has done for Italian fashion, so Salci and Moran have done for interiors. In the process they have become figureheads for the city’s rejuvenated design scene.
“Milan’s changed, a lot,” Moran says. “Here in the city, you can feel it. And whenever you travel, you hear a lot more people who are saying, ‘Milan is great, we’re coming to Milan’. And also, the people that I know here — people who travel a lot and are very international, who’ve created their own brands — we speak often about how Milan’s really different now.”
From the outside, though, Dimore Studio’s HQ looks as though it hasn’t changed in decades. Located on Via Solferino, in a building that was once home to Cesare Andreoni, the Futurist painter, whose Creazione d’Arte workshops pioneered Italian design’s winning fusion of art and commerce, it’s quintessentially Milanese: stuccoed, understated but grand, with gates leading to a shady courtyard. Inside the studio, though, it’s a different world. The walls of what was originally Salci’s apartment are currently buttered in a deep maroon (the colour scheme changes annually; in 2017 they were salmon pink, and an inky midnight blue the year before).
One room is given over entirely to a recently launched range of fabrics: rich jacquards and silks covered with 3D-linear weaves, or lavishly splashed with chrysanthemums, irises and birds of paradise. Across the stairwell, Moran’s old flat has been converted into Dimore Gallery to sell vintage finds (when Esquire visits, the inventory includes Seventies brassand-chrome tables by Paul Evans, a vast Piero Portaluppi Art Deco sideboard, Gae Aulenti rocking chairs in sunny yellow-lacquered steel, and mid-century glass lamps by Angelo Lelii) alongside Dimore designs such as bookcases in glossy root wood, accessories hewn from Verde Alpi marble and brass, photo-fronted mahogany cabinets, geometric cement tiles and room dividers panelled with lacquer and verdigris copper.
“It was just the two of us,” Moran marvels, looking around. “And now we have a team of nearly 40 people. Also, we’ve all found a nice equilibrium in terms of who does what. Emiliano heads up all the creative activity, and I head up more of the operations side. But we still try and feed off of each other. Sometimes, I think it would be fantastic to try and make a decision on my own. But it’s so nice to have a sounding board, someone you trust. And we’re now in a position where we’re kind of able to pick and choose. We’re extremely lucky.”
Moran uses the word “lucky” often. And luck — in location, in timing, in clients, in opportunities — plays an inevitable part in determining who comes to prominence in any creative field, in any era. A decade ago, few people would have foreseen such a hunger for the kind of escapist, out-of-time glamour that Dimore offers, and for the meticulous standards it applies. That was before 2016 when Fendi commissioned it, along with designer Gwenaël Nicolas, to makeover the brand’s flagship premises in Rome, replacing the previous interior by leather-clad New York architect/ designer Peter Marino. There could not have been a starker signal of design’s changing of the guard — between Marino and Salci and Moran.
Just as there could not be a starker contrast between the store’s previous incarnation, drenched in travertine and amber and black lava stone, and the jewellery-box-like VIP space which Dimore Studio installed, where panelled sage green walls line an “apartment” filled with priceless modern art and wildly lavish furniture and fittings, albeit an apartment no-one actually lives in.
it’s not hard to trace an ancestry back from Salci and Moran’s work to designers like David Hicks, Philippe Starck and David Collins — all of whom, at their own zeniths, played fast-and-loose with genres and eras to create out-of-time, gorgeously escapist spaces. But the intensity and depth of Salci and Moran’s interiors are a world away from, say, Starck’s tonguein-cheek Alice in Wonderland fantasies. They are realised, as they are imagined, in precise, cinematic detail. “We always start by meeting the clients, visiting the space, doing thorough research on its features and peculiarities, including the building and the surrounding city and atmosphere,” says Salci. “We then produce a mood board and work on the technical parts of the projects.”
Mood board seems too simple for what Dimore Studio actually produces. Clients are given beautifully bound books containing each project’s reference points: in the case of The Arts Club, for example, ranging from mid-century Riviera nightclubs to Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 film In the Mood for Love. It goes to unusual lengths when it comes to executing projects, often mixing paints itself to achieve the desired intensity of tone, and conjuring up colours rarely seen beyond the palette of a Victorian painter: Brunswick green, cyclamen, burnt umber, cadmium yellow, jade, alabaster, macaroon, garnet, vermilion.
Salci and Moran have an encyclopedic knowledge of design history, championing little-known auteurs over the usual icons. At Fendi’s London boutique on Sloane Street, mohair-and-velvet walls and oxidised alpaca ceilings provide the backdrop to 19th-century bamboo armchairs, Franco Albini chaises, and a mirror that hails from Alain Delon’s brief Seventies side-career as a furniture designer. And they consider every detail in the most singular and distinctive way. Take door handles: on Milan’s Via San Pietro all’Orto, you enter the boutique of jewellery designer Pomellato by grasping a giant brass ring inset into a frameless glass door. Two doors away, at Boglioli menswear, the plush Dimore interior is accessed by turning a delicate Art Deco lever set into slatted teak.
That degree of imaginative subtlety, they admit, is something that wouldn’t be possible without Italy’s proud tradition of artisanal furniture making. “Here, some of the people we work with really are artists,” Moran says. “And one of the best things about working with them is you never hear them say ‘no’. It’s always, ‘We need to find a solution’, or, ‘There has to be a way’. There’s always this attitude of, ‘Let’s try to make it happen.’”
In the past few years, Dimore Studio has created luxury hotels in Paris, Mexico and Milan, and boutiques displaying eyewear for Oliver Peoples and candles for Cire Trudon. It’s collaborated with everyone from Design Miami to Elle Decor. And its reputation has been growing, thanks to its annual pop-ups at Salone del Mobile, the world’s biggest design show, which counts Dimore Studio as one of its brightest stars.
“Oh, we don’t have photographers waiting outside!” Moran protests. “We’re not that famous. We’ve done the Salone every year since 2005.
Initially, it was a good way to get our name out there. Emiliano is extremely creative, so for him it was a really great way to be expressive without any boundaries. And now it’s blossomed into this huge event: you know, last year we had 12,000 people [to our exhibition space].” He turns to his publicity consultant, and notes drily: “We need to start serving food.”
the esquire photoshoot takes place at the Dimore Studio headquarters, after Salci and Moran return from a trip to Miami. Judging by the duo’s Instagram accounts, they find time to enjoy themselves. They’re regulars at Milan’s fashion week, where the energetically dressed Salci, in particular, is a favourite of street-style photographers.
“Emiliano and Britt are such enormous fun, aren’t they?” says Arts Club executive director Alice Chadwyck-Healey. “Building projects are so stressful. So you really need to work with people you feel you can have a good time with. They pushed us way out of our comfort zone. And we’re obviously really happy with the result.”
And clients keep coming back for more. Salci and Moran have just overhauled a prim Regency house in London’s Little Venice for the Caten twins. Dean and Dan are pleased: “Everything is exactly how we imagined it.” And Salci and Moran are currently at work on a Dubai outpost of The Arts Club which Chadwyck-Healey promises will be “spectacular”. With its Via Solferino base stretched to bursting point, there’s also a still-under-negotiation studio move in the works. As for the future, Dimore is staying tight-lipped. “My accountant always tells us, ‘You’re both very good at planting seeds’,” Moran smiles. “So we’re trying to plant as many seeds as possible.”
At this year’s Salone del Mobile, the studio launched a collection of pieces drawn from the archives of the late designer Gabriella Crespi. “Gabriella’s daughter, Elisabetta, came and visited the gallery space,” Moran explains. “And really liked what we were doing. I think she also saw that there was a link between her mother’s way of working and some of the pieces we were doing, and perhaps a way of integrating them into the project.”
It’s not hard to see connections between Crespi’s eccentric, luxuriously dissonant aesthetic, and that of the Dimore duo. But for all its success, her career (pre-internet, pre-Instagram) barely registered outside of Italy: for decades, hers was a name known only to connoisseurs. Today, however, Salci and Moran are getting more opportunities — and visibility and fame — than Crespi could ever have dreamed of. (In a few hundred Instagram posts, Dimore Studio has gained 145,000 followers.)
But it’s hard not to imagine that they may be a little relieved if the buzz ever cools on their hot-right-now aesthetic, if they become slightly out of time anachronisms themselves. Modern design has, for the most part, always been defined by a drive towards ever-increasing openness, transparency and fluidly interconnected space. But Dimore Studio’s interiors celebrate the power of that most conventional of formats: the old-fashioned four-walls-and-a-door room. Their best work is often in the residential sphere, in spaces that feel almost subterranean in their stubborn interiority. There, light is always filtered, and far away: a faint glow at the end of a parade of doors, a sliver of sky glimpsed through frosted glass. It’s perhaps the perfect approach — cocooning, nostalgic, lavishly introverted — for a moment when the world is falling apart. Either way, when Salci and Moran’s gorgeously escapist take on the great indoors is so alluring, why would you ever want to go outside?