Text Michela Tamburrino
One of the few female architects in Italy in the early forties, Gabriella Crespi inherited her taste for things beautiful from her mother Emma Caimi Pellini, a jewelry designer for Parisian haute couture and her solidity from her father, a mechanical engineer. She grew up surrounded by beauty and wealth, a generous, private person yet extrovert when her soul was driven. She studied Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright and married Giuseppe Maria Crespi, who was from a rich family in Lombardy and in textiles, and also part owner of the Corriere della Sera newspaper. They had two children. This important husband of hers made her suffer and forced her to flee several times, “but he always found her”. In 1957 she started working. It was the golden era of Italian design and Gabriella designed one thing after another. It was the era of the Triennale, industries, magazines, Albini, and Giò Ponti. In Milan in the fifties, good taste was something palpable, the wealthy old families would meet up at Crespi in Via Cernaia: the Corneggias, Castelbarcos, and Modianos. Trips were taken to Chicago and New York in a continual whirl of travel.
Everything was suitable, as precise as a twin-set. Gabriella upset this apple-cart by leaving her husband and going to Rome in 1964. Rome was beautiful in ’64; it had light, harmony and balance between its spaces, outside and inside, body and soul, its palazzos and furnishings. She created her own forge of ideas and inside it, she created. The best artisans all worked for her, she always used the same ones. She put the finest materials to work for her ever-present ravenous inventiveness. She never rested and her intentions were never banal. Out of this forge came multi-purpose pieces of everyday furniture, little tables ready for assembly, modular lampshades, chairs that became beds, bookcases that could be used as room dividers. She chose poor industrial materials and bent them to her will: gilded brass, stainless steel, called on to team with glass, wood, and marble. She was not interested in mass production; she wanted unique objects while she collected antique art and ideas from other continents, she studied intelligent living systems, cutting-edge anachronistic experimentation that brought her worldwide popularity. Her pieces were to be found even in the homes of the Shah of Persia. The boat owner George Livanos, Grace Kelly, the Rothschild, Onassis and Niarchos families were all her clients. Christian Dior called her to Paris. Dallas, New York, Hong Kong, Geneva, parties, the good life. One of the few women who in 1973 managed to get into China and one of the very few who, from there, managed to export mats made with plant fibers that she used to furnish her apartment in Milan, the most photographed of its time. She embraced all that was new. Gabriella was hard, selective with an almost animal-like sense for people who were no good, namely those who tried to copy her models. “When she realized that someone had only come to snoop, she would kick them out,” remembers her daughter Elisabetta. “One time a huge number of pieces forged by one of our delivery men was confiscated. It used to make her suffer. She said that this debased her brand.”
Her headquarters, home and showroom were all in Palazzo Cenci in Rome, which kept everything in harmony—work, kids, guests. She saw Piazza dell Cinque Lune with its esoteric references and fell in love with the moon. She believed in the transcendent, in the unexplained. She was convinced that the spirit of Beatrice Cenci, to whose family the palazzo was dedicated, haunted it quite peacefully. This was where her favorite piece, My Soul, was born, a sculpture that is a piece of her soul, a bronze head that looks upwards with vital energy, as if coming out of the oppressive anguish of afterwards. She was courted by the aristocracy and Gabriella entertained on her terrace around one of her own tables, a marble monolith that nobody since has managed to move out. Claudia Ruspoli, Selvaggia Borromeo, the Aldobrandini, Mario D’Urso – Giancarlo Menotti, the mind behind the Festival di Spoleto, a musician with an unusual character whom she was fond of. Gabriella Crespi and Laura Vallarino Gancia, ambassador in Europe for relationships with the Dalai Lama, shared an inclination for spirituality that was to make them best friends forever.
Gabriella looked to her childhood in Tuscany: a sense of the unfinished pervaded her without any chance of closure—there were urgent things she had to do, but it was not time yet. In 1973, she opened one showroom and then another in Milan, in Via Montenapoleone. It was her golden age. Gabriella creations did not follow fashions, she hated the studios, subjected her workforce to practically impossible gargantuan tasks, a prototype in a single night, sophisticated proposals that did not target a wide audience. The secret of beauty in the shape of objects is the mystery: never completely revealing while preserving the simplicity of clean-cut shapes. One example is Rise in sun, the rising sun of bamboo that projects its rays and pushes them towards infinity.
From The Fashionable Lampoon April Issue #13