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“We’re different,” says Laura. “Roberto and I are different in our approach, we studied different things, and this diversity is our asset. We do teamwork that involves assistants and artisans.”

Let’s talk about your artisans. The work you do wouldn’t exist without their hands.

“These are artisans that we instruct and develop in our own style. We have them make dozens and dozens of samples before arriving at their final result. It’s not unusual for an artisan to make a mistake with their first samples, because they tend to limit themselves, to replicate something they’ve done already. You have to start over each time. We don’t copy the past. We reinterpret it every time.”

Laura continues, “We create a past, but we would like our houses to live beyond generations. Our work is costly, we know this. So it has to be built to last. You can switch out a sofa or the color of the wall, but the house needs to keep working.”

What you are hoping for, though, is that we feel “at home” immediately.

“Like that pavilion in Morocco,” Roberto says. “We built that with the curtains and stonework. When the French consul came to see us in Tangiers, he admitted he didn’t even recognize the pavilion which was, according to him, at least 150 years old.” He laughs. “The word ‘dream’ is present in our work,” Laura continues. “We have a rigorous side: proportions and rules. But then we have the side that is based on dreams, emotions, poetry. We’ve been lucky, because we’ve moved from the drafting machine to the computer. So we have an idea of how work was done before and after the technological revolution.” 

When you walk into a newly built house, you feel its strangeness — you even hear sound moving in a strange way. With time, you furnish it, you add objects, something breaks, and it becomes your house. Every corner of it tells part of your story. That’s the thing: if I were to walk into one of your houses, I’d feel sure that it had been lived in for years. I have the sense that you construct the past, as though you were the ones to live there first.

Roberto agrees. “One time, a craftsman told me that the patina on the lamp would build over time. I expected it to be there right away. The house needs to have a soul right from the start. Patina is fundamental. It’s the basis of all of our work.”

Copying the past can seem funereal. You reread it obsessively, but you don’t copy obsessively. You tailor-make the suit on the customer. The etymology of abito (suit) and abitare (to dwell) is the same.

“I like the parallel with fashion,” says Laura. “Think of the difference between prêt-à-porter and haute couture. We’re still a small shop — twelve of us, including the assistants — in order to maintain an artisanal level of quality that today exists only in haute couture. Obviously, the role of the customer is important,” Laura continues.

“Ours is a maieutic operation,” Roberto chimes in. “We have to do our best to bring out what they feel inside. Think of the young pianist in Tel Aviv who buys an apartment on the top floor of a modern building, and then dreams of a château in France. What we’ve done is remind him that he’s in a skyscraper in Tel Aviv, and that you can’t plan a house without considering its context.”

***

I’m standing on Via Passione and I start to doubt myself: This eclectic palazzo from the turn of the century, was it always like this? Or is it the umpteenth invention of the past by Laura Sartori Rimini and Roberto Peregalli? The international press lists them among the one hundred most influential interior designers in the world. Laura is an architect who graduated with a degree in restoration from the University of Florence. Roberto is a philosopher. Can their backstory help understand the work they do? They receive me in their studio, which is crammed with furniture, capitals off columns, wallpaper, knick-knacks, and stuccoes. It’s a kind of Wunderkammer belonging to an architect or a storeroom belonging to a set designer, like the corridor full of bric-a-brac in comic hero Dylan Dog’s house. What I see isn’t bric-a-brac, however. They are fantastic fragments of dreams yet undreamt. Finally, I ask them: Tell me the truth, this is a Rationalist building that you’ve remade in new clothes. They laugh. I don’t know what is true or false.

“When the client doesn’t take to what we’ve put in or the way we’ve intervened,” Laura replies, “it’s a compliment to us. We’re the polar opposite of the Sovraintendenza (Italian government body that oversees architectural preservation), which wants every intervention to be clearly distinguishable.”

Theirs is a story where what is important is not truth, but plausibility. The Bagatti Valsecchi brothers, for example, reconstructed their aristocratic past by analogy, by writing it as myth: they took original furnishings and inspired the artisans of their time with them. In the museum in Palazzo Bagatti Valsecchi, you’re not sure what you’re seeing — it is a building from the 1400’s, but it has running water.

“Ours is a story that arrives after Modernism, after Rationalism, after the Abstract,” suggests Robert. “We, in place of the Bagatti Valsecchis, build a world that is less gloomy than their eclecticism — it has a Chekhovian nostalgia, where attention to place assumes primary importance.”

So your work is based on the genius loci (the spirit of the place)

“We pay attention to preexistences. We adapt. We camouflage ourselves.” 

You get yourselves in sync, in a way.

“We want to give a flavor, a scent, of a world that is linked to the place we operate from.”

“We’re both students of Renzo Mongiardino,” Laura continues. “At the beginning of my professional life, I noticed an excessive scenographic theatricality in the works. I tried to bring substance, concreteness. I went looking for reclaimed materials that had the patina of time on them.”

It’s as though they brought their story along with them, I say. You are fundamentally storytellers who write your own stories through the materials, not using words. When you think about it, the storyteller works with plausibility, and brings us to a universal truth.

“Those materials help us restore life to the house we’re going to work on. In short, less set design, more materials. The client brings us his past, his objects, and we need to make them coherent in a space that has…” she pauses to think about it, “an atmosphere.

I think back to my days as an architecture student. You are everything they taught us not to be. In my first interior design courses at the Polytechnic, we conceived of a space in a totally different way. Roberto agrees, patiently.

“Despite Mongiardino being perceived as a tastemaker in the second half of the twentieth century, he is still almost never considered to be part of its history — almost as though he were an alien.”

Do you know what I think? I think someone needs to write the story of Heretical Architecture in the twentieth century. I already have some works in mind: Mongiardino; D’Annunzio’s Vittoriale; Tomaso Buzzi’s nostalgic creations, from the Scarzuola to Villa Volpi; and the dissident architecture of Dezzi. A marginalized architecture, out of context and outside of history, often too late or too early or else detached, but which reemerges — an underground river that never runs dry.

Roberto likes the idea. “We are heretics to Rationalists as well as historians. The Sovrintendenza doesn’t believe you can recreate the past, you have no idea the trouble they gave us with Ristorante Cracco.” Laura adds, “As always, we looked for what was preexisting in order to complete it.”

You’re in harmony with architects across time, like Viollet-le-Duc.

“Just as we did with the redesign in grisaille of the Sala delle Cariatidi (in the Royal Palace of Milan), which finally convinced them. A compliment I would like to receive is that we practice cultured architecture. We do in-depth studies for every project. I think about the exhibit on Japanese architecture, where we worked and studied for months before even thinking about the installation.” 

Do you find that you only get a thrill by looking backwards, towards the past? Vico Magistretti has been working for years, right behind your studio here. What doesn’t work for you, in terms of his creations? Isn’t the Arco lamp by the Castiglioni brothers also thrilling?

Laura seems unprovoked. “I had an Arco in my house as a child. I always liked it.” But Roberto is uncompromising: “If I have to choose between the two, I prefer the historic center of a small town in the Apennines to its modern outgrowths.” His words sound like those of late stage Pasolini, in a desperate search to conserve a past that is losing ground to the march of progress.

Looking at your work, I say, leafing through the book, I have the impression that you are attracted to an architecture that covers a specific temporal and stylistic arc: from the Neoclassicism of Robert Adam to the Baroque Revival style of Portaluppi. This is the period that enchants you, I think.

“That span of time created an affection for a style that was thought to inspire by virtue of its remoteness — both of time (the Renaissance, antiquity), and of space (India, the Orient). Distant worlds to be revived,” replies Roberto.

It’s nostalgia, I add.

“Yes, perhaps. Those were times during which people looked beyond their own era. Today, in my opinion, the architecture that is being built doesn’t take inspiration from other worlds. It is an architecture without a sense of place.”

It is a globalized language we are living in, one that no longer recognizes the exotic. Even when it is cultured architecture, it is still global.

“It’s a simplified alphabet, and has very few words. Things may even be created that are worthy of admiration, but surely a richer language is more interesting.”

I see you battle with horror vacui and horror pleni. What is wrong with an empty room?

Roberto shakes his head. “This is the catch with the contemporary. The era in which we live requires bulky objects. The room is never empty. From the end of the Nineteenth century, the double bed has grown disproportionately. Sofas are objects that cancel out an empty room, and they are often ugly and cumbersome.”

You haven’t answered my question. What is wrong with Mies [van der Rohe], the poet of empty space? What doesn’t work in Villa Tugendhat, a house with refined control over its materials (marble, bronze, glass)?

Laura suggests, “The things that count are proportions and balance. You don’t necessarily have to fill a house.” Roberto evades an answer.

Like a rude guest, I insist: Where do I put a television in your house? There are objects that seem out of step with the worlds you create. Even possessing a cell phone seems out of step, an “error.”

“I have an iPhone,” Laura says, showing it to me. “We coexist with technology. The important thing is to manage it.” Roberto is more radical. “Either we exalt the technological machine to make it aesthetic, as Renzo Piano does, or we try to achieve a balance, which technology often ends up overpowering. I think that harmony needs to win out.”

Roberto asks questions in the plane of ideas. I try to provoke him further, as much as it’s possible to provoke a person who is as courteous as he is disillusioned. I try to bring up two words linked to the philosophy of taste and aesthetics. One is “trash” — that is, according to the definition of Tommaso Labranca, the failed emulation of an unreachable ideal. The way I see it, that’s not you. You are you — you begin with models, with nostalgia, with your predecessors, with styles… but you rework them according to your own poetics. (Laura seems to sigh with relief.) And then there is the other definition. The one that defines exclusion from the horizon of sense, and from the regard of everything that is ugly, inconsistent, incongruous. In this case, Gillo Dorfles teaches us, we must speak of “Kitsch.” Again, you are definitely not “trash”, but perhaps you are kitsch?

“I don’t agree with that,” Laura breaks in. “For me, diversity is the same as richness.”

Your diversity is always in the pursuit of good taste. Don’t you risk excluding life, the prosaic, the everyday? 

Roberto doesn’t bat an eye. “Imperfection and error can bring beauty, and excessive harmony can create monsters. Beauty without sensuality becomes crystallized.” Laura becomes impassioned: “Often our clients bring objects from the old house that represent their past. Even if they are ‘ugly,’ we try to respect them, inserting them as best we can in the new space. We’ve had clients who want to take over and clients who have left. Making a home is an intimate process — you enter into the private lives of people. You can’t impose too much, but you also can’t be too compliant.” 

Do you ever go back? Do you ever see the homes you create once they are lived in — really lived in?

“Yes,” Laura replies. “90% of our clients have become friends. There are some houses which we haven’t seen again for years. Some get better, and others, which are not as beloved by the clients, get worse.”

These are houses I’d like to see, and not only on the pages of their book.


Studio Peregalli

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