Effortlessly stylish, creatively prolific, daring and original, Gabriella Crespi was truly one-of-a-kind. As a designer, she was a visionary, but what about the woman behind the work? Camilla Frances speaks to her daughter, Elisabetta Crespi, about her luminous mother and their industrious life.




Throughout her career, the extraordinarily prolific Gabriella Crespi eschewed trends and followed her intuition, creating more than 2,000 distinctive and uniquely personal objects, furniture and sculpture. She knew how to create balance and intrigue in every piece, while artfully mixing textures; and could transform even the most simple materials into something precious, often changing their form or function.

Bruce Chatwin - who, before becoming a professional nomad, worked for Sotheby's and honed an impeccable taste in objects - once wrote a short story that was little more than a very detailed list of all the artefacts and antiquarian curiosities contained in a house (real or fictional, one doesn't know). Setting foot in Gabriella Crespi's apartment in Milan, preserved by her daughter, Elisabetta, one could do the same. Here, you see: Kakemono with ideograms; carvings from Java; Chinese straw paneling; wooden shield-shaped sconces; Tanagra figurines; one of her golden herons; above a chair, a humble straw hat and an Indian robe; the Bhagavad Gita; Sardinian textiles.

For Crespi, these objects were symbols for something more important. Her early works, sold to friends by word-of-mouth and presented in her living room, demonstrate this well. She would select antiques in flea markets or from dealers, then mount them in an original way (on boxes she had lined with velvet, or Sheffield pedestals), to make ornaments. The result: poetic, ready-made pieces.

One of few female designers in the 1950s - Crespi started her career in 1957 with her first production of objects, the Small Lune Collection - she was never cowed or intimidated. "In fact, I'm sure that she was proud to be among the few women designers of that moment and any obstacle was always overcome by her passion and her great courage," says Elisabetta, who was just 18 when she started working with her mother, taking charge of her production.

Revealing they rarely had different creative opinions and always made decisions together, especially during the creation of prototypes, Elisabetta and Gabriella Crespi were a force to behold. Inspired by Gabriella Crespi's life and legacy - this is a woman who, aged 65, embarked on a decades-long trek to the Himalayas, taking little more than a sleeping bag - and Elisabetta's continued work in the Crespi name, Cabana spoke to Elisabetta to understand more about their life, in public and private.

What were your mother's greatest influences and inspirations?

She always said that her greatest inspirer was the universe. She was attracted by the precise  movement of the stars that had influenced the entire series of her Plurimi, the 'metamorphic' tables she had designed between 1970 and 1982. The sun and the moon have [been the inspiration behind] some of her most famous collections; also nature and the animal world fascinated her. In the 70s, her sculptures were born, representing deer, rhinos, hippos, shells, made of carved wood or bronze [using the] ancient lost wax method, or pheasants, wild ducks and wild boars chiselled by hand. I remember her drawing or writing poetry in the middle of nature, far away from noisy places and I believe that silence was another great source of inspiration for her.

And what, in your opinion, was her greatest strength?

She never gave up when facing difficulties and obstacles, and always found the courage to give voice to her passions - but also, making important decisions without ever compromising... made her feel completely free. Those who knew her well, considered her an 'independent island' and this was perhaps her greatest strength, even in her work.

Your mother is such an icon of design, but I am interested to know what she was like as a mother, a private figure. Can you share any insights?

She was the greatest mother, strong and fragile at the same time. Her presence was always constant even when she was not there. When my brother and I were kids there were no cell phones, but she would call us every day from anywhere in the world and when she returned from her travels, her suitcases were full of gifts for both of us. I'm still wondering how she could always find time for us with all the commitments she had at that time.

What are your memories of her personal style? What clothes and fabrics did she love?

She had an innate talent for wearing dresses and it was always easy for her to choose a dress for any occasion. Even [when it comes to clothes and dressing], she did not follow the fashion of the moment, but she had a very personal style. She chose soft fabrics and natural colors; she loved hats - that also protected her from her migraines - and she always wore great shoes, but I also remember her often barefoot.




How did the decades she spent living in the Himalayas influence her work and style?

When my mother left for the Himalayas to embark on her spiritual journey, she was 65 and travelled with a sleeping bag and the enthusiasm of an 18-year-old, leaving behind 30 years of work and success. When she returned to Italy, 20 years later, many things had changed. She practiced meditation constantly and remained, every day, in silence for many hours. However, the beautiful exhibition The Sign and the Spirit, held in Milan in 2011 to celebrate her artistic career, and the continuous requests she had received upon her return, made her decide to continue production presenting new versions of her best known works. The year 2013 marked her new beginning. She presented "Tavolo Scultura", designed in 1970, and executed in black marble from Belgium, a material she always loved but had never used. She presented her latest works during spring 2015 introducing for the first time the use of bronze in the production of her 'metamorphic' tables. 

She was extraordinarily prolific, designing more than 2,000 objects and pieces of furniture. I'm sure it's very difficult to choose, but do you have a favorite?

It's definitely a difficult question. There are in any case two among her works that I particularly love, which are always in our home: the Lotus Leaves table that she designed in 1975, made of rattan or lacquered wood, and the Kaleidoscope lamp, born in 1970.

What, in your opinion, was your mother's most important contribution to design?

Throughout her entire career my mother always followed her intuition, she never followed trends and consequently always created something very personal and unique. She loved to combine strength and flexibility within the same object, and through the combination of very different materials, even the poorest materials became precious. She always knew how to create balance in every object she designed and the result was always exciting. She didn't want barriers between the inside and the outside and wanted nature to be an integral part of any environment. I believe that her contribution to design was her passion.

How are you, and the Archivio Gabriella Crespi, working to preserve and promote her extraordinary legacy today?

Our main activity is to continue to spread her work and above all to protect it. It is always a great disappointment when we notice items being sold using phrases such as ''in the style of Gabriella Crespi'', or ''in the manner of'', or even "attributed to" when in most cases they have very little to do with my mother's work, and this create a lot of confusion in the market. However  we are very well assisted and in recent years we have also been able to limit the circulation of fakes that are sold as original Gabriella Crespi's works.

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With special thanks to Elisabetta Crespi, Ana Cetkovic and Archivio Gabriella Crespi. 

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