Words by Sara Pierdonà
Images from Guido Taroni and Sara Pierdonà
Renzo Mongiardino always understood that behind every truly great architect is a great team of skilled artisans; his craftspeople became his closest confidantes, recipients of his greatest respect, admiration and loyalty. Sara Pierdonà meets three of his artisans and discusses the preservation of craftsmanship, beauty and memory.
“Mongiardino loved his craftsmen,” declares Italo, his upholsterer for more than 30 years. He recalls how the celebrated decorator would eschew clients’ glamourous invitations for the conversation and camaraderie of his artisans: “The patrons would propose parties in his honor, but he preferred to slip away and finish the evening with us – me and the carpenter, the stonemason, his young helpers – in some unpretentious little restaurant.”
If one were to choose a literary alter ego for Renzo Mongiardino (an intellectual game that would certainly amuse him), it would be Shakespeare's Prospero, Duke of Milan, magician in exile, demiurge of extraordinary visions and masquerades. In the fourth act of The Tempest, Prospero famously opines, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”. It would not be difficult to imagine Mongiardino – with his thick, silvered beard, resplendent not in a wizard’s robe but in the dressing gown in which he received his suppliers – saying the same thing.
But The Tempest’s success is not only due to its protagonist; its supporting characters, those who crowd, grieve and rejoice around Prospero, are essential. Dramatis personae who obey (and sometimes disobey) his orders; sometimes funny and grumpy, like Caliban; sometimes graceful and resourceful, like Ariel. These characters, following the metaphor, would be Renzo’s craftsmen, the loyal artisans he trusted throughout his life. If a customer insisted on their own craftspeople, the designer would retort: “I have a lot of customers, there's a line, but of cabinetmakers and painters, on the other hand, I have very few – and I don't want to lose any.”
The bond between them was enduring, and strong, so much that each artisan had their own way of reading Mongiardino. For Italo, who worked with him since the mid-60s, upholstering furniture and walls for his many projects, Mongiardino’s distinctive beard became a vital tool; an aid to decrypting his degree of his approval. “It was an unmistakable sign language,” he says. “If, looking at the finished product, he smoothed his beard with soft gestures, it meant that he was satisfied. If he twisted the tufts near his chin, something didn't convince him...and I would start to get nervous!”
Italo’s Mongiardino debut – the first project he worked on without the backing of a workshop – was Villa Altachiara, in Portofino. The villa has a tragic history: within a century two fatal, and unresolved, accidents occurred there – but Mongiardino created a delicate, joyful atmosphere with the interiors: frescoed festoons and salmon-pink curtains. “Initially I was terrified,” says Italo. “The project was huge, the work took three years, and for one man, who was moreover young and relatively inexperienced, it seemed like a tremendous undertaking. But I learned a lot from that experience.”
Today Italo is retired and lives a quiet life in the Tuscan countryside, but his house reveals how much he has absorbed from the great Maestro. Each room is a luxurious mausoleum in miniature, with paintings by Lila de Nobili and formidable details: trompe l'oeil carpets on the parquet floor; pagoda-shaped table lamps. The inspiration is obvious. “When I was young, watching Renzo taught me that such a style was...possible. At the height of the modern boom, it was not an obvious discovery.”
Accompanying the architect on his search for textiles refined Italo’s taste and reinforced his vocation. And the spoils of these expeditions survive to this day. “Do you see this patchwork blanket? It is a plaid sewn by Mormons in Utah, which I bought 20 years ago in London...I was there on business, of course,” Italo says. Mongiardino, who had already made patchwork one of his hallmarks, had previously commissioned him to make much more lavish copies based on that same, simple idea.
In a corner of Italo’s studio lie several of Mongiardino’s cube-shaped stools, which Italo rescued after finding them discarded at a Milanese flea market. “It is a horrible fate that has befallen some houses; the new owners don't realize that equally perfect results are no longer replicable, because there are no longer the craftsmen who can make them, and there is no raw material... For example, certain Persian fabrics we used to buy – they haven't made them since the time of the Shah!".
When Mongiardino designed a house and selected a pattern for his iconic tapestry walls, fabric was always taken in cautious, overabundant quantities. “We certainly couldn't risk running out of fabric and having to stop work.” But when such substantial square footage of handmade fabric is involved, shades change and not everything is usable. Decades later, Italo has used those ‘scraps’, to wallpaper every room in his own home (including switch plates, pictured) with incredible virtuosity.
Italo's home is one of many places where Mongiardino's spirit lives on. On Milan's Viale Marche, an anonymous building hides the workshop of Donato, an elderly carpenter. “This is how I have fun”, he says, alluding to the exquisite wooden models and objects scattered around him, some buried under layers of dust, others freshly polished with special resins. Mongiardino, skilled in the discovery of new talent, recognized Donato’s potential when he was a young apprentice. “[Mongiardino], two engineers and my foreman were talking animatedly about whether there was room in a certain niche to build a spiral staircase, and in the end, they had decided no," he says. "I intervened, even though the boss had given me a dirty look." Using sticks, he demonstrated that it was possible, and the staircase was built. From then on, when Mongiardino brought sketches of new furniture, there was always a note attached: "To be made by Donato."
Mongiardino often commissioned replicas of complicated 18th-century furniture, simplified and modified with small adaptations. “He liked furniture with secrets,” Donato recalls. “He would always ask me to hide some little game in my creations.” Now, to amaze his guests, Donato can display equally stunning artifacts: a bicycle made entirely of wood, complete with a chain to tie it down; a model of a church he has been working on for six years; small obelisks built from rare woods; Archimboldesque as tall as screens or as small as snuff boxes; and a working wooden telephone.
Irene Groudinsky, a Milan-based decorator and set designer, met Mongiardino when working in Paris. His greatest merit? “He had an impeccable sense of color. And he conveyed great confidence to those who worked with him. With his drive, no undertaking seemed impossible.” According to Irene, Mongiardino, who graduated during WWII, sensed that an era was disappearing forever. “Particularly in Milan, the post-WWII period brought the economic boom and a kind of feverish rush to rebuild. So, it was often rebuilt hastily and badly, riding on a taste for modernity at all costs.” Recognizing that the war had irreparably swallowed a segment of Italy's invaluable craftsmanship, Mongiardino’s grandiose artisan-rich projects were in effect safeguarding craftsmanship for posterity.
“Perhaps Renzo had an even greater talent than color sensibility and charisma,” Irene says, her voice steeped in nostalgia. “Perhaps his greatest talent, his ultimate vocation, was conservation. Not just of grand goût, which was fading away, or of craft techniques, which were in danger of being forgotten. He knew how to preserve the people around him…Early in his career, he chose young people who were little more than talented apprentices and gave them giant jobs. Twenty years later, he had about 30 loyalists, capable of assembling an entire house from the ground up or moving it piece by piece from Milan to New York...Those early craftsmen were still by his side, had grown old with him, had learned even more refined techniques. Today, many have passed away, but the others, we still see each other, or talk by phone, to wish each other Christmas greetings or reminisce about the good old days. [Renzo] is the one who binds us all, even so many years after his death.”