For Luigi Scarabelli, human connection is the spark that ignites creativity. “Before there is art, there is the encounter between two people,” says Scarabelli. “Even if there is no product, something arises between them.”
Scarabelli is the cofounder, along with Emilio Brazzolotto, of Fabscarte, which specializes in decorative wall treatments that push the creative envelope of a traditional craft. To call this Milanese atelier’s creations wallpaper is like referring to the ornate furniture of André Charles Boulle as mere carpentry. The workshop is not only resuscitating decorative surface techniques practiced by medieval European artisan guilds but reimagining their applications and inventing new ones.
Fabscarte has achieved cult status among designers and artists thanks to Scarabelli and Brazzolotto’s ethos of collaboration. Among those who have made pilgrimages to the atelier are Italian artists Francesco Simeti and Duilio Forte; architect Emilia Serra and designer Andrea Mancuso, of Analogia Project; and Australian photographer turned textile, interior and product designer Martyn Thompson.
These visionaries arrive at the workshop, a former auto repair shop on Via Foppa, southwest of Milan’s city center, with exploration in mind. The partners moved their studio here in 1999, lured by the enormous windows that invite in generous washes of natural light despite the shop’s location in one of Milan’s many building-shaded courtyards.
Fabscarte’s creations and collaborations are distinguished by a unique color sense, as well as adventurous combinations of unusual materials. A single wallcovering may incorporate silver powder, paint, tissue, coffee, stucco and more. The atelier’s partnership with Thompson led to a richly layered blue, gold and silver surface with incredible depth that simultaneously evokes a night sky and a lunar surface. With Simeti, it overlaid a lush flora pattern on what looks like a ghosted Chinese ink-painted landscape. The collaboration with Analogia Project resulted in a distilled ant’s-eye view of Rome’s Pantheon transferred onto a room screen.
The wiry, buzz-cut Scarabelli — who sips espresso behind his desk dressed in green plaid pants, a black T-shirt and Top-Siders — studied technical agronomy and graduated with a degree in psychology from Saint Petersburg State University, in Russia. Lacking passion for either field, he drifted from one thing to another until, he says, “trying to find an excuse not to work was more tiring than just working. I needed to find work that is not work, that is worth waking up in the morning to do, that represents me, so I do it well.”
Scarabelli enrolled in what he calls a “professional school of decoration” to learn basic painting, marbling, metal leafing and other techniques. He acquired the lion’s share of his skills, however, by working side by side with craftsmen he admired, sometimes paying them for the privilege. He stumbled onto his career, he says, when “people began to pay me. It wasn’t a strategy.”
In the late 1980s, he met Brazzolotto, already a trained artist specializing in artistic surfaces and murals, and the two decided to join forces. They opened a small studio, collaborating with several other painters and designers.
When the business really took off, they moved to Via Foppa. About seven or eight years ago, they felt the need “to create a line of contemporary wallpapers that respected classical heritage and skill,” Scarabelli says. “We wanted to express it through our own material and color.” This line, made with papers they produce themselves, constitutes one sector of their work, alongside the artist and designer collaborations.
Today, Fabscarte employs between 10 and 15 people from many disciplines, including not just decorative painting but also psychology, agronomy and fine art — an intentional variety that keeps the team thinking outside the box. Yet, the studio’s output, Scarabelli believes, must also be grounded in nature and classicism.
“It is not enough to just release something out onto a piece of paper,” he states. “You have to struggle with it, experiment, before it becomes something beautiful. We avoid the concept of art being only provocation. It must be beautiful.”
Among Fabscarte’s wallpaper collections is the highly textural Gingko, in which the scalloped edges of applied papers are intentionally left unglued so they can curl up to look like leaves. Sinapsis resembles strings of plant or animal cells. And Musicale is a syncopated composition of Paul Klee–like lines and colorful dots.
Even when Fabscarte creates a repetitive pattern — as in Black Cactus and Dunes, each of which distills its natural eponym into a more regular geometry — there is a sense of the hand in the layering of materials and colors. “Technology is constantly being substituted for the artist and the process,” Scarabelli says with a trace of distaste.
Not at Fabscarte, which prides itself on moving a venerated art form along the creative continuum — painstakingly, experimentally and completely by hand. “People think God created the world many eons ago,” says Scarabelli. “But He is still creating. It’s a continuous process. Real craftsmanship is that kind of continuous process. It doesn’t happen all at once.”