Designer Spotlight

Adoring an Italian Master, Renzo Mongiardino

Martina Mondadori Sartogo, the super-stylish founder of Cabana magazine, claims the legendary designer as an important inspiration. Who was he?

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Renzo Mongiardino at his home in Milan, which also served as an office and workshop. Paintings, drawings and samples always covered the walls of his office (photo © Antoine Bootz). Top: Mongiardino enlarged the original entrance corridor of the Mondadori residence in Milan to create a dual gallery and library space, which he adorned with faux marquetry (photo by Guido Taroni, courtesy of Cabana magazine).

At Introspective, we showcase men and women with extraordinary design talent and vision, and one of our latest favorites is the captivating Martina Mondadori Sartogo, the originator of the beguiling interiors journal Cabana — as well as a host of other trend-setting ventures — with whom 1stdibs is hosting through December 31 the Casa Cabana holiday pop-up of stylish and rare artisan-fashioned home furnishings and jewelry. When we first interviewed her, last April, about her highly evocative publication, she mentioned that a major inspiration for the periodical, as well her own thinking about interiors and design, was Renzo Mongiardino, a great friend of her mother’s, who assembled the famously handsome rooms,  layered in pattern and rich in whimsy and sentiment, of her family’s Milan residence.

Several photographs of that home were featured in Cabana’s debut issue, and reproductions of a velvet ottoman Mongiardino designed for it are among the offerings of the 1stdibs pop-up shop, as is a Dedar wallpaper based on a vintage screen her parents bought at a flea market in California in the 1970s, which Mongiardino turned into a cupboard for the hall leading into their dining room.

Renzo Mongiardino, who was born in Genoa and grew up in a palazzo, was perhaps the greatest crafter and most inventive conjurer of splendid homes in the second half of the 20th century. (He died in Milan in 1998, at the age of 81.) Mongiardino detested the title “decorator,” preferring “creator of ambience.” Striving to explain the distinctive magic this maestro wrought, admirers often note that, in addition to being an architect, he was also an acclaimed set designer, who worked on both the opera stage and in film and was nominated for two Academy Awards for productions directed by Franco Zeffirelli: The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Brother Son, Sister Moon (1972).

In Mongiardino’s home, his fascination with Turkish exotica, faux finishes and richly toned and patterned textiles was very much apparent. The framed works on the wall were part of his collection of miniature Neapolitan altarpieces from the 18th and 19th centuries, exquisite creations tellingly made out of “poor materials.” Photo by Oberto Gili

Certainly, he brought his skills in creating illusions and visual drama to his residential projects. The practice of employing scale models, so common among scenic designers, was central to his interior design process, but he took it further, making a series of detailed models of various scales — first for himself, then for clients, then contractors. To Mongiardino, the models were essential, allowing him to fully grasp the dynamics of a space — proportional relations along with circulation and the play of light throughout the day and evening. Once the room was understood, the decor could be developed “in harmony with the architecture,” in order to “correct its defects, apportion its effects, and create illusions,” as Mongiardino explained in his revealingly named and quite learned monograph Roomscapes: The Decorative Architecture of Renzo Mongiardino (Rizzoli, 1993).

Thus, more than creating fabulous backdrops for fabulous clients — and more on them in a moment — through his singular design wizardry, Mongiardino was fashioning domestic characters, intimate companions of a sort, with and in whom his clients could dwell. One’s home is a “choice in life,” he stated in his book, “a citadel — agreeable and unarmed, but equipped to deter those who are not welcome and embrace those who are friends.”

 

 

 

Mongiardino’s team of decorative painters created trompe l’oeil draperies and columns to add richness and depth to this central ground-floor room of the Villa Cetona, the 18th-century Tuscan retreat of fashion lion Valentino and his partner, Giancarlo Giammetti. “Mongiardino was a magician, not merely an architect or decorator,” Valentino has said. “He would transform an empty banal room into a fairy-tale château, thanks to his marvelous mastery of drama and proportion.” Photo courtesy of Nati Abascal, courtesy of Assouline

Like Mongiardino, Rudolf Nureyev loved the romantic and exotic and antique. For the ballet dancer’s Paris residence on the Quai Voltaire, Mongiardino created sumptuous surroundings worthy of a character out of Balzac or Proust. Photos by Derry Moore

For the Paris Review publisher Drue Heinz, Mongiardino transformed the long, narrow garage of her London residence into an inviting garden-like reception hall and music room. The walls were masterfully painted with outdoor scenes referencing works by John Constable and native plants, as well as with columns and pilaster strips and to add depth. Mongiardino removed an iron cupola at the center of the room and replaced it with a glass dome to animate the space with daylight. Photo by Massimo Listri, courtesy of Assouline

Since Chesa Alcyon, the Agnelli ski house in St. Moritz, Switzerland, was built in 1900 by an Austrian architect, Marella Agnelli and Mongiardino decided to look to the Vienna Secessionist movement for inspiration when decorating it. The walls are adorned with paintings by Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, two of the Italian noblewoman’s favorite artists. Photo by Oberto Gili

For Mongiardino, one of the design challenges of the Agnellis’ Villa Frescot, in Turin, was how best to turn a very long and awkwardly planned living room into a “composite room” that could gracefully serve a variety of activities throughout the day. In this drawing, he works out how to arrange the art and furnishings. Various panels of antique-inspired berry-and-roseprinted fabric provide a soft architecture for the room while echoing the magnificent gardens outside. Illustration courtesy of A. Bertarelli

Marella Agnelli was a favorite client of Mongiardino’s, in part because he enjoyed her sly sense of humor. When decorating the Villa Frescot, she chose to hang very serious and dramatic paintings, like Théodore Géricault’s slave portraits, on the delicate berry-and-flower-patterned fabric covering the walls. In the foreground of the living room, depicted in the preceding drawing by Mongiardino, are a pair of 18th-century Ch’ien-lung porcelain pheasants and a Wartski clock. Photo by Oberto Gili

Mongiardino (far right) is seen with a band of Italian craftsmen he brought to New York for a special commission from Peter Jay Sharp, a New York real estate developer. Sharp had requested that an exquisite room be created where he could display his exceptional collection of rare books. Mongiardino decided to adorn its walls with an intarsia fantasy depicting a Manhattan cityscape in which Renaissance palazzi dwell amid modern skyscrapers. It was an homage of sorts to the Duke of Urbino’s Renaissance studiolo, which was on display at the nearby Metropolitan Museum. Photo by Massimo Listri, courtesy of Assouline

Left: When Sharp asked Mongiardino to decorate the gallery area of New York’s Carlyle Hotel, which he owned at the time, the designer took inspiration from Sultan Ahmed III’s private dining room, known as the Fruit Room, at Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace. Photo by Laziz Hamani, courtesy of Assouline. Right: Renzo Mongiardino, Renaissance Master of Style (Assouline, 2013) is the most recent publication on the designer.

 

 

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Lee Radziwill, photographed in 1966 by Cecil Beaton with her daughter, Tina, could find no designer able to bring intimacy to what she called the “bowling alley” proportions of her London living room until she discovered Mongiardino. He took two different inexpensive Indian fabrics, cut them into panels and alternated them in gilded rod frames, thus starting a trend for “Indian rooms.” Photo courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

 

The clients who sought these citadels were not only some of the world’s wealthiest individuals but also the most cultivated. Their ranks included Countess Cristina Brandolini d’Adda, who was his first client; Italian aristocrat Marella Agnelli; Princess Firyal of Jordan; Elsa Peretti; Lee Radziwill and her sister, Jackie Onassis; Marie-Hélène Rothschild; Valentino; Gianni Versace; and Jil Sander (the minimalist fashion designer was his last, and perhaps most unlikely, client). As they were people of extraordinary taste, Mongiardino encouraged his clients’ input, using his dioramas to communicate his ideas and better demonstrate their own contributions. “Sometimes, debate or even dispute leads to better results,” he counseled, noting that the most beautiful and original architecture in Italy often arose out of “polemical collaboration.”

Mondadori Sartogo, who is acquainted with a number of Mongiardino’s clients, confirms that they got along with him wonderfully. “He started every project by asking, ‘What is your favorite color palette, and what do you collect?’ ” she says. Mongiardino knew that consummate collectors were usually more interested in dramatically showcasing their treasures than in their home’s architecture, so understanding their passions was critical to the formation of a decorative scheme. A case in point was his design of the sumptuous Paris residence in the Hôtel Lambert of Guy and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild. Figuring out how to display the Rothschilds’ voluminous collections of art and objets was the greatest challenge of his career, Mongiardino once confided to Mondadori Sartogo’s mother. Arguably, it was his greatest triumph, as well.


“The house . . . is a choice in life, a citadel — agreeable and unarmed, but equipped to deter those who are not welcome and embrace those who are friends.”


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When developing a decorative scheme for Villa Frescot, the Agnelli residence outside Turin, Marella Agnelli, encouraged by Mongiardino, researched antique Piedmontese fabrics and then designed her own, which were specially made for use throughout the house. Photo by Oberto Gili

The tremendous attention that Mongiardino devoted to learning about his clients’ lives, combined with his own erudition in all matters of style, made him a compelling, even empowering, figure. “I learned more from Renzo than anyone else I can think of. I miss him terribly,” declared Radziwill, one of the first people outside Italy to seek his design expertise, in the sumptuous 2013 monograph Renzo Mongiardino, Renaissance Master of Style (Assouline). During his first collaboration with Marella Agnelli on the Villa Frescot, outside Turin, he encouraged the Italian aristocrat, who had trained as an artist, to design fabrics for the rooms based on old Piedmontese prints she had been researching. When Gustav Zumsteg, the Swiss haute-couture fabrics manufacturer, came for a visit, he was so impressed with Agnelli’s creations that he gave her a contract to design fabrics for him, which, she concedes in Marella Agnelli: The Last Swan (Rizzoli), “gave me a sense of purpose.”

Much is made of the romantic byzantine opulence of so many of Mongiardino’s interiors: the layers of patterns, the jeweled tones, the quantities of Persian rugs, the wall paneling of intarsia and Cordovan leather, the surfeit of marbled and mosaic surfaces. (What few realized, though Mongiardino never hid, was that many of these rich materials were faux. The sumptuous Cordovan leather walls of an industrialist’s English country estate, for instance, were actually cardboard skillfully painted and aged. This was part of Mongiardino’s impressive stagecraft; what interested him always was the effect, the atmosphere.)

Turkish, Islamic design was a great influence on him, as was India, although he never traveled there,” says Mondadori Sartogo. In truth, he stole ideas with a magpie’s avidity from everywhere: A pretty motif on an 18th-century Sèvres teacup became part of the design on porcelain wall tiles for a morning room in the South of France; the decoration on a 19th-century porcelain-and-bronze clock was reinterpreted in the painted adornments on the walls of a luminous formal dining room, which were treated with special finishes to imitate the gloss of the bisque clock face.

Mondadori Sartogo co-hosted a party with 1stdibs last spring at her family’s Milan home in honor of the third issue of Cabana. The crema of the city’s design and fashion world, along with some global glitterati, were in attendance. As for the room, note how Mongiardino adorned the walls with trompe l’oeil panels, wainscoting and marble trim, which he treated to resemble scagliola. The elaborate floral motif on the panels was inspired by the frontispiece on an altar in a church in Milan. Photos in this slide show by Stefano Trovati unless otherwise noted

Left: Vanessa Riding Bonami and Theodora Radl, the wives of two of the founders of Cabana, are living proof of the enduring chic of the white blouse. Right: Marella Caracciolo Chia, niece of Marella Agnelli and co-author of The Last Swan, with her daughter Theodora Chia

Left: The Mondadori dining room. Right: The interior designer Sandra Nunnerley talks with art consultant Patrick Legant, along with writer and director Patrick Kinmonth and textile designer Allegra Hicks.

Architect and designer Matteo Thun speaks with Barnaba Fornasetti, son of the illusionistic artist and furniture maker Piero Fornasetti, and his jeweler wife, Betony Vernon.

Left: Roberto Peregalli, a protégé of Mongiardino’s, with Susanne Thun, left, and fashion consultant Uberta Zambeletti. Right: Oberto Gili, who photographed many of the interiors featured in this story, with fashion publicist Margherita Cardelli

Left: A view from the living room into another sitting room in the Mondadori residence reveals how Mongiardino layered patterns, not only within a room but in views from room to room. Right: The Mondadori foyer. Photos by Guido Taroni, courtesy of Cabana magazine

A spread from the first issue of Cabana, in the same photo essay that featured the Mondadori apartment. Although not designed by Mongiardino, the interior and vignette, in their rich ambience and complex play of patterns, are certainly in keeping with his aesthetic. Photos by Guido Taroni, courtesy of Cabana

 

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With its gothic drama, Mongiardino’s sitting room seems suitable as a set for Verdi’s La Traviata. When the contents of his home were put up for auction, his friend, the novelist Umberto Pasti, wrote in the catalogue that, for all their glamour, his rooms possessed “the corrosive breath of melancholy.” Photo by Oberto Gili

But perhaps the greatest influence on Mongiardino’s decorative vision was the Italian Renaissance and Italy itself. Roomscapes is full of references to Renaissance masters, as well as to Italian buildings and towns. While he deftly transformed these decorative citations and techniques into highly original elements, it seems fitting that in his later years, he affected a fanlike gray beard that gave him the look of a classics professor. Far from being a rumpled, tweedy figure, he was always exquisitely dressed and cut an elegant figure. Yet his beard did seem to symbolize the increasing consequence he attributed to himself and to his work as his commissions grew ever grander. This development saddened Radziwill, who commented in a reminiscence about him in T magazine that she preferred the more relaxed man she had known earlier in his career, in the mid-1960s, when the two had to fumble with French to communicate, as she knew little Italian and he no English.

Whatever the degree of his gravity, Mongiardino was an enthusiastic believer in the importance of collaboration. His studio was small, and he depended for his interiors and stage and screen work on a devoted extended family of craftspeople — model makers, carpenters, painters, gilders, faux finishers . One of his favorites was Lila de Nobili, a celebrated fashion illustrator and acclaimed stage and costume designer in her own right. In the T magazine article, Radziwill recalled that for the dining room of her house in the English countryside, Mongiardino covered the walls in pieces of tan-colored Sicilian peasant scarves and then had de Nobili adorn them with paintings of vines and pictures of Radziwill’s two small children before lacquering the surfaces for an antique effect. So that the pale draperies in the room wouldn’t appear new, they were dipped in tea.

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Martina Mondadori Sartogo, at right, sits on a Mongiardino-designed pouf in her parents’ home with her friend Ginevra Elkann, the granddaughter of Marella Agnelli, one of Mongiardino’s greatest patrons.

Why was Mongiardino so obsessed with the past? When he graduated with an architectural degree from the Politecnico di Milano, in 1942, practitioners of his generation and the one preceding were still grappling with what Italian modernity should be. Like many of this group, he looked back into history to find Italian motifs and approaches that could be freshly interpreted for the new age of industry. Although a committed modernist, Giò Ponti, one of Mongiardino’s professors at the Politecnico, was doing the same, although to different ends. Consider especially Ponti’s stylish collaborations with Piero Fornasetti, another Italian designer creating original work from antique inspirations.

So Mongiardino’s continued fascination with the past was not as reactionary or eccentric as it may seem today, but rather deeply Italian. In Roomscapes, he observed that Greek and Roman elements have been continually reinvented over the centuries, proof, he felt, that “revivals never end.”

The son of the man who introduced color television to Italy, Mongiardino was far from being a Luddite. He embraced and admired many modern conveniences. But he believed that in contrast to new inventions like televisions and airplanes, living spaces were elemental. To change a home’s form, he wrote, “is more a yearning desire for the new than a functional requirement.”

Even in this age of the Internet of Things, there’s still some truth to that. The passionate following that the atmospheric, at once arcane and topical, gorgeously printed Cabana has engendered in its two years of existence is evidence that Mongiardino’s decorative vision may very well be on the verge of a revival.


Shop Mongiardino-inspired items from Cabana


Shop the Casa Cabana pop-up on 1stdibs, only through December 31.