Hunting for a great house in Milan is little bit like nabbing the perfect plate of billowing, buttery mozzarella in America: It’s practically impossible. All the good apartments are taken; they have been so for the last four hundred years; and no one has any intention of selling the family palazzo with the frescoed walls, stately entryways and soaring ceilings.
As an American who has lived in Milan for 13 years, I have by now learned to never take the first No as the final answer. My search for a dream abode began back in 2005 and lasted a maddening two years in which I walked into 93 ho-hum properties shown to me by no fewer than 32 realtors. Deflated by the sluggish inefficiency and lack of fabulousness, one day I agreed to see an apartment on the top floor of a 1950s building that boasted incredible light and wrap-around terraces—but was billed as rent-only. My husband, finally engaged by a property worth fighting for, sat the owners down and convinced them to sell it to us.
And they did.
Situated behind Milan’s courthouse, the apartment had views of my two favorite buildings in Milan: BBPR’s 1957 Torre Valasca and Milan’s 14th-century Duomo. The Torre was built in 292 days. The Duomo took 500 years. Regrettably, our project fell somewhere in between. We bought the apartment thinking there was very little to do, but suddenly walls came down, floors got ripped up and bathrooms and kitchens were completely erased and rebuilt. The architect was a blue-eyed, frisky Italian with brilliant ideas on dividing the space and designing all of the built-in oak furniture that was later lovingly, painstakingly actualized by two 85-year-old men who worked by hand out of an old farmhouse in Pavia.
But our young architetto had little sense of operations, coordination, organization, or even grade-school note taking. He tended to scribble meeting notes on his hand which was more than a little alarming, so I quickly assumed the role of project manager, client representative, budget enforcer, appointment manager and all around mood enhancer. The greatest lesson was that demanding something be done or offering more money for it to be done on time (which is what my mother helpfully suggested by phone from Los Angeles one day) would only insult an Italian. The only way to get the construction workers, plumber, electrician, glass cutter, stone cutter and carpenters to work in disorganized harmony with your wishes was to throw away the schedule and flirt like mad. Half way through the renovation, I turned on the coquettish charm.
And it worked.
In Italy, American-style, full-service interior decorators are a rare breed. Architects are usually doubly charged with furnishings, which is probably why most new Milanese interiors look like slick design catalogs populated with Eero Saarinen tulip chairs and Eames lounge chairs—a cookie cutter look I didn’t want.
I am a fashion and design journalist who has spent years collecting vintage clothing, but seven years ago I knew absolutely nothing about decorating. What I did have was an eye for vintage furniture, which I began to procure exactly as I collected clothes: I simply bought pieces that caught my attention, not having a clue as to how, where or when I would use them.
Sometimes the random selections came together like a pre-planned symphony— such as the enormous 1970s hula-hoop-shaped chandelier I dug out of a dealer’s dark basement storage. It now hangs over a 1940s parchment table found at the Parma flea market and ten Osvaldo Borsani chairs picked out of an old Milanese residence that I had stained black (thanks to a little old man working out of a one-room workshop in Milan’s Brera district) and recovered with a fashion textile gifted to me by Costume National designer Ennio Capasa.
But sometimes, the randomness went nowhere. I re-did our entry way and my writing studio ten times. When the sweet Sicilian painter arrived for the sixth time in two years, I sighed and simply said to him, “Just give me the color of the sea in Panarea.”
Which he did. The home-brewed, shiny lacquered shade of deep sea blue has not been touched since.
I may not have hired an interior designer, but I found plenty of advice on the couches of every furniture dealer in town. I befriended storeowners, listened to their tales of family life or professional drama, and then eyed the new merchandise and recounted my big ideas. Often they told me I was nuts, but sometimes I got an astonished look of approval—on items like the four rusted, abandoned iron armchairs I fished out of the city’s junk yard. I brought them to my autobody shop in Milan where the perplexed mechanics promptly told me that they definitely could not paint them the same red as my vintage Cinquecento.
But they did.
I continue to make tweaks to this home, completely rearranging furniture and adding new chairs, as my personal whims change. And although we all love neat, happy endings, my husband and I are currently engaged in a full terrace renovation to repair a leaking floor, amongst other homeowner snafus. The familiar Italian-style chaos of no timetables, insecure budgets, cancelled meetings and no note-taking is with us once again.
But I plan to fully flirt my way through it the entire way this time.
– J.J. Martin