Expeditions

workspace |noun| a space in which to work

Da Vinci said an artist’s studio should be a small space. Small rooms discipline the mind; large ones distract it, he said. What, oh what, would Leo say of our Digital Age where the internet makes artists studios potentially boundless? I guess it doesn’t matter – everyone knows he was full of crap anyway.

Every writer seems to have an opinion on the matter. Raymond Carver retracted an earlier statement in which he said where you live doesn’t affect your writing. Martin Amis recently said a writer should be able to write from inside a Tupperware. (OK, what he actually said was “It doesn’t matter where you are. The room where you write is a hermetically sealed world. It doesn’t really interact with what’s out there.”) Although my sass-bone is tickled by Leo’s inability to retort, I am significantly more subdued when it comes to Martin Amis. After all, he’s an accomplished writer – I’m a nobody. I suspect he could obliterate me from the face of the literary planet with the thought of a sneeze and Carver isn’t around to defend me anymore.

In any case, my current obsession with artistic workspaces is all Annie Liebovitz’s fault. A few years ago, I saw an exhibit of hers at London’s Hamilton Gallery called “Pilgrimage” in which she photographed artistic workspaces (or props) of the likes of Emily Dickinson, Martha Graham and Georgia O’Keefe. (I recall this day with reluctance. It was also the day I was accosted mid-Mayfair by a choir of dead turkeys. It was Christmas and it was all deeply wounding.) Anyway, the photographs completely reeled me in. I realized that, even before falling into bed with writing, I had always been attracted to spaces of artistic creation. Magnetically. So now that the Writing Times have dawned for me, the search for my own creative workspace feels a little like – well – mattress shopping.

What do we look for in our artistic workspaces – those delivery rooms of our personal art? Clearly, the answer is just that – personal. Given my itinerant dynamic this year, I don’t get to inhabit my workspaces for long, which is too bad because the Design Library here in Milan has certainly grown on me. Instead, I’ve heavily invested in my portable spaces – my notebooks, my detachable mood walls, my virtual creative spaces (Facebook, Pintrest, this blog). And, rather than being planned and selected, I get the feeling that creative workspaces accumulate around us much in the same way fossils are formed. But, then again, what do I know – I’m full of crap too.

Be that as it may, I decided to indulge my obsession by pounding the pavement and visiting a few emblematic workspaces in this incredibly creative city. I soon realized that the transition from internet voyeur to actual visitor would require real stamina, unflinching patience and exceptional bureaucratic persistence. Oh, the Milanese and their eternally locked doors!

Ansaldo Workshop - fairy painter at work

Ansaldo Workshop – fairy painter at work

Stop no. 1: Long gone are the days in which railroad tracks and carriages were built at the Ansaldo Workshops – a stone’s throw from my loft. Now, these monumental warehouses are the scenery and costume hub for the La Scala opera house.

On your visit, you’ll get the feeling of stumbling into an orderly playroom for giants, where fairy welders, painters, sculptors, carpenters and seamstresses perform their magic with a quasi-religious respect for tradition. From the height of a suspended walkway, you get an amazing view of enormous canvases rolled out onto the floor, over which artisans labor standing-up. (Everyone seems to be working in their pajamas – aka, their blue La Scala overalls – which makes me and my little Peter Pan complex think why stop there? Why not work in harnesses hung from the ceiling from which you can swing to and fro while listening to arias – an operatic Cirque du Soleil?) Anyway, this privileged angle allows you to zoom in and out on the whimsical scene. Zoom into the particular and you’ll find the lone artist that uses what looks like a refined broom to add color to a canvas or the sketcher that creates carefully measured lines with charcoal extended on a stick and a giant ruler. Zoom out and you will quite literally see the big picture: the set for next season’s main production.

Despite my lack of craftiness (in the sense of these people anyway), what I wouldn’t do for a little corner from which to write! Each morning, I’d high-five welder and sketcher alike en route to my throne (a leftover prop). I’m pretty sure I’d get snubbed by the seamstresses – Mean-Mommy Elephant-from-Dumbo complex. As far as pathologies go, I prefer my own.

The Designers - Castiglioni, Magistretti, Zanuso, Sottsass

The Designers – Castiglioni, Magistretti, Zanuso, Sottsass (from left to right)

Stop no. 2: The studio of the famous 20th century designer Achille Castiglioni next to Castello Sforzesco is a place brimming with stories. (If you walk into the Flos flagstore near San Babila, half of what you’ll see was designed by Castiglioni decades ago and is still incredibly modern.) If Ansaldo is a giant’s playroom, this place is a child’s treasure chest. Every corner of it is filled with prototypes, postcards, knick-knacks, toys, props (a bag of which he often took with him to the university where he taught design), old radios, bicycle seats, sculptures made out of cigarette packets, ordinary wicker rug dusters, laboratory flasks, film reel, a Swiss milkman’s seat, masks, copper cake tins, a maquette made out of Parmesan cheese… everything fodder for Castiglioni’s creative mind and everything with a story attached. To give but two examples, the cake tins were “borrowed” from friend’s houses and later inspired a hat for a Domus magazine competition. Makes me wonder about my own friends – not a cake tin among the bunch. The cheese maquette is actually Castiglioni’s final project for his undergraduate degree: a model for a fascist’s house. I’d say his feelings about the task were quite clearly conveyed in his chosen material. (And let’s not forget we’re talking about the economically depressed Italy of the 1940’s, where the cost of that amount of cheese is not entirely negligible.)

Another thing that caught my eye was a beautiful black and white photograph of Castiglioni, Magistretti, Zanuso and Sottsass. They were all great Italian designers of their time and were close friends. So much so, that to visit their studios is to find each other’s work in them. In the picture, they are old men, but their faces are full of playfulness – a joie de vivre present in their work. I somehow feel like they wouldn’t have been as creative or happy outside of this friendship.

Castiglioni’s meeting room is my favorite in the studio. In it, you find a great big table with an enormous ashtray and a variety of chairs around it. Some were designed by him, others were not – they’re there because they’re good design. Not surprisingly, each tells a story – the one designed to make the sitter sit straight and named after his wife Irma, the “telephone chair” (Sella) which is uncomfortable as an invitation to make calls brief.

When my days of nomadic living come to an end, I’d love to replicate this tutti-frutti chair philosophy to lamps – I’ll call it my lamp bouquet. A tradition, I’ll admit, I’ve already begun, as you’ll see…

Portaluppi's Museo del Novecento seen from the Duomo rooftops

Portaluppi’s Museo del Novecento seen from the Duomo rooftops

Stop no. 3: In addition to Villa Necchi-Campiglio (starred a few posts back), Piero Portaluppi, a very quirky 20th century Milanese architect, also designed the Museo del Novecento building… which I have in full view… from the Duomo rooftops… from which I am writing these very words…

When I walked into the elegant bright green marble entrance of Portaluppi’s former architecture studio (with beautiful bronze lettering), the silence intimated me. I knew it wasn’t usually open to visitors, but I didn’t realize I would be the only one there – along with the person who kindly opened the proverbial and literal door to the place. Over the phone, I’d told him I was a writer – not an architect – and that I was interested in stories. Stop by, he’d said. I have plenty of those and indeed he did.

Portaluppi’s style is functional, geometric. Ornamentation is used sparingly, but is intense when present, as are his materials – the richest woods, the most beautifully hued marbles, wonderfully intricate polished mosaic floors. My host showed me exquisite furniture designed by Portaluppi for his personal use or that of his architectural clients. They are full of hidden compartments and sliding sets of drawers. To reproduce them today would be prohibitive. Alas, the world would be a better place if only we could get a few Russian oligarchs interested in this, instead of easily identifiable Cattelans and Emins.

This was, however, a man with some seriously weird habits. In gloved hands, my host pulled out an über detailed personal accounts ledger where even a tailor’s debt left by his son killed in the Second World War was recorded. And do you know how much you spent last year on hats? Nothing, however, tops the notebook where the young Portaluppi painstakingly recorded… the volume of milk consumed in a year, the amount of minutes spent riding his bike, the quantity of correspondence exchanged with male friends vs. ladies vs. “babes” – all this data compiled in beautifully painted watercolors. Quirky doesn’t begin to describe this guy, but one thing is certain – I find him beautiful in the details.

Eclisse and the author

Eclisse and the author

Stop no. 4 (fourth and final): I don’t care what the laws of physics say, sand does go through the hour glass faster towards the end – so I wasn’t sure I would find time to visit Vico Magistretti’s studio at the end of my Milanese days. But one day, I found myself at its door. An extraordinarily kind girl (incidentally, Magistretti’s granddaughter whose childhood portrait hangs discreetly in a corner) again gave me an earful of stories – how if Magistretti could have invented anything, it would have been the umbrella, how his faithful basset hound died of old age so he named the lamp he was working on after him (Dalù), how he acknowledges that we feel affection towards objects because they tell our story. To hear these stories is to love Magistretti and to want to own “a piece of him”, to be a part of this community.

The studio is presently compiling a virtual scrapbook, where owners of bought, gifted, won or found Magistretti design objects are invited to send in a picture of it with a short account of it’s story in their lives. Here is what I sent in for my Eclisse lamp:

“This year I am on an adventure. I can only take with me what fits in my tiny car and tiny budget – already full of books, husband and dog.

But I so wanted my first Magistretti! Yesterday I went out and bought the smallest one…

‘Ciao, Eclisse. How would you like a life together?’”

This little lamp will begin by telling the story of this year – much like this blog – and will maybe then tell the story of Luis’ first sports job and my first publication… here’s hoping! For now, it represents our future – a story told in the future tense.

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