Legendary architect Alessandro Mendini fills his vibrant vacation home in the mountains of northern Italy with highlights from his illustrious career
Alessandro Mendini has a confession to make: “I never created furniture for a house of my own.” The 86-year-old Italian architect has long separated work and home, filling his humble Milan apartment—just upstairs from his atelier—with only simple, functional basics.
But 12 years ago, as Mendini looked for a vacation home outside the city to share with his two grown daughters, Fulvia and Elisa, a photo-graph of a beauty in the Stile Liberty mode (Italy’s term for Art Nouveau) caught his eye in a real-estate agent’s office. “I immediately loved it,” he recalls. A private residence that served for a time as a summer camp for children managed by nuns, it sat snugly in the mountains of Olda, a village north of San Pellegrino Terme. Soon, keys in hand, Mendini felt something change: “I put my own furniture on display as if it were a museum and positioned them next to Liberty-style antiques.”
The house makes me think, links me to the past, and detaches me for a few days from the speed of life and work.
With a wildly prolific career of more than 50 years and counting, there was a lot of material to choose from. Mendini’s affinity for environments began earlier than most. Born prematurely in Milan in 1931, he and his twin sister were placed along with a couple of hot-water bottles in a large, zigzag-patterned armchair designed by Piero Portaluppi (who also decorated the family house) and left to incubate. From that improvised cradle, an infant Mendini gazed up at the Annunciation, a Surrealistic artwork by Alberto Savinio. “That was my first habitat,” he once wrote. “A Tyrolean Futurist arm-chair and a metaphysical painting.”
After he graduated from architecture school at Milan Polytechnic, Mendini’s career took off in wild and unprecedented directions. Critical of bourgeois culture, he moved within the late-1960s anti-design Italian Radical movement, from which he went on to cofound (along with luminary Ettore Sottsass) Studio Alchimia and later designed for Memphis (founded by Sottsass). All the while, he built buildings, penned books, and served as the editor of Domus and Casabella. Discerning as he is, he created not only objects of contemplation, but also ones for practical use—corkscrews for Alessi, watches for Swatch, and plastic stools for Kartell, among countless others—that tirelessly deliver his cheerful wit to the masses.
Of his new home, Mendini says, “It allows me to experiment, especially with color.” Sweet pastels—calamine-pink; pistachio-green—splash the rooms, which are filled with Technicolor furnishings. Like so much of Mendini’s work, the juxtapositions are improbable, even jarring. As design dealer Didier Krzentowski of Paris’s Galerie Kreo, a longtime collaborator with the designer, puts it: “He will never do something that is not himself. He really has his own world.”
The star player of that world, of course, is Mendini’s unforgettable 1978 ode to French writer Marcel Proust: a baroque seat hand-painted with thousands of Pointillist brushstrokes. One of the limited-edition versions shares a sitting room with Fulvia. Two green plastic models produced by Magis—the design has been reimagined in dozens of materials ranging from marble to cast bronze—sit downstairs in the belvedere, and Pointillist spots sprinkle headboards, mirrors, and rugs all over the house.
Mendini’s own works (rare prototypes, wild cabinets, and charming rugs) mingle with those of his friends, such as a gelatinous vase by Gaetano Pesce and circus-like poufs by Anna Gili, as well as a table that she designed for the Memphis Group. And all that vibrant modernity sits with the Stile Liberty antiques that came with the house and a cache of other venerables—small tables, lamps by Émile Gallé and Tiffany, a few bronze sculptures—purchased at an auction of decorations from the nearby Grand Hotel.
“I do four things here,” Mendini says, reflecting on his new place of solitude. “I read, I write, I draw, and I take walks in the mountains. The house makes me think, links me to the past, and detaches me for a few days from the speed of life and work.” Thinking about the arc of Mendini’s lengthy (and still extremely active) career, the filmmaker Francesca Molteni—whose documentary about the architect debuted in 2016—laughs. “He said that he started his career as an anti-bourgeois designer, and he ended up being a bourgeois in the end,” she says. “But a good one.” And now, like every good bourgeois, Mendini has a country house, too.
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