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19.06.2020. Art & Culture
Words: Lee Marshall
Photos: Roberto Salomone
I’m in one of those secret residential courtyards in central Milan, where whole communities thrive behind reticent street-facing facades.
This one is older than most. Paved with flagstones and river pebbles, it has – like many buildings on the winding streets of the city’s centro storico – an irregular shape. Just across the road is a church, San Giorgio al Palazzo, that was founded in the seventh century. The distant origins of this solid townhouse on Via Nerino go back at least to the Middle Ages.
Historically, the cortili or courtyards of Milan’s great townhouses buzzed with activity, as most were lined with the workshops of cobblers, carpenters, upholsterers and other tradesmen. The tradition fell away in the immediate post-war years, but more recently it has been revived by a new generation of makers and sellers.
Many of Milan’s chicest fashion and design outlets drape themselves around courtyards – think of concept store 10 Corso Como, or Rossana Orlandi’s warren of vintage and contemporary design, homeware and architectural salvage items. But those are essentially retail operations. If you know where to look, you can also find true craftsmanship in today’s cortili. For example, by ducking through the arch that separates the main courtyard of Via Nerino 8 from an even more secret mini-cortile where Laboratorio Paravicini plies its trade.
Created by Costanza Paravicini, sister of Emporio Sirenuse’s founder Carla Sersale, in the courtyard of the palazzo where they both grew up, Laboratorio Paravicini is a ceramics studio that specialises in plates. “My first workshop was in a garage nearby”, Costanza tells me, “but in 1995 this space freed up, and I began to colonise the courtyard”. Her daughters Benedetta and Margherita (who had previously worked for Bottega Veneta) later joined the company. They handle the strategy, communications and social media side of the business, while Costanza looks after the design process and shares painting duties with three skilled assistants.
Costanza has always drawn and painted. Before starting to design plates, she created painted lampshades. She was led into ceramics by the desire to make some plates for her family to use at home; slowly but surely, the business grew. “For the first two years”, she recalls with a smile, “I did little but throw away plates that had gone wrong”. Gradually, though, she mastered the technique of painting directly onto fired earthenware using powdered earth colours and oxides. “It’s tricky, because ‘biscuit’ earthenware is porous, so with each brushstroke you have to take account of the way the paint will spread. Also, until the plate is glazed and fired you never know exactly what the final colour will be”.
Laboratorio Paravacini produces at least one collection of dinner plates, dessert plates and soup bowls each year, generally to coincide with Milan’s Salone del Mobile or Furniture Fair in April. They are on sale via Artemest, a platform and e-shop that represents a curated selection of Italian artisans. But around half of its work is bespoke, working closely with clients from all over the world to design dinner services and other tableware items. Often a photo or drawing will be sent by way of a brief, but even so, several trials are sometimes necessary. With one UK client, Costanza despaired of finding the right way in. Then, after a series of false starts, she noticed, in a photo, the elegant ferns in the garden of the customer’s modernist house – and the resulting fern series proved to be a winner.
For her own collections, Costanza draws on the most varied sources of inspiration. For the 2018 Birds of Paradise collection, she was inspired by old ornithological prints of these marvellous birds, but decided to add what she calls ‘una palma grafica’, a simplified palm leaf, to fill out the circle of the plate and provide a contrast between the intricate coloured plumage and the soothing monochrome geometry of the leaf. The 2019 collection, Athletae Gymmetria, is an Art Deco take on athletics and the early 20th century cult of the body beautiful. In Laboratorio Paravicini’s 2020 collection, twelve wild flowers on a white background extend their delicate blooms to visiting butterflies and dragonflies.
“Plates are a little like music”, Costanza believes. “Sometimes you have to listen a few times before a piece captivates you”. That may be true – but gazing around the walls of this fascinatingly cluttered bottega, I can see plenty of ceramic tunes that have me whistling along before the song is even over.
Via Nerino 8, Milan
Tel +39 02 72021006
Open Mon-Fri 9.30am-1.30pm, afternoons by appointment