That image was important to me.
It was a shot by Mikael Jansson, a famous Swedish photographer, who was taking a picture of a part of his home, a farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside just outside Pienza. It showed a window in full light, opening onto a wall with different shades and which focused on a series of panels of different backgrounds, making the space look like a kind of abstract art installation.
The renovation project had been followed by the Studio Irvine and my involvement came about after Mikael had expressed his desire to Maria Laura to find a designer close to the poetry of Axel Vervoordt (who had been previously contacted) but one who would allow him greater involvement in the creative process.
Mikael, who possesses a particularly highly evolved sense of taste, has travelled the world for his photo shoots for some of the top magazines such as Vogue and The Wall Street Journal. I was fascinated by his work, particularly in fashion, and was very nervous when he came from London to have a look at the Gonzaga brickworks along with his wife Carlotta (known as Lotta).
While Mikael focused on the characteristics of light on raw earth, Lotta was far more interested in touching surfaces and so as one looked, the other touched and kept repeating “smoother”.
Our first bespoke project sprang from that meeting and in Mikael's photo you can see the four samples under the window of the living room: ad hoc colours interpreting shades ranging from burnished wood to the ochre of Sienese stone.
The manufacturing process was extremely demanding: the customer continued to “raise the bar” and the production phase of the samples alone lasted over a year.
In total, I must have made more than 30 trips to Pienza: a considerable commitment, bearing in mind the approximately 300 kms distance from Gonzaga. On the other hand, that experience produced significant results: products such as Terra Wabi originated there, created by mixing black Tadelakt soap or marmorino lime putty with the plaster.
The aim, inspired by the style of the nineteenth-century Tuscan farmhouse was to obtain a slightly retro effect, with the depth of the clay in the colours but with a smooth effect to the touch, similar to that of soap.
Each room had a different colour, which harmonized with those of the doors that Mikael had collected from antiques markets throughout Europe from Parma to Amsterdam.
Each room had to be combined with a door, a wood, a stone while the openings in the walls were specially sized according to the doors purchased before the renovation.
The complexity of the project, in addition to the location of the farmhouse amidst the Tuscan hills protected by cypresses, where there wasn’t even any telephone connection, kept the working situation in a state of suspension, thus adding even more value to each gesture, in much the same way as the slow and repeated rhythms of medieval or Renaissance craftsmanship. It was a very different condition from the exponential acceleration forced by today’s industrial production processes.
Mikael was a genuine photography fetishist; he followed the construction work continuously, taking much prized images using his iPhone which had to work both with the colours of natural light in the morning, afternoon and evening, and with artificial light at night.
This was a highly complex job since in addition to me, the finishes were created by Linda Antonietti - my long-time collaborator, who now follows the development of the samples and the Research Office -, and by Antonio Carmeci, a Sicilian geologist who was passionate about art.
He had started working with our products in 2010 and he was gifted with a tremendously sensitive hand. Antonio worked with clays like a glass painter, moving away and approaching the surface after two or three strokes, to observe and focus on it from a different distance and then calibrate colours, textures and the intensity of the result.
Unfortunately, this memory is also a little sad. At the time, Antonio had been diagnosed as having leukaemia, and after an initial phase of treatment and improvement, after a year it became clear he would no longer be able to continue the work, because he was too weak. So, it was a real shock when a few months ago I heard from a mutual friend that he had passed away.
His work had been so beautiful that in two rooms, Mikael had chosen to leave the backgrounds on the wall intact with the colour test samples, ranging from red to grey through yellow and beige instead of the dark red finish then chosen as the final one. It was a kind of contemporary graffiti, an abstract signature that highlighted the sensitivity of the technical process in progress, and according it the correct artistic value.
The other day, when I reopened the catalogue to look through its pages, I was captured by the photo of that wall and all the memories behind its history came flooding back. They are memories of journeys that never ended, of infinite improvements, of cohesive team work which often continued even when sitting at tables in the restaurant; a team where everyone said what they thought, including clients.
It came back to me when Mikael would take photos with his iPhone, then send them to me on WhatsApp and I would ask “but can I use them, Mikael?”.
I like to think that if I go to Pienza and give him a phone call, we can sit down with a glass of wine, perhaps also to remember a mutual friend to whom, with those same phones, we would have liked to send an extra message. A message costs nothing, but sometimes has a value that is infinite.