Renzo Mongiardino. Legendary Italian Master.

Renzo Mongiardino was perhaps the greatest crafter and most inventive conjurer of splendid homes in the second half of the 20th century.

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Mongiardino (1916 – 1998) detested the title “decorator,” preferring “creator of ambience.” Striving to explain the distinctive magic this maestro wrought, admirers often note that, in addition to being an architect, he was also an acclaimed set designer, who worked on both the opera stage and in film and was nominated for two Academy Awards for productions directed by Franco Zeffirelli: The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Brother Son, Sister Moon (1972).

Certainly, he brought his skills in creating illusions and visual drama to his residential projects. The practice of employing scale models, so common among scenic designers, was central to his interior design process, but he took it further, making a series of detailed models of various scales — first for himself, then for clients, then contractors.

To Mongiardino, the models were essential, allowing him to fully grasp the dynamics of a space — proportional relations along with circulation and the play of light throughout the day and evening.

Once the room was understood, the decor could be developed “in harmony with the architecture,” in order to “correct its defects, apportion its effects, and create illusions,” as Mongiardino explained in his revealingly named and quite learned monograph Roomscapes: The Decorative Architecture of Renzo Mongiardino (Rizzoli, 1993).

Thus, more than creating fabulous backdrops for fabulous clients — and more on them in a moment — through his singular design wizardry, Mongiardino was fashioning domestic characters, intimate companions of a sort, with and in whom his clients could dwell. One’s home is a “choice in life,” he stated in his book, “a citadel — agreeable and unarmed, but equipped to deter those who are not welcome and embrace those who are friends.”

STYLE.

The years of Mongiardino’s debut are those of the Modern Movement, but he resisted this new wave, fearing its effects, and perceiving an intrinsic lack of feeling. Instinct took him elsewhere, to seek the harmony of the antique that draws on and re-invents itself in a completely new way. The private nature of his projects and their nature, in the sense that they are an ends unto themselves, and will most likely not survive beyond the lives of their owners, brings with it the risk that Mongiardino’s name may not correspond to anything definite, but true only as evocation of the rich and famous world.

There are in fact several public works of Mongiardino, including two buildings built in Milan (in Via Donizetti and in via Borgonuovo), the restoration of several important hotels (the lobby bar at The Carlyle in New York, The Hotel Kulm in St. Moritz, The Plaza in Rome), as well as the restaurant (“Da Giacomo” in Milan) and several shops, including Sabbadini Jewelers on Milan’s Via Montenapoleone. But these works are the exception that the primary focus of Mongiardino’s research, which was addressed almost exclusively to the preparation of domestic spaces, through a careful combination of the search for harmonious proportions and a love for the meticulous execution of every detail.

Before Mongiardino, houses were built in a particular historical style. Mongiardino revolutionized this methodology. He writes: “The houses are furnished, are created considering the structure, the skeleton, the intrinsic beauty, when there is. We believe we can invent a new house, a universal model that could be replicated identically in Naples as in Stockholm. But the house is not an invention, it is always the same shelter that man needs because he is tired, because he’s hungry, because he has to sleep. Older houses were built on the extent of these practical needs, they expressed the authenticity of the goods and used the same limits imposed by available materials and technologies called for the pursuit of beauty in function. Skilled creator of spectacular spaces, he has been able to juxtapose ordinary objects and antiques, in a masterly game of fabrics or painted, and sculptured panels and a range of trompe l’œil, whereby he obtained masterpieces with poor materials.

Fundamental in his work, however, is the determination of space, the search for a balance of proportions that must precede the decoration. Precisely this is his book “Roomscapes”. Only later Mongiardino inserted, with the sensitivity set designer, fakes and real objects presented without any hierarchy of values in a setting in which each subject was taking its natural space.

Before Mongiardino, houses were built in a particular historical style. Mongiardino revolutionized this methodology. He writes: “The houses are furnished, are created considering the structure, the skeleton, the intrinsic beauty, when there is. We believe we can invent a new house, a universal model that could be replicated identically in Naples as in Stockholm. But the house is not an invention, it is always the same shelter that man needs because he is tired, because he’s hungry, because he has to sleep. Older houses were built on the extent of these practical needs, they expressed the authenticity of the goods and used the same limits imposed by available materials and technologies called for the pursuit of beauty in function. Skilled creator of spectacular spaces, he has been able to juxtapose ordinary objects and antiques, in a masterly game of fabrics or painted, and sculptured panels and a range of trompe l’œil, whereby he obtained masterpieces with poor materials.

Fundamental in his work, however, is the determination of space, the search for a balance of proportions that must precede the decoration. Precisely this is his book “Roomscapes”. Only later Mongiardino inserted, with the sensitivity set designer, fakes and real objects presented without any hierarchy of values in a setting in which each subject was taking its natural space.

Mongiardino died in Milan on 16 January 1998.

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Renzo Mongiardino books:

Renaissance Master Of Style – Assouline

Roomscapes: The decorative Architecture of R.M. Barney NewYork

Roomscapes: The decorative Architecture of R.M. Amazon Italia

More:

Mongiardino’s inspirations:

Duke of Urbino’s Renaissance studiolo. MET NewYork

Fruit Room, at Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace

 

Silvio Artero

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