Lady liberty: Chichi Meroni looks to Milan’s art nouveau heyday

Lady liberty: Chichi Meroni looks to Milan’s art nouveau heyday

Remote, formal and cool, the Milanese can be fiercely private people. Even in this age of self-promotion, prising open the doors to their magnificent apartments remains a challenge. Take Chichi Meroni, a sixth-generation Milanese who has built a vintage clothing and furniture empire on a single block of city-centre real estate. Entitled L’Arabesque, her business in Largo Augusto includes a bustling café, a bookstore, a midcentury design gallery and three shops that sell vintage fashion and her own men’s and womenswear ranges.

Above this rare island of 1950s Milanese design sits Meroni’s apartment, in a superb building designed by midcentury local architect Paolo Buffa. The residence, with its immaculate lines and elegant furnishings, is the unofficial heartbeat for Meroni’s entire retail operation. And yet, she lives inconspicuously and her home remains a very well-kept secret. ‘I am 200 per cent Milanese,’ she says, explaining her adhesion to the city’s strict codes and old-school traditions that put a premium on mannered discretion.

Meroni speaks quietly and carefully from her orchid-filled dining room. The peaceful sea-green of the walls is punctuated by blood-red Chinese artworks and burnt orange velvet-covered faux bamboo chairs. The room is typical of the whole space – warm, well balanced, beautifully curated, restrained, but not stiff.

Meroni is the daughter of aesthetically attuned parents, who lived in the apartment before her. Her mother, a former model, ran in elite fashion circles. Her father, a successful industrialist and builder, was friends with Buffa, and commissioned him to design the eight-storey palazzo, completed in 1949.

As a girl, Meroni trailed after her mother as she visited antique stores in Paris and Milan and followed her father across the globe on design excursions, clearly formative experiences. She launched her first fashion venture in Buenos Aires in the 1970s and later opened an interior design studio when she moved back to Milan in the 1980s. Evidence of her father’s impeccable design taste is sprinkled across her home, from pristine 1950s Indian palisander cabinetry and Canaletto walnut sideboards designed by Buffa to glass-topped consoles with elegant, Ico Parisi-esque legs, and a collection of important Asian art and objects.

One early 20th-century silk Japanese screen is so rare that a group of Japanese tourists called Meroni to fix an appointment to view it privately. 

The building itself possesses many of the hallmarks of the city’s best Fascist-era architecture: a sober, imposing facade, sophisticated restraint and a wicked focus on details, from saucer-sized brass doorknobs to enormous oak doors carved with geometric designs.

To this austere base, Meroni has added style and spice. She is a talented colourist, washing walls in subtle but impactful shades of lime, china blue, pumpkin and her favourite sea-green. ‘These are fixed colours in my life,’ she says of the distinctive hues. ‘I put them in my country house as well.’ 

Exuberant upholstery designed by Gio Ponti covers a Scandinavian armchair in the living room. Ceramic collections, such as a group of Richard Ginori orange vases, mix with climbing ivy and vases of tulips. Dramatic lighting hangs from the ceiling, such as the sitting room’s smoked purple Venini glass chandelier.

Befitting the fashion archivist that Meroni is, closets are everywhere. Guest rooms have been transformed into dressing rooms and her rich collection of vintage clothes is lined up like precious bootie within curtained cabinets or under linen covers. ‘My closet is our fashion archive,’ she says of the enormous selection. ‘But actually I live in black trousers and a turtleneck.’

Meroni’s atelier is located on the third floor of the building, where she designs new women’s and men’s fashion and oversees her sprawling retail venture.

For this year’s Salone del Mobile, Meroni has partnered with Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave on an art nouveau-inspired exhibition in her design gallery. The shift back to the turn of the century is new design territory for Meroni. ‘I was thinking of the liberty period in Milan and the art nouveau moment in Paris and seeing the connections today,’ she explains. ‘It seems to me to be a period that is coming back.’

Her sentiment echoes those among Milan’s furniture experts who express a certain degree of midcentury fatigue. ‘The 1950s and 1960s represented such a wonderful, clean aesthetic compared to the 1980s and 1990s, which were so heavy,’ Meroni observes. ‘But then everyone got into [midcentury design]. It became maybe too fashionable.’ 

The show will feature new furniture and art by de Borchgrave, and art nouveau design that Meroni has stumbled across. ‘There are so many beautiful things from that period,’ she says. ‘The colours are fabulous. So is the glasswork. I wanted to put the spotlight back onto something that’s been forgotten.’

As originally featured in the May 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*206)

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