In the Atelier With Achille Salvagni
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In the Atelier With Achille Salvagni
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Combining elements of Scandinavian design with ornate Italian cabinet making may sound incongruous, but as ever the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Or, in this instance, the furniture filling Achille Salvagni’s Mayfair atelier, which opened on Grafton Street at the beginning of October. The award-winning Italian architect started his bespoke line approximately three years ago, and already certain pieces, such as the bronze and onyx ‘Spider’ chandelier hanging overhead when I visit the space, are reaching iconic status – and yet it is one of an edition of twenty. “I keep it small because I never want to become known for a single design,” explains Salvagni. “Rather, for my whole body of work.” 

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Achille Salvagni
Courtesy of Atelier Achille Salvagni
 

He directs my gaze to an onyx-topped cabinet – an edition of six – baptized ‘Antinoo’ after the lover of Emperor Hadrian, whose beauty was such that Hadrian kept him locked up in his palace. Opening the curved oak doors, Salvagni explains that they are as Hadrian’s arms, keeping Antinous safe; the bronze mask-like form between the doors is representative of those worn by Roman warriors, the slim bronze legs that seem to grow out from the body of the piece “are feminine, because fifty per cent of Antinous’s soul was female”, and the gently sloped curve of the cabinet’s back “is the shoulder, representing the strength of the Emperor”.

Salvagni, like the cabinet’s oak, comes from Rome - and lives there still, with his wife, Valentina, and their two young children. He remains standing for the duration of our interview, straight backed and elegant in monogrammed velvet slippers, salmon pink trousers and a navy wool jacket dotted with tiny white spots – his tailor is “from the school of Caraceni”, a name those in the field will recognise as the father of Italian tailoring. His passion for design and architecture he explains as being “internal”, and recalls filling his schoolbooks with sketches of furniture and rooms. His father was a builder, and he credits the visits to building sites and dealing with woodworkers and stoneworkers as an important part of the learning process. “You need to know about materials because to deal with details, with refinements in the field, you need to know what boundaries you can go beyond, and you can’t do that if you don’t know how to handle bronze, wood and stone properly.”  He attended the University of Rome, but also spent a year and a half in Stockholm, studying at the Royal Institute of Technology, an important turning point. “I wanted to cool down my roots, from Renaissance, from Baroque, I needed to breathe. And I was fascinated by the simplicity, the purity of Scandinavian architecture and design. When I got back I tried to create a balance between the two worlds, to create a connection – simple, iconic, but precious at the same time.” Hence “All my pieces bend rather than join.”  The forms are fluid and organic; presenting another cabinet, ‘Silk’, Salvagni comments “the shape comes from the sky.” 

The catalyst behind the creation of the bespoke line was a meeting with Gerardus Widdershoven, founder and director of Maison Gerard, the New York gallery famous for fine Art Deco furniture, lighting and objet d’arts, who approached Salvagni after seeing some of his pieces in a Central Park-facing apartment he had designed. These original designs were, Salvagni explains, born out of his work with super-yachts.

“A superyacht interior is not a house, it is a big piece of furniture. It is all made of wood – ceiling, walls and floors. To move from a big piece of furniture to a smaller one is a small step.” Additionally, in ensuring he didn’t commit his greatest fear - to be “banal, or ordinary; filling in all the space and just being practical” – Salvagni was driven to rethink yacht interiors. The old fashioned technique consists of building large-scale units that are then fixed in place. However, as Salvagni points out, “When you reach a certain level of dimension of a yacht, it is more like an apartment than a boat. But even a big ship still encounters rough seas.” His solution is to create a shell into which he fixes pieces of furniture that look as if they’re free standing, an approach that has seen him win the Judges Special Award at the World Superyacht Awards, the Show Boats Design Award for Bespoke Furniture, and two World Yachts Trophies.

 Salvagni’s other notable projects include private homes in London, Rome, New York and Paris, and he’s currently working on a Manhattan town house, private villas in Paris and Miami and two superyachts.  He explains that a yacht interior “will be much more connected to the owner, while a house or an apartment is more connected to the neighbourhood. With the latter you are influenced by the desert view, or the forest view – a yacht is moving, you could be in St. Tropez one day and the Caribbean the next.” He politely declines attempting a description of his design ethos - “I don’t really like to be associated with any one style. I would much rather be associated with a method, with which every time we reach a different goal” - and names the client as alpha and omega of every project. “They’re the one who’ll be living there, I’m just the means, I’m not the law.” His one requirement is time - “I don’t want to rush” - and his overriding preoccupation is with beauty: “Because I think it is the only luxury.  If you are surrounded by beauty, you are lucky, and you live in luxury.” 

 

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Achille Salvagni, Antinoo
Photo: James McDonald Courtesy: Achille Salvagni Atelier
 
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Azimut 95
Courtesy of Achille Salvagni
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Achille Salvagni, Silk
Photo: James McDonald Courtesy: Achille Salvagni Atelier
 

With his furniture design, Salvagni wants to create “jewels”. He mentions an essay by Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, From the Fork to the City, saying: “My ambition is to take back that approach” and indicates a bronze hinge he designed. He cites Paolo Buffa, Gio Ponti and Tomasso Buzzi as inspiration, all early 20th Century Italian cabinet makers “who really identified design with uniqueness, with exceptional pieces – it was not just mass product.” Each of Salvagni’s works is composed of the highest quality materials, whose organic origin ensures that even within the run of an edition there’ll be differences, in the grain of the wood, or the vein of the marble. I’m given history and usage, and learn that onyx was once used in place of glass in windows, and how when working with it “You never know what is on the inside, for every piece you use you throw away another.” And each design has a name and a story – from the onyx and bronze ‘Valentine’ lights named after his wife Valentina, that resemble the ex-voto hearts so popular in Baroque art and architecture, to the ‘Diamond’ sconces designed for the one of the world’s leading supermodels; they mirror the shape of a pair of her earrings.  He eulogises Rome as “the best place to design and build. I’m surrounded by history and by stories that give me inspiration.” 

But the atelier is in London, due to Salvagni’s belief that, “along with New York, it represents the real essence of the world – and it’s my ambition to have a worldwide clientele in terms of people who appreciate my work.” Contrary to Salvagni’s insistence on time it was put together within a month, though still has the extraordinarily high finish common to all his projects.  Two rooms open into each other - “The idea was not to create an empty box to display pieces. This is not a showroom, this is like a room of someone’s house” - and the collections are arranged in such a fashion to emphasise that point. While the room facing the street is currently set up as a sitting room, the coming months will see it transform into a dining room, a study, or even a bathroom. A painting by Ettore Spalletti, from Salvagni’s own collection (“I’m a keen collector”) hangs on one of the walls, which have been formed in such a way that they act as frames. Salvagni compares it to the work of the arte povera artist Giulio Paolini, “He created transparent rooms, just lining the edges.” The use of the outline – which is something that crops up on a regular basis in Salvagni’s designs – is extended into the second room of the atelier, where it traverses the ash-coloured oak walls in bronze. Another wall is panelled in Alpaca silver, a metal alloy used by the Murano glassmakers that appears to switch between gold and silver. Meanwhile Tibeten-knotted silk carpet has been sunken into the white marble floor; the raspberry of one carpet perfectly offsetting two lime green velvet chairs named ‘Vittoria’, after Salvagni’s daughter. 

It has been suggested that Salvagni’s ‘Silk’ cabinet would look perfectly at home in a space station – I’d counter that it would also suit a Renaissance palazzo. For with these pieces, which combine elements from two seemingly opposing design cultures in an entirely harmonious fashion, Salvagni has indeed created jewels, which are timeless as well as unique, and, like the designer himself, steeped in multiple layers of cultural references. The Grafton Street atelier is somewhere you’re going to want to visit time and time again, for it offers a rare level of enrichment.

 

 

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