Every day on my way to studio, I pass a little hole in the wall workshop that is full of really old chairs and chandeliers and armoires for as far as I can see. One day on the way home with my friend Minh, we decided to go in just to see what was there (correction: I decided, he came with because he’s awesome). We were looking around, to the bewilderment of the people inside, just to see what was there; the front room was just as packed with antique furnishings as it looked and the back room held piles of hand tools and a small scroll saw. After introducing themselves as Valentino and Romolo (a father and son team), they told us how they make reproductions of antiques for people and restore antique originals that people bring in. After explaining that we are architecture students, they took us to their warehouse to show us all of the original pieces of furniture that they have. And by “warehouse,” I really mean a double apartment a next to Hotel Arenula a couple blocks away that has stacks and stacks of carefully placed chairs and tables and shelves and all sorts of stuff that literally goes up to the double height ceiling. All of these furnishings are originals from over the past four centuries; most of them are incredibly elaborate with ornate carvings, detailed marquetry-work, and gilding. At the warehouse, several drawings were laying on tables, all of them designs for different pieces hand drawn by Valentino. His designs range from entire built-in wall units to switch plates that he hand carves and gilds and from divans and tables to art frames, which are pieces of art in themselves.
After seeing lots of intriguing things that first night, I knew I had to return to explore more. Since then, I’ve been back multiple times and he has started showing and teaching me things. He has a photo album showing some of his favorite projects over the last fifty years or so. He has several stacks of furniture books, divided by style and location and after flipping through these for a while, we go around the shop and he makes me identify different period pieces; most of them are what I call Luigis, the Italian version of Louis, referring to the French monarchs Louis XIV to Louis XVI. He saw me diagramming some pieces one day and made me actually draw some of the things there. I sat on the stairs for probably two hours sketching a putto (little cherub statue), a column capital, and part of an altarpiece (I think… He speaks exclusively in Italian so sometimes I don’t fully understand what he’s saying to me). Those three drawings are probably the best I’ve ever made. Amidst all of this history and furniture, we take gelato breaks, which are much needed (Incidentally, I have a new favorite gelato place). After our refreshment breaks, we go back and I continue to poke around all of these fantastic old pieces of furniture.
The ones that capture my attention the most are those that are adjustable and can change depending on the exact task at hand and actually become part of the aesthetics of the piece rather than just a functional element. One of the simpler examples is an armoire with adjustable shelves. The supports for adjusting the shelves aren’t hidden or temporary but are a permanent design feature. My favorite piece is a desk that at first glance looks like a dresser. After pulling out the supports on the side, you can fold the top down to create a desk with room for your legs. Within the desk are the various typical drawers and cubbies along with a less typical arched door in the center flanked by tiny columns. The columns seemed like an odd stylistic element that takes up usable storage space, but it’s Italy, so maybe they think about that stuff differently… I was wrong. The columns are actually ingenious secret vertical drawers. If that wasn’t enough, there is a secret locking system so even if you did know the columns hid drawers, you couldn’t open them. Another desk that captured my attention was much simpler in its design, but reminded me of something I had seen at Monticello. It had a panel that slid out like a drawer that became an extended tabletop that had another inset panel which could tilt up to different angles for reading.
Looking at the items in Valentino’s shop and how they were so detailed yet fairly flexible, I made a mental connection to a lecture we had recently for our Sites of Contest class. We had a speaker, Professor Kay Bea Jones, who talked about the works of Franco Albini. Although she focused primarily on his architecture and lack of an encompassing style, she mentioned how he also designed furniture and installations that were adjustable.
She stated that Albini looked at his projects from a craftsman’s point of view, focusing on the details of how pieces were put together and how they could be quickly and easily changed depending on the desired result or use. He was also of a generation of designers who could make (and did make) everything from silverware to cities.
Although Albini was about 30 years earlier, he and Valentino have marked similarities in their work and designs. Both have pieces that focus on the details of how a piece is built, rather than solely aesthetics. Many of their signature pieces are meant to be changed and adapted depending on when and how they will be used. While Albini worked mostly on a larger scale, his work encompasses everything from department stores to lighting. On a slightly smaller scale, Valentino’s work includes a similar range, from built in furniture suites to switch plates.