The Italian phrase “buttato lì” translates, roughly, as “something that seems casual whereas it is completely thought out,” the interior designer Roberto Peregalli explains. The term comes up often as he and his collaborator, the architect Laura Sartori Rimini, describe the atmosphere of their office as well as the projects that are born there.
They are partners in Studio Peregalli, one of the most highly regarded decorating and architecture firms in the world, known for extraordinary attention to detail and an uncanny ability to conjure the rarefied spirit of historical eras long forgotten. We are sitting in their design studio, surrounded by stone samples, fabric swatches, fragments of boiserie and classical cornices, antique light fixtures, architectural models and stacks and stacks of hand-painted tiles. The walls appear to be covered in embossed antique leather, but a brush of the fingers reveals it to be paper. The sun, streaming in from a balcony, illuminates the dark and high-ceilinged room like a 19th-century watercolor in a book by Mario Praz. (For a good primer on the literary critic and design historian, I recommend the incredible 1974 Visconti film “Conversation Piece” — the Burt Lancaster character is based on Praz.)
It is clear that the work under way here is on the highest level of artistic achievement, so much so, in fact, that the principals’ relative youth and lack of pretense is almost disconcerting. As congenial and unassuming as Roberto and Laura are, what they are doing is happening nowhere else in the world of design. From this lovely studio on a quiet residential street in Milan — the capital of fashion, and Italy’s most hard-charging commercial environment — they are quietly going about the business of creating interiors that are steeped in historical context yet somehow highly personal.
“I discovered Roberto Peregalli’s house in Tangier, and when I saw it I was very, very moved,” says Pierre Bergé, the former fashion executive and partner of Yves Saint Laurent. “I fell in love immediately — I never saw in my life such beauty, such as romance, such expression of the culture of the country.” Studio Peregalli is nearly finished with an apartment for him on the Rue Bonaparte in Paris.
Hamish Bowles agrees. “There’s no one doing work like that now — no one with that precise sensibility,” notes the international editor at large for American Vogue, also a client. “I have never ceded my taste to anybody else, even as a child,” he says, but Studio Peregalli has just finished an apartment for Bowles off University Place in Manhattan. It was the studio’s first New York project, and it is at work on another, for the painter John Currin and his wife, Rachel Feinstein.
The garden designer Madison Cox is another friend, client and admirer unafraid to employ superlatives when describing their work. “They are the most unique designers that I have come across,” Cox says. “What they do is about capturing the past, but it’s also about magic — and a great sense of poetry. They proposed something to me I would never even have thought of — in fact it kind of terrified me.” (We can tell you it involved the unlikely marriage of a dome and a garden shed.)
Although the studio has been in business for over 20 years, has shown many of its European interiors in various magazines and in 2011 published a book of its work — the evocatively titled “The Invention of the Past” (Rizzoli) — the work of Roberto and Laura is not especially well known in America. Perhaps one reason for this is that their design process is somewhat cerebral, and may require a measure of patience on the part of their clients that’s more rarely encountered in the New World than in the Old. Their process is elaborate, their studio more densely packed with models than Leo’s hot tub. “Designing for us is a process, step by step,” Laura says. “It begins with an idea; then a sketch, then a model.”
Another reason might be that without the backdrop of European architecture, with its history and scale, as a starting point, the powers of imagination required to decide to live this way are simply too difficult for clients to summon. It would be hard to attempt to get Studio Peregalli-like results in an apartment at Olympic Tower.
Finally, there is the modesty of the principals. Roberto and Laura are not self-promoters. They are content to wait to be discovered by clients who truly believe in what they are doing, and appreciate how much care goes into their work. Consider this: I’m standing in the studio, holding a sample of emerald green stamped velvet that is a little reminiscent of old Fortuny and appears to have significant age. They explain that it came to them as white; they dyed it green and then stamped it with the design. “If you have ideas and you have some time, you can use your brain to find ways to make fabric unique,” Roberto explains. Every component of an interior by Studio Peregalli, whether fabric, stone or wood, undergoes a similar process.
See also: Betsy Burnham and Burnham Design
It is impossible to hear about Studio Peregalli without also hearing the name Renzo Mongiardino. Both Roberto and Laura worked with the eminent decorator, who died in 1998, and their styles are closely related. Roberto was particularly close to Mongiardino, who was a family friend and visited the master in his studio almost every day from an early age until finally going to work for him in 1986, after attaining a degree in philosophy from the University of Milan. Their style is a continuation of the illusionistic, Zeffirelli-set sensibility that earned Mongiardino the reputation of a wizard in interior design circles.
Studio Peregalli’s admirers agree, however, that interiors by Roberto and Laura have a somewhat gentler touch than those of their mentor. A bit less tea-washed and autumnal, a bit more optimistic. Pierre Bergé, unafraid as ever to speak bluntly, gets right to it. “Their work is much more interesting than Mongiardino,” he says. “What they do is lighter. For me, Peregalli’s work is exactly like opening a book by Mario Praz.”
When speaking in English, Roberto has a way of expressing himself that, intentionally or not, can be impressively precise. Example: Of the act of shopping for an ordinary chair, he points out, “In the 19th century, it was a little bit more difficult to find horrible things.” While I am completely copacetic with this statement, Laura is not, and the two partners begin to spar like an old married couple, talking over each other and bickering continually, if affectionately.
On this point they concur: they are not interested in historic interiors and architecture for tradition’s sake alone. Their passion is engaging in the rigorous intellectual work and creative reveries required to evoke the past. What Studio Peregalli is after is something more than the staging of objects; it is the creation of a narrative.
When you hear the partners explain their work, and consider the range of options available to them as designers (both have an appreciation for modernism, and Roberto in particular respects the work of John Pawson), you realize that in their hands, the invention of the past is neither a retrograde nor conservative endeavor, but a bold and fearless one, something akin to the athletic interpretation of classical ballet by Rudolf Nureyev — a Mongiardino client, by the way — or Stanley Kubrick’s take on the 18th century in “Barry Lyndon.” Those artists were operating in a radical creative mode, achieving something out of their own time by employing a vocabulary forged in years gone by.
Roberto takes care to explain the difference in sensibility between his own work and that of his mentor. “Mongiardino grew up in a palace in Genoa,” he tells me. “He met the past. We did not meet the past — what we are doing is protecting the past, like a wild panda.”
The impact of their work is felt most profoundly in Milan, the city that demands style — and judges it — more fiercely than any other. While the studio is better known for residential projects, one of its more recent (and most public) triumphs is the restaurant it designed for Giacomo Bulleri, Milan’s foremost restaurateur. Da Giacomo, Bulleri’s first restaurant, was designed by Mongiardino (with Roberto’s assistance) and has been famous for nearly 25 years. In 2009, it was joined by the Giacomo Bistrot, just around the corner and with a little more nighttime glamour. While the palette of Da Giacomo is light and creamy, finished in Eau de Nil green wainscoting and tile, Studio Peregalli’s Giacomo Bistrot is full of antique parquet floors, black lacquer and gilded millwork, and a 19th-century buffet bought at the Paris flea market and reconfigured into a bar for this space. The paneling (also acquired at a flea market, this time in Parma) used to adorn a jewelry store. The finished result appears to be a landmark interior from 1875, achingly romantic and utterly convincing, but everything in the space is new construction.
“Everyone said, ‘Are you crazy to do a restaurant like the Bistrot?’ ” Laura recalls. “But now people of the fashion world come” — to Da Giacomo and its younger sibling — “for their parties.” There’s no need to elaborate as we sit having dinner in what is clearly the hottest joint in town. A four-top of what might be the most stylish 20-somethings I have ever seen, one of whom is sporting a mohawk, is seated near us on a red velvet banquette under a wall of leather-bound books. Laura grins. “We think that real elegance is to be out of trends,” she says.
Hamish Bowles tells a story about working with Laura and Roberto that offers a window onto their process, and the commitment they bring to every step. “I was in the Paris flea market with them and found two lamps, which I shipped to Milan to have the lampshades made,” he recalls. “When they arrived back in New York and I unpacked the crate, it happened to contain two drawings” — working sketches with measurements from Studio Peregalli — “that looked as though Piranesi had done them, rendered with watercolor. For my very humble apartment, and my very humble flea market lamps! You could have framed them.”
It’s hard to say what the future holds for Studio Peregalli, because unlike most decorators who become important and experience success, the usual way forward — more books, a furniture line, a signature linens collection and so on — holds no appeal for them. What they are doing is not really “scalable,” and in any case, they do not measure the value of their output in economic terms. They might in fact be the least materialistic successful decorators I have ever met. As with the painter Agnes Martin, having the world beating a path to their door has not changed their motivations or outlook one bit. “We are not businessmen, and we are not managers,” Laura explains, despite the fact that they preside over what is clearly a successful and complex operation that employs nearly 100 craftspeople. They are designers, foremost. “Somehow,” she says, “we are also dreamers.”
See also: Interview with Lorenzo Castillo