A strong sense of place is a recognisable leitmotif in the work of Italian director, producer and screenwriter, Luca Guadagnino. In his sweeping masterpiece, I Am Love, the home of the austere, bourgeois Recchi family — filmed in the rationalist Milan mansion, Villa Necchi Campiglio — is the very pulse of the film. Likewise, the barebones, volcanic dammuso in Pantelleria was the perfect crime scene in A Bigger Splash. And then there was the ramshackle Lombardy summer villa, in his sensational 2018 hit, Call Me by Your Name. Dappled with sunlight, its vaulted ceilings and countless nooks and crannies made it perfect for an idyllic and sensual coming-of-age love story. Guadagnino is a voyeur in the way he harnesses lush and seductive real-life scenery to enhance the cinematic experience.
Guadagnino’s fans will probably be chuffed, then, to hear of his recent foray into the world of interior design. Having renovated his own 18th-century palazzo to great effect, the 47-year-old auteur set up a design studio in Milan with a small team of architects. Thus far, they’ve taken on a handful of select projects: a majestic villa in Lake Como, owned by Federico Marchetti, the CEO of Yoox Net-a-Porter Group; and more recently, an Aesop boutique in the centre of Rome, with more projects to come.
Tucked away to one side of the Piazza di San Lorenzo, the new Aesop store is small in scale, but size was clearly no hindrance for Guadagnino. He’s instilled an atmosphere of monastic calm and elegance in the space and made a show of using the finest materials and a studied kind of craftsmanship. On entry, for example, clients encounter a large hand-carved basin and shop counter, both fashioned from a patchwork of different marbles in sun-warmed tones. A floor-to-ceiling glass façade lets the sunlight flood in and dance its way across a floor of cream and mocha travertine tiles. It’s a timeless Roman palette interpreted through a contemporary lens.
As is the case with every Aesop boutique, this store bears the hallmarks of the brand, but it’s unique to its location. “We could be almost anywhere but also nowhere else — it’s a true homage to the city and all its beauty,” says Thomas Buisson, Aesop’s European general manager who worked with Guadagnino to realise the store. For his part, Guadagnino’s mood board was filled with Roman imagery, such as the nearby church of San Lorenzo, which served as a reference for the floors. He married these touchstones with irreverent nods to modernist Italian cinema. The director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s signature black-rimmed glasses informed the black lacquered shelving; the thatched straw ceiling is a reference to a scene in his 1967 masterpiece Oedipus Rex.
“As a filmmaker, you are trying to understand the language you want to speak, and I used to be restless because I didn’t understand how to create a relationship between the characters in the space,” Guadagnino said on the morning of the boutique opening. “Only later, I started to think of the space as a character in itself.” That said, he is acutely aware that set design and interior design differ greatly. “Both are related to image but with a very important difference. In cinema, even if you are creating a space that is physical, it’s an illusion of a space, and that space works in the specific principles of the language of cinema. In the spaces that we design, you have to deal with how people connect with this in their lives — I think it’s more serious work.”
In recent years, Guadagnino’s output both on and off screen has seemed tireless: he’s released three major feature films in just as many years. He takes it all in his stride, though, and in person seems very relaxed, his shirt a little crumpled, his hair a little wild. Unexpectedly for a high-profile person putting his name on something, he is also entirely deferential to his young team — Nicolò Barbisotti, Stefano Baisi and Giulio Ghirardi, whom Aesop founder Dennis Paphitis affectionately called Guadagnino’s “three musketeers”.
It is up to these three to research and implement Guadagnino’s ideas. For this store, that meant finding the best artisans, like the young design studio that commissions one-off contemporary chandeliers on the island of Murano who handcrafted the store’s pendant light. While studying architecture was once a real consideration for Guadagnino (he ended up majoring in literature and film) the fact that he is self-taught serves him well. “I’m new to this, and I’m lucky because I’m not aware of things that could be problematic. Maybe that’s the torture they have to deal with,” he says gesturing to his team. “But I don’t understand why you cannot do certain things – I’m more like, ‘Let’s do it!’”
Today, he sees his two vocations as complementary and pursues them in tandem. The design commissions serve as a welcome change of scenery in between productions, and he worked on the Aesop store while he was making the final touches to his latest film, a remake of the Daria Argento cult thriller Suspiria, starring his long-time leading lady, Tilda Swinton. “I don’t find this overwhelming or feel I should take some time off,” he says. “I have the luck and the quality of being someone who can multitask, and I’ve actually found that the process of interior design is quite relaxing for me.”