l Maria Cristina and l Francesca
Design is everywhere and touches almost everyone in Milan. There are more architects living and working in the city than plumbers. That cup that the taxi drivers are sipping their espresso from at any cheap café? It was definitely designed by architect Matteo Thun. Ordinary housewives are heating up water on the stove in kettles designed by Alessi and it is not uncommon for tourists to sit down unwittingly on a toilet that was conceived by mega-architect and industrial designer Gio Ponti.
And yet, outside of the yearly Salone del Mobile fair, design makes very little noise or fuss. Even the city’s elite design connoisseurs—like Maria Cristina Didero and Francesca Molteni—operate with non-celebrity understatement. Good friends and currently collaborating on an upcoming Milan solo exhibition of star Israeli designer Ron Gilad, Didero and Molteni are two rare examples of women who possess real power and influence in the world of contemporary design, a discipline that stretches from high-end furniture and lighting to tabletop objects and flooring.
Didero, whose wildly coiled, flaming paprika-colored hair is the single flamboyant thing about her, is the hottest design curator in Milan (and, arguably, all of Italy). At the age of 44, she’s a leading authority on radical design (the period from the 1960s to the mid ’70s that is most closely associated with the famous Memphis design movement); former consultant to the famous, deep-pocketed Greek art and design collector Dakis Joannou; and on-going darling of Salone di Mobile, conceiving exhibitions and pulling together talent, whether it’s young up-and-comers like Philippe Malouin and Alberto Biagetti or marquee architects like Richard Meier and John Pawson.
“I treat design like art,” Didero explains of her international curating that is destined for serious design collectors (a microscopically niche group that only numbers about 100 people worldwide). “It’s not about selling chairs that go around a dining room table. It’s about discovering an original way of producing design and trying to make it understandable to people. I am more interested in the story of people than in the chairs.”
Molteni, a scion of the Molteni furniture family, also tells stories through Muse [Projects], her own production company that conceives exhibits, videos and installations for architects and design companies. Her focus is mid-century Italian design, such as with the Gio Ponti furniture designs she put back into edition for her family’s company last year, but she also curates specialized video installations for brands like Flos lighting or exhibits for Salone del Mobile, like a recent one for which she travelled the world to discover how architects live in their own homes.
Molteni’s grandfather, who founded the family company in 1934, was also a co-founder of Milan’s furniture fair, where as a child he used to smuggle her in under a blanket inside the adult-only tradeshow grounds. It took a while for Molteni to find her voice within the family business. “In some ways I hated design while growing up,” she recalls. “My father worked every Saturday and my mother complained that she was bored. So I rebelled and studied Philosophy. And then I left Milan to study film at NYU.”
Minimally accessorized and not brand obsessed, neither of these busy, globetrotting women are a fashion plate. “Design people are snobby against fashion,” Molteni remarks, wearing her own khaki pants and a tailored Antonio Fusco jacket. “You are less serious if you take fashion seriously.” Still, the friends recognize a great vintage piece when they see it and were both game for a day of dress-up courtesy of LaDoubleJ. The flavorful, eccentric clothes make a perfect splash against Didero’s own design-packed home, which at first glance appears like a haphazard pile of quirky and cool objects.
Look closer, though, and you’ll see just how valuable her careful assembly of furniture and art actually is. Almost everything in this home has a prized design pedigree, whether it’s the kitchen’s artisanal wooden cutting boards from Brazil, hallway lamps that are an installation by mischer’traxler, or a bedroom mirror that is one of the most collectible and recognizable pieces by Memphis founder Ettore Sottsass. Most items are gifts from designer or architect friends, or souvenirs from design projects she has worked on. Her Artemide lamp in the [living room] was a wedding gift from designer Ross Lovegrove, her ketchup sculpture is from famed contemporary artist Paul McCarthy, and her Arthur Adele-C table in the living room is a gift from Ron Gilad.
Didero may not be a cook (she leaves that to her art gallery manager husband Flavio del Monte) but is nonetheless a fastidious collector, scooping up interesting looking plastic water bottles with as much care as an important assembly of design chairs. “I have so many that Flavio wanted to buy a movie theater and not an apartment,” she laughs. Her mammoth collection includes stools by Milanese architect Michele de Lucchi, classic Eames lounge chairs that are a memory of her time working at Vitra, and an inflated aluminum stool by young Polish designer Oscar Zita, whose work she curated for Milan’s Cardi Black Box gallery.
“I like having my design objects around,” she says of her treasure of lofty loot. “The cool thing about design is that it has a wider audience and can be experienced by everyone—anyone who sits on a couch, actually.” When it comes to her own Cappellini couches, Didero barely pays attention to their fancy brand name. She has casually and unpretentiously covered them up with a white blanket, one of many that is on rotation. “As many times as you change your dress, we change the couch covers,” she laughs. “It’s like they’re wearing clothes.”