Say the words ‘great godmother of design’ to any wunderkind pilgrimaging to Milan for Salone Del Mobile and only one name will leave their lips: Marva Griffin. Over the last 25 years, Marva has become the design world’s firecracking fairy, tapping her wand over some 13,000 young designers to take their talents from under-the-radar to the creme of the design community as part of her mentoring and spotlighting scheme, SaloneSatellite. Marva’s eye for talent is impeccable, her address book unrivalled, and her personality? Needless to say it’s totally infectious. She’s ‘marvellous Marva’ by name and by nature, a living breathing icon of Milan’s thriving design scene, a world she first stepped into from her home in Venezuela – not knowing a soul in the city – when she was just 20-years-old.
“I knew no-one in Milano when I came to this country,” says Marva as she guides us around her cavernous collectors paradise of an apartment. “I had a friend who said to me: ‘Marva, knowing you and how you like beautiful things, Milan is the city for you.’” Every inch of her home is testament to that marvellous Marva taste. A skip away from Sforza Castle, it’s beautiful indeed, a trove of contemporary artworks and design treasures so chock-a-block with pieces from people she has admired, mentored and worked with over the years that her friends call it ‘the museum’. Gliding past a huge Murano glass collection, swirling light fittings and daffodil yellow walls, she points to a Man Ray mirrored confection, the first design piece she bought when she moved to Italy. “I love mirrors because mirrors tell you the truth about who you are,” she says, matter of factly. Does her Man Ray mirror think she is a minimalist? “No, no, no,” she laughs. “I love to collect things and look at all my books.”
A job with C&B Italia, now the infamous design house B&B Italia, working as personal assistant to the co-founder Piero Ambrogio Busnelli was Marva’s entry ticket into Milan’s then-emerging design scene more than 50 years ago. “For me it was like school, I travelled all over the world, Japan, Australia, the Philippines. It was unbelievable.”
This education – Marva still refers to her old boss as ‘Mr Busnelli’ – laid the groundwork for her next step, a job as Milan correspondent for Conde Nast France, a post that sent her sniffing out Italy’s most fabulous people, places, parties and palazzos from Rome to Capri. The result? The best little black book in all of Milan. So good in fact, it attracted the attention of the honchos at Salone Del Mobile, who snapped Marva up to direct the international press office, a job she remarkably still juggles today between working on her baby SaloneSatellite, sitting on panels all across the world, hosting lunches, and attending Maison&Objet in Paris, the Venice Biennale and beyond. While we sit she fires off dozens of emails and fields phone calls, before asking us if we’d like to stay for ravioli. Is she going to slow down any time soon? “I have been working hard my darling,” she says with a smile.
During any given Salone, Marva will not only host 5,000 journalists from Italy and beyond for lunches, events -the whole shebang – but will also spend her time enthusiastically shining a light on young designers from 50 different countries as part of her wildly successful SaloneSatellite platform. Thanks to Marva’s excellent curatorial eye and vivacity for connecting people, the event has long been celebrated across the industry as a breeding ground for talent and boundary-breaking ideas.
“Manufacturers and exhibitors who are at Salone Del Mobile to show their own collections come to my pavilion to see the collections of the young designers. They say: ‘This chair is important, it’s interesting, I want to produce it.’ And I put them together.” Playing the nurturing fairy godmother role comes naturally to Marva. “Listen, I know I can be a Mom. My son is 57-years-old,” she laughs.
“The handmade craft in Italy is unique. The best shoes are done in Italy, the best silk producers are in Como. This is Italy. This will never end.”
A wall in her apartment is packed frame to frame with photographs that chronicle Marva’s life in design. A photograph of Marva with her Laurea Magistrale ad Honorem degree from Polytechnic University of Milan nestles next to a snap of Marva and J.J. at the American Institute. Another is of her parents the day she moved to Milan. In her favorite, Marva stands among design world royalty, Anna Fendi, Luca Guadagnino and MoMa’s Paola Antonelli, in a beautiful villa for awards given out by the American Academy – thrillingly, she’s wearing La DoubleJ. Each image serves to prove Marva’s remarkable career, one that has recently been celebrated with a mass of awards, from Gio Ponti’s prestigious Compasso D’Oro to Milan’s Ambrogino D’Oro given out to the city’s most iconic personalities. She’s proud, and she should be. “I’m black, I’m a foreigner, and I got all these jobs. Then, because of my work, I got all of these awards.”
How has the design scene changed for the women she has worked with over the last 50 years? “There have always been women in design, women started Bauhaus. Then there were a lot of important design women in the world. Gae Aulenti, Paola Navone, Nanda Vigo.” She points to a beautiful table designed by Eileen Gray, one of the most influential designers and architects of the early 20th Century, just another of the many important design pieces on display in Marva’s apartment. “If you are brilliant, if you have ideas, you come out. Capiche.”
One thing that has stayed constant through Marva’s career is Milan. “Milan is the place for new designers and creativity – and it’s still growing. The handmade craft in Italy is unique. The best shoes are done in Italy, the best silk producers are in Como. This is Italy. This will never end.” She says she dreams of one day building a design festival in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, though has no plans to leave her adopted city any time soon. “I have to stay here in Italy because people are always asking me to do things,” she says. “Mamma mia!” We can’t see marvellous Marva ever slowing down.