Aside from her signature saucer-sized sunglasses (that she only ever takes off to sleep), everything about Rossana Orlandi is miniature in scale. At times, the Milanese design icon resembles a fragile little bird you could tuck into your pocket, but the frailty is a total sham—Orlandi would pop right out like a rocket ship. A former fashion designer who grew up in the countryside outside of Milan, she has unofficially presided over the city’s design scene for the last 15 years, fuelled by her singular alchemy of personality and talent. She has the outsized charm of a nightclub owner, the up-for-it attitude of a teenager, the drive of a jackhammer and the command of a Queen. Her kingdom is a sprawling former tie factory which she uses with just as many purposes: It is an office, a sophisticated contemporary design gallery, a jumbled shop for bric-a-brac, and a must-see showcase during the Salone del Mobile, when the international design cognoscenti descend on her headquarters like a congregation. If you’re lucky, you might glimpse the mythical Orlandi padding around town in her Ugg boots, wrapped up in layers of vintage knitwear that she designed herself, and sporting a body-bag that is half sporty fanny-pack, half dorky Japanese tourist and 100-perfect weird for the buttoned-up town of Milan. “No one can take it,” she says unapologetically of her unorthodox handbag of choice. “My kids tell me, ‘Lose it, Mom. It looks like you have problems.’” But Orlandi takes orders from no one. In fact, she relishes in her role of the Milanese disruptor and openly demolishes the town’s straight-laced rules, especially when it comes to fashion. Not only does she detest handbags but she wouldn’t be caught dead in Milan-favorite Prada (she prefers the utilitarian look of quilted jackets from Aspesi). She wears workout leggings in real life (a scandalous move if there ever was one in Milan) and can often be found running around her own house barefoot (another cultural no-no). She dotes on young talent, flirts with young men, and cheerfully takes discarded items off the street and triumphantly brings them home. The only classical notes about this white-haired, blue-eyed creature are her impeccably buttoned-up husband, a doctor who dresses like he belongs on Downton Abbey and her lusciously long fingernails that she lacquers in a shiny apple-red nail polish. But her beauty salon is another heretical choice. “I’d tell you the name of the place,” she whispers conspiratorially, “but they are Chineseand work illegally!”
Orlandi shows up to events in Milan dressed like a muse to Rick Owens and has little time or patience for the Ladies Who Lunch crowd. “They don’t hang out with me,” she says, unbothered. “Milan can be mean—at least, the bourgeois are mean and jealous.” An antidote to that conventional scene is the Spazio Rossana Orlandi, a magical playground she created for herself after a two-decade career working for Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan and running her own knitwear label. “Fashion is stressante,” Orlandi observes of her late life career switch. “Plus furniture designers are much nicer than fashion designers.” Orlandi’s gallery, which has become an international stage for young, unknown designers, is part ramshackle and part enchanted forest, with no signposts whatsoever. Hidden behind a big arched wooden door, one must stumble past a random apartment building to venture into the space’s central courtyard that—depending on the time of year—is either crammed like a junkyard with piles of furniture or fabric, or strung with garden lights and ready to welcome hundreds of guests. The mood is maximal and lawless, with a maze of rooms and secret staircases unfurling in different buildings and floors with very little logic. Upstairs, a hardware store-like emporium sells a cacophony of everything from Wonmin Park tables and Enrico Marone Cinzano couches to kitschy tabletop items. Downstairs, collectibles by designers such as Nacho Carbonell, Maarten Baas and Piet Hein Eek are jumbled together with oddball pieces from emerging designers. “I’m a talent scout,” Orlandi declares proudly while answering her phone, which rings every 35 seconds, just like an agent in Hollywood. For this year’s Salone, she has sniffed out new work by Italian designer Damiano Spelta and international designers Marjan Van Aubel and Umzikim. She has also re-opened the adjoining restaurant to her gallery and renamed it Marta. In May, in honor of the Expo, she plans to transform one wing of the gallery into a private club. “We want it to be fun,” she says, flaunting her teenage flair. “The Expo is great but it’s missing some humor and irony. We want to be a place where everyone can come and hang out.” Orlandi’s gallery will not just be a club for Milan’s cool creative kids, but will remain a personal tonic for her in this hard-to-crack town. “When I opened the space [15 years ago], I began to meet all sorts of super interesting creative people,” Orlandi says. “And then I immediately forgot all about the annoying parts of Milan.”

– J.J. Martin

DoubleJ Dictionary

Stressante– stressful

Story Credits
  • Creative Director- J.J. Martin
  • Portrait Photography- Alberto Zanetti
  • Interiors Photography- Chiara Quadri & Mattia Iotti
  • Fashion Director- Viviana Volpicella
  • Make-up Artist- Pablo Ardizzone for Shiseido