Designer Q&A: Rossana Orlandi

Iconic gallerist, curator and doyenne of design Rossana Orlandi’s eye for spotting — and launching — ground-breaking creative young designers is legendary.  From her creative hive in a former tie factory in Milan, she presents a refreshingly eclectic array of cutting-edge designs that range from her own signature large-framed sunglasses and bomb-shaped accessories by Marre Moerel to video art by ANOTHERVIEW and eco-craft contemporary furnishings by Italian designer Enrico Marone Cinzano.

On the eve of her dinner for 100 guests in the gallery’s vine-draped garden to celebrate April’s Salone del Mobile furniture and design week, the 74-year old design maven, who started out in fashion creating yarn for Kenzo, Issey Miyake and Giorgio Armani before launching her eponymous gallery, tells Design Anthology why she champions creative talent alongside established names and why she insists on visiting artists in their studios.

Design Anthology: How did this all begin? 

I was born into a family where my father and mother spoke only of business. I was happy but it was also super boring. I wanted to marry a husband who would talk of something else. He is a doctor.

You originally trained in textiles yet your life since 2002 has been all about design. What is it that appeals to you? 

Design for me is like water is for flowers. You see them looking like that [wilted] and you give them water and they revive. Add design and I feel energised.

How do you find the artists you represent?

When I see something I like, I just know that I love it. Sometimes young artists come here to show me their work. We also travel a lot and have a good network of people who know what I really like.

You have a reputation for spotting gifted new talents. 

I have super well-known designers but I still like to find new designers. You have to like people. Young people are a bit crazy but I am young at heart and I love my work. That’s very important because for me design is all about emotions. When I discover a young designer that I like, I just keep on and on and try to encourage them to do better. The gallery is like a home for design. Everyone comes here. We all work together like a family. Someone like Piet Hein Eek does new things every year and it’s always great. The first time I met him was fourteen years ago and I knew then that I loved his work.

How would you describe yourself?

I am a simple and honest person.

Do you feel like a mother to the young designers?

They call me mummy.

Does that bother you?

No, it would bother me if they called me their grandmother!

What is the most important thing for you to consider when you first work with a new, young artist?

When I find a new designer I like going to see what they do in their studios. With Sebastian Wrong, I flew to his studio in London and I bought everything he’d made. It’s very important to visit them because after I see their studio I know if they’re really good or if they’ve just had a chance to do one really good project. Some people have one good idea but it’s a mistake to follow that. I want to see what they’re working with, how they’re organised. You can see that sometimes they are a good designer but they cannot deliver so you have to forget about it.

You are strict but nurturing, just like a mother!

You have to be strict. I can’t support them if we don’t work well. I am super serious about my work. If I say I will deliver on a certain day, I want to do that.

So you rely on your instincts plus a bit of investigative work?

Yes. For example, a few years ago I was passing by a room in my gallery and saw a handsome guy. He was very chic, so I went over and said, ‘I’m Rossana. Who are you?’ It was Enrico and I loved him straight away. He’s a super perfectionist and does amazing super strong, technical pieces. He has fabulous ideas and taste but is also a strange mix of crazy and old-style gentleman. I want him to put more of his craziness out there. We’ve been working with him now for five or six years.

I see you’ve brought your iconic sunglasses into production and they are for sale in your gallery now.

Yes, people kept stopping me to ask where they could buy them.

What do your eclectic collection of products from accessories to furniture and art share in common?

There’s no one thing, although I do like really good, sincere ideas. Sometimes it becomes an interaction because I change things about the design.

The way you display pieces in the gallery is very distinctive — it appears a little ramshackle, but visitors love walking from one room to another, discovering the arrangements.

I always say that the gallery is like a magazine. We have to show things as they are in life. When I first started, people thought we were mad, but I like the way people walk around. It’s all over the place, a bit like my office and the inside of my head.

What do you think about the Salone del Mobile fair itself?

It’s important because it brings a fantastic spirit to the city as well as a dedicated audience. The fair is more suited for professionals and for them it is fantastic as there are so many things there for them to discover.

Everyone seems focused on identifying the latest trends. To what extent does that influence you?

I’m not interested in following trends but every year we discover afterwards that there are pieces that have something in common. They are not linked but have a relationship so perhaps I follow a trend without knowing it. I go with my emotions but when we put them together there is a common ground — like last year there was a lot of metal and technology.

What do you like about the new technologies?

I don’t understand anything about them although I know what I like. At the gallery, we have ANOTHERVIEW using technology to create a fantastic view filmed over days that’s shown through a window. Lighting by Francesco Meda is also very interesting; it uses technology to change the relationship of lighting, making it more like architecture.

What does it feel like when you find something you love?

I want it right away, straight away, yesterday — it’s my way! I can’t wait because it becomes difficult to live without it.

What’s next?

You have to come and see for yourself!

As told to / Catherine Shaw