At Laboratorio Paravicini, vintage Italian ceramics are new again

Turning off the bustling shopping thoroughfare that is Milan’s Via Torino, where trams blare past chain stores such as like Zara and Sephora, and on Via Nerino, with its majestic gray stone buildings that keep the narrow alleyway in shadow, is akin to stepping into an alternate world. Yet First Street marks the southern border of the city’s historic Cinque Vie district, which is built on the even older remains of an ancient Roman settlement and is home to a thriving network of galleries and artisan workshops. Among them, behind an inconspicuous carved wooden door on Via Nerino, is the studio of Laboratorio Paravicini, the line of hand-painted ceramics that Costanza Paravicini founded in 1995 and now runs with two of his children, Benedetta and Margherita Medici Di Marignano.

The brand inhabits a series of former stores that have been converted into pottery painting studios and showrooms and sits at the back of the complex. Rooms overlook an interior courtyard with potted palms and curling vines. Inside, they’re bursting with wares: Arranged on shelves and tables and hung on the walls, rows of intricately hand-decorated dishes depict everything from blue larkspur and dark pink carnations with hovering insects to chinoiserie-style forest scenes to smiling trapeze artists. hot air balloons that seem to float on the surface of the plate. There are also a host of more abstract designs – with its blue and red flowers on a geometric background, the brand’s Izmir collection references traditional Turkish pottery, while Gymmetria’s uses Art Deco-style artwork that seems to have been fragmented by a kaleidoscope. If the plates seem romantically old-fashioned, so does the way they appeared.

Paravicini, 61, who grew up in the three-story building and still lives on the attic level, was interested in drawing and painting from childhood. “I’ve always had a pencil in my hand,” she says. After studying at the Istituto Orsoline di San Carlo in Milan at the end of the 1970s, she worked as a freelance illustrator in a graphic design studio and drew cartoons for small specialized magazines. With four young children at home, however, finding the time and space to work was a challenge. So she decided to look for a place where she could illustrate in peace and, she says, “leave my brushes and my colors around”. She asked her older sister, Benedetta Paravicini, who also had artistic inclinations, if she wanted to share a rented studio with her: “But she said, ‘Why don’t we do ceramics instead?’ meaning for Costanza, who, given the minimalist preferences of the time, had struggled to find tableware that matched his own more maximalist and nostalgic tastes.”If you were looking to buy something white, you had a world of options,” she says. “But for something decorated, it was — and still is — hard to find something you really like.”

The sisters’ early plays were inspired by the genre of those of the 18th century produced by companies like Florence-based Richard Ginori, now called Ginori 1735, and Milan’s Manifattura Felice Clerici, founded in 1756, whose lavishly illustrated scenes were inspired, in turn. , by porcelains from China and Japan. Over time, however, the Paravicini created original designs. Their first studio was a rented garage, and it was there that they practiced their skills until they felt confident enough to present their wares to the public. In 1995 they took a stand at the Artigianato e Palazzo craft fair in Florence and caught the eye of Sue Fisher King, whose eponymous San Francisco-based boutique introduced the brand to the United States, which remains her biggest. Marlet. “In Italy, everyone has already painted ceramics passed down from their grandmother,” Costanza explains. “They’re not really looking for something new to buy.” When Benedetta died in 1997, Costanza teamed up with her good friend Aline Calvi and, shortly after Calvi’s retirement in 2014, young Benedetta, now 38, and Margherita, now aged 36, joined the company to help with sales and marketing.

“We all get along very well. We talk a lot – maybe too much,” Benedetta says of the family collaboration. “But we understand each other right away.” The new collections, she says, were born after a long process of collaborative decision-making, and since she and her sister arrived, some of them have felt more contemporary – see the Zodiac collection from 2017, with a plate for each astrological sign. (Gemini features a pair of dancing cherubs and Taurus a charging bull.) Paravicini also attributes recent growth to his daughters. “At first it was just word of mouth,” she says. “But after creating the website and Instagram, we really started moving.” Now they have 12 employees working between the paint shop and the office, and boxes ready to be shipped to customers are stacked at shoulder height.

Certainly, the notion of artisanal entrepreneurship was not foreign to the family. Costanza’s father, Ludovico Paravicini, inherited his father’s manufacturing business, which produced coil-making machines. On the weekends, however, he was an accomplished carpenter, building furniture and objects for the family in his home workshop. Then he started another business. During his and Costanza’s mother’s honeymoon in Sri Lanka in 1956, he had picked up an assortment of semi-precious stones, which he brought back to Milan to carve into ashtrays and bracelets. Eventually, what started as a solo operation with a single carving wheel in the same courtyard that Laboratorio Paravicini now watches grew into a 70-person workshop on the outskirts of town making stoneware and jewelry. for luxury brands like Chaumet and Dior.

Still, as someone who can spend up to 10 hours on a single piece, Costanza isn’t overly concerned with scale. She starts with a cookie-shaped plate, which means it has been baked but not glazed, and paints on it using powdered pigment which she mixes with the water. “Painting directly on the biscuit, before the piece is glazed, is more difficult because the surface is not smooth,” she explains, “but it ensures that the plates can be used every day and are dishwasher safe. -washing up”. This differentiates Paravicini’s work from many other high-end hand-decorated ceramics, and forces her to be much more precise in her technique, which she compares to watercolor painting – porous clay not enamel acts almost like a sponge, absorbing paint and distorting lines drawn by uninitiated hands. Once decorated, each plate is then dipped in glaze, which slightly deteriorates the illustration, but also gives it a quality of chance and imperfection that Paravicini finds alluring. “It gives it a special charm,” she says.

Many others agree. Last fall, at the Salone del Mobile in Milan, the brand presented a collaboration with New York jewelry brand Foundrae consisting of miniature plates decorated with esoteric symbols (a lion, a compass, a pyramid) representing ideas like strength, karma and protection. This spring, the women plan to publish a book detailing the history of Laboratorio Paravicini and launch a new collaboration with Milanese brand Lisa Corti. The majority of business, however, comes from commissions. When I visit the studio, Paravicini shows me a set she designs for an avid fox hunter – 11 illustrated boards of beagles leaping over or through a monogram made up of looping green letters, and a 12th featuring a single fox . She likes to work directly with clients, which pushes the limits of her imagination, even if the exchange is a two-way street. “They often come in with a clear idea of ​​what they would like and leave wanting something completely different,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like a psychologist.” This encourages me to ask about the dishes that she herself prefers. She stops and laughs as she says that despite the colorful mountains of plates surrounding us, she uses a plain set with solid green frosting at home. “It’s crazy, but I never have time to paint myself,” she says. “After all these years, I’m still waiting to get mine.”

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