The fact that this Victorian building in the exclusive Kensington district of London contains something special can be glimpsed right from the access walk. Especially at dusk, when the crescent of glass over a typical entrance door broadcasts unusual red-orange tones towards the outside. They come from a 1980s lamp designed by Nathalie Du Pasquier, the prelude to the striking encounter between contemporary style and history that enlivens this special showcase. An unconventional set where the protagonists are works by women artists and designers, creations that radically reinvent the rules of living and its aesthetic paradigms: in their reciprocal relations, and in relation to the spaces of everyday life.
Welcome to the home-gallery of the collector and patron of contemporary arts Valeria Napoleone, who lives here with her family and with about 450 XX-chromosome creations, which she does has not only ‘accumulated’ but also actively promoted since the 1990s. In 2015 she opened the platform Valeria Napoleone XX in partnership with the Contemporary Art Society, the SculptureCenter and the Institute of Fine Arts NY, working in museums and art spaces with curators, universities and local institutions. Thanks to the remarkable renovation by Studio Quinn Architects of London and Studio Monzini & Raboni Milan, the Victorian building has conserved only its streetfront intact.
On seven levels
The back façade and the roof are new, coming to terms with an unusual spatial approach to the interiors, organized on seven levels. “Previously there were six, but another basement level has been added for the screening room and a wine cellar; the floor slabs were staggered, in keeping with the construction techniques of the time, but now they have been completely revised to obtain single horizontal planes for each level, connected by a new staircase and a lift,” the architects Giuseppe Raboni and Michelle Montefusco explain.
A vertical gallery
“It was a particularly long, delicate construction effort, due to the need for excavation and due to the complexity of carrying out such a large-scale operation in the center of London.” The result is an ideal setting for the display of works of great impact, also involving many colors: an environment with an essential image, combining rigorous white walls, glass dividers with steel frames, fine flooring in oak or gray Florentine Pietra Forte, a strong but silent material. The same stone has also been used for the staircase around which everything gravitates: a fundamental feature of the project, accompanied by a series of niches of different sizes in the perimeter walls, equipped with lighting for the display of one or more works of art on the various levels, like a vertical gallery.
An exhibition layout of sorts
“The idea for the niches came from Mika Tajima, a friend and an artist in the collection. When we were talking about the house one day, she suggested transforming the staircase into a symbolic center of what I like to call my little Guggenheim, an exhibition layout of sorts,” says Valeria Napoleone. “The parapet, which reinterprets the sinuous design of the balconies of the Victorian façade, has been designed by Michelle and Giuseppe, the architects who have coordinated the implementation process, relying on excellent Italian artisans to install the site-specific design works. Their ability to listen and interact has been very important for me. I am thinking in particular about the works by Nathalie Du Pasquier and Nanda Vigo, two women who in the 1970s and 1980s, the most radical period of renewal in all fields, navigated in a fluid, profound and courageous way, across architecture, design and art, contributing to an evolution of taste that is not just aesthetic, but also involves linguistic experimentation.”
The bed by Nanda Vigo made of mirrors and illuminated panels, a project from the 1970s that was part of her research on space-time, is at center stage in the master suite. “We turn it on every evening. I commissioned it before the artist passed away. The bedspread is in fake fur,” Valeria Napoleone continues. “In the bathroom, above the tub, there is a large mirror by Nanda from the 1980s with Baroque lines; you cannot see yourself in the mirror because it is placed in such a way as to not show your face. An incredible piece,” Valeria says.
Furniture that made history
“Like the much-loved vanity cabinet by Nathalie Du Pasquier in ceramic, also in the master suite, which also contains one of her inimitable totem-sculptures for Memphis: a cabinet with a painted backdrop, which in an abstract explosion of forms, material and color incorporates the figure of a fireplace in white Carrara marble. This work is different from the monolithic full-height piece against the wall in the dining area, which conceals its complex functionality inside. At first it was going to have many colors, but then this piece was painted in a single hue prompted by the raw MDF Nathalie saw in the workshop at Passepartout during the installation phase.”
Encounters and events
But there are many voices, from suppliers to craftsmen to experts on advanced home automation systems, that have been coordinated by the architects of Studio Monzini & Raboni, to organize the welcoming relationship between artworks and guests in the house. In the kitchen, for example, where dinners and buffets are prepared for encounters and events, Valeria Napoleone asked a pair of friends to warm up the industrial steel functionalism of the space. Martino Gamper has created a game of marble fretwork for the central island, while the artist from New Zealand Francis Upritchard has made anthropomorphic lamp-sculptures in ceramic, suspended over the dining table. Mission accomplished. “I must admit that in the end this house surprises even me,” the owner concludes.
A surprising house
“It feels like a place where art and design establish a dialogue in a stimulating way, conveying a taste that goes beyond my personal preferences. As if to say, there are connections that are independent of my thinking and my path, shared with multiple creative worlds. This demonstrates the fact that a work of art does not have to stand on a pedestal or be displayed in a glass case. Art can be approached every day, even when you are using a vacuum cleaner.”
Project Studio Quinn Architects Londra, Studio Monzini & Raboni Milano - Project manager RFR London - Photos Matteo Piazza