A taste for the extraordinary. Face to face with Rossella Colombari

Her gallery in Milan is one of the most important international galleries for 20th-century design.
Born in a family of antique dealers, Rossella Colombari founded her first space in Turin in the early 1980s. Although at first she and her sister focused their research on Carlo Mollino’s work, once they opened in Milan they were able to attract names such as Ettore Sottsass, Giò Ponti, Alessandro Mendini and Franco Albini.
Today, Colombari’s gallery collaborates with globally renowned museums and strives to bring historical pieces into the new context of contemporary spaces.

We spoke to Colombari and talked about this and much more: here is what she told us.


If you had to present your gallery to someone, what would you say?
I believe in focusing on few pieces that are absolutely exceptional and have the highest historical and artistic value. It’s like appreciating a beautiful woman, who stands out amongst half-beauties as an exception: she is the one making the difference.

What projects are you working on at the moment?
The Salon Art + Design fair just closed in New York. Now we are working to prepare for Miart 2018 and on a special project we will have at Salone del Mobile and DesignMiami/Basel in June. I’m also busy working on very important and engaging interior decor projects.

You’ve worked with the Victoria&Albert Museum and the Musée d’Orsay. Can you tell us more about what that was like?
My father and grandfather took me to exhibits all the time, so museums are familiar spaces to me and I was thrilled to work with them. I happened to sell some pieces to museums like the Victoria&Albert Museum or the Museé d’Orsay, and so over the years I was able to build a relationship of trust and respect with the heads of different departments, based on the very pieces we negotiated on. We’ve also been in touch with the Centre Georges Pompidou for some time: they are interested in a few suggestions we have for them. Selling to a museum for me is a huge pleasure, because it allows me to basically see the piece go down in history for good.

What is working with great designers and emerging designers like? What differences do you see in their professional approach?
As a gallery owner, my focus has almost entirely shifted to historical pieces and works from the 1900s. I’ve experimented a few times with contemporary design, but my roots are those of an antique dealer’s daughter. Sometimes I purchase – and I have in the past – contemporary pieces; but I follow the same exact approach as with antiques: I have to “feel” them.


Are you a collector, as well as an art dealer?
I was a huge collector in the past. In 2005, in collaboration with American auction house Wright, I decided to disperse my collection and move on. I felt like that “conversation” was over, so I auctioned everything off – setting a few world records. Now I’m more interested in architecture and spaces revolving around objects.

What is your home like? What important pieces do you keep there?
You may not expect this, but having been raised in a museum-like home I felt the need to live in an opposite kind of space. My home is absolutely comfortable, and follows none of the principles that guide my work: it’s a way for me to mentally separate the two worlds of professional and personal life. However, I do feel the need to keep a few pieces I feel a connection to. They are just a few pieces but they very important to me: furniture, art, photography. I can’t deny I might start “playing” at home again soon.


You come from a family of art dealers. Who did you get your taste for beautiful things from?
My grandfather, whom I was very close to. He took me with him since I was a child, and I learned a lot both from him and from my father.

Can you tell us a special story about someone who came by your gallery?
One evening, when I was still at the old address in Via Solferino in Milan, I was working late on the inventory. Someone rang the doorbell. Through the front windows, I half-saw a man with a pair of round glasses. It was a man, an artist. We chatted until very late and discussed Mollino, the gallery’s archives and the history of design. It had just met Robert Wilson, with whom I opened the new gallery in Via Maroncelli in 2003, with the “The Chair – The Chairs” exhibition.

Is there a piece you’ve had in your gallery that you felt particularly connected to?
I used to pick one exceptional piece to take home every year. Then I quit. But amongst so many pieces, Carlo Mollino’s “Vertebrae” table definitely has a special place in my heart.

What is the hardest part of managing a design and modern antiques gallery?  
I grew up in the family business, and the quality of service that stems from generations of experience is definitely our biggest pride. Considering our international clientele, the logistics that come with exportations are definitely complex: you really need to interact with a team that together has all the skills required.


What is the best way to place a historical piece in the context of modern spaces?
The object itself should determine the volumes around it. Today, with materials like steel and a range of technologies and architectural opportunities, an iconic piece can have a completely new life, out of its original, outdated context and into a new, alive, contemporary space. It’s obviously a principle followed at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon and at the Department of Primitive Arts of the Musée du Louvre, designed by architect Wilmotte. Showcasing antique elements in a contemporary context can really highlight their peculiarity and beauty.

You brought great value to Carlo Mollino’s work. Who would you bet on, today?
On a few little known and under-stimulated names in the market: that would be all of Italy’s pre- and post-war architects, except for Mollino, Ponti and Sottsass. One would be the brilliant and elegant Guglielmo Ulrich.


What style would you invest in? What would you suggest to someone wanting to start purchasing modern antiques?
The entire 20th century – Italian, German or French – was extraordinary. I always say the important thing is to buy and invest in exceptional and high-quality pieces. From any decade or perhaps international, as long as they are extraordinary. It’s the good old principle of “little, but good” (and beautiful).

Is Italian design still as sought after as it used to be?
It is, and even more. Unfortunately only very few new names are able to emerge, but right now Italian design is right at the top. It’s very sought after and known all over the world – so much so, that after collectors it is spurring forgers too.

How have your clients’ tastes evolved over time?
“Birds of a feather”, as they say: my collector clients have certainly been on a similar journey to my own. We’ve shifted towards a focus on pieces’ maximum essence and architectural principles.


You also work on interior decor projects. What was the most demanding job you tackled?
I’ve been working on interior decor for a dear client, a huge collector, for years. We’ve become so incredibly attuned to each other and have developed such extraordinary synergy that we’ve created wonderful houses, growing over time and evolving with each space.

What is your advice to young designers, to help them create pieces the market will welcome?
Coming from the strict logic of 20th-century Italian architects – who considered design a deep mental process – I find the current market absolutely confusing. Except for a few cases, products seems low quality to me. Technology has helped a lot but has also deleted the solid principles of design and knowledge. I see a lot of confusion over ideas of craftsmanship, design and art design. I believe what makes a great name is architecture, as a culture based on functionality, aesthetics and most importantly design.

Interview by Barbara Palladino

© Galleria Rossella Colombari


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