“I think, if I may, that there are two types of minimalism,” says Claudio Silvestrin, not being very minimalistic about it. “There is a vulgar, brutal, cold kind [of minimalism]. That’s the kind people who hate minimalism tend to think about — all that steel and concrete. And there is a warm, southern European minimalism, which is much less hard, much more colourful. People don’t think about that one. I once read a football report and the writer described the score as ‘minimalistic — nil, nil’. Clearly, minimalism needs an overhaul.”
It could hardly ask for a better exponent than Silvestrin. The 59-year-old Italian studied in Milan under AG Fronzoni and then in London, where he established his practice in 1989. Since then his internationally acclaimed, more-friendly take on minimalism (no less clean-lined and timeless, but also approachable, with a strong emphasis on the colour and textural quality of materials) has been in demand. The Silvestrin vision has been requested by a diverse bunch of people, including Giorgio Armani (for whom Silvestrin has designed some 25 stores worldwide), Anish Kapoor, Calvin Klein and — somehow unexpectedly — Kanye West, whose private space clearly leans towards the ‘anti-bling’.
Along the way Silvestrin has also designed a restaurant in London (Oblix, atop The Shard), a museum in Turin, an apartment block in Singapore, furniture (including a bath that took a decade to go into production, but still looked contemporary when it did) and, that most quintessentially Italian of spaces, a kitchen. He has even acted as spokesperson for a tour, ‘The Art and Soul of the Italian Kitchen’, that espouses the way Italian kitchen design is, he says, jokingly, “all about encouraging the right emotion, about interacting with your family and friends; before, it [was], like the Germans, about how energy efficient your hob is, or how the sink works”.
“Certainly, those big-name clients are good for business,” says Silvestrin. “I wish there were more of them. What’s fashionable now is much more decorative, so the number of people ready to really have a go with minimalism is fewer and fewer. Choosing just three materials rather than 23 means you’re out of fashion.” Indeed, believing that minimalism is an ethos that cultures come to late, having passed through ornamentation, the architect and designer will next be looking to Asia and Russia for commissions. “Such cultures are slower to appreciate minimalism. They want to show off and it takes another generation to move away from the need to show they have money,” he suggests.
And, perhaps more profoundly, to embrace the silence in a society both noisy and, thanks to consumerism, cluttered with more and more stuff. “Minimalism is not about creating spaces that feel like a church, but there is an elegance in minimalism that people appreciate,” Silvestrin says. “To call it spiritual would be misleading, especially if you’re talking about a cafe. But there is an energy to it. I like places that are contemplative, which can encourage some profound thinking. Silence and stillness allow you to think better. You expect that in an art gallery or museum. But we’d benefit from having more of that in our homes.”
Nor is society perhaps just loud and crowded. It is, Silvestrin argues, too taken in by the superficial. In part, he suggests, the design business can blame itself: 3D rendering tools have ramped up architecture’s appreciation for form at the expense of texture and mood. Design has also moved from the holistic to an emphasis on the temporary. Interiors change too quickly. “It means, for example, that a material is judged merely by its colour, not the feel of it, the emotion of it,” he says. Even architecture “is a mirror of ourselves”.
“Men want to express their success by having a building with that wow factor, as though that then means they have wow factor too,” Silvestrin adds. “The wow factor is good for the media, because it’s very immediate. But you get that wow factor the first time you see that kind of building, you get half wow the second time, five percent wow the third time and the fourth time it’s just boring.”
Restrained, refined, classical, calm — a Silvestrin design may be all these things, but only someone who demanded fireworks with every finish could ever call it boring. Arrive at Oblix, for example, and the look may be all brown Turkish stone, dark wood and leather, but guests enter through a dimly-lit corridor that suddenly emerges in the middle of the kitchens. A private residence in Paris is easy on the eye, in all its neutral stony earthy geometry, but among the monastic materials used so deftly are not just limestone, cedar, bronze and porphyry, but empty space. What isn’t in a Silvestrin scheme is every bit as important as what is.
“Sometimes I wonder if I missed out not being a movie director, which is what I always wanted to be when I was young,” says Silvestrin. “I like the idea of having that totality of vision that you can’t really have in the same way with architecture, because you can’t tell a story through a building. The disciplines are alike in many ways: their complexity, the need to make big decisions very quickly, the organisational requirements. That’s so important. It’s all very nice having good ideas but you need organisation to make them happen and in a way that the original ideas are achieved in as pure a way as possible. How often does that happen? I’m not doing too badly. But it is a challenge. Of course, people can’t visualise quite what you can visualise. And people get cold feet.”
Perhaps they panic about quite where they will put all their books, all the kids’ toys, the hordes of shoes or their ever-growing collection of rare jazz vinyl? But panic not. What Silvestrin’s mode of minimalism is, above all, is human. “Of course culture encourages us to accumulate stuff,” he says, “but my take is not to stop accumulation. It’s to have enough storage. One trick to minimalism is not to have everything exposed all the time. Just hide it away until you need it.” Silvestrin assures that the effect can be remarkably calming.