Your Own Private Tuscany

Ilaria Miani didn't set out to single-handedly define country chic. But she did.

Now and again, one designer's very particular style perfectly echoes the times. Philippe Starck summed up postmodern urban irony, Adam Tihany redefined modern lounge chic, John Pawson gave neat minimalist boxes to moneyed neo-Puritans.

Country style, though, has always defied the definitive design statement. It's not about look-at-me; it's about the mix. This is why Ilaria Miani has a name that is more a password among the cognoscenti than it is a brand with mass appeal. In the words of British architect Fiona McLean, Miani's houses are in- stead "wonderfully underdesigned. You walk into one and it just looks—and feels—right."

Miani's affair with Tuscany began in the late seventies, when she and Giorgio, her then boyfriend and now husband of 25 years, scoured the countryside on his Yamaha 600TT trail bike, obsessively snapping detailed photos of tumbledown peasant houses. Prior to this, her experience of the Tuscan countryside had been at her grandparents' sumptuous villa, designed by Michelangelo. As for the crumbling farmhouses (rock piles, essentially)? At the time, it was radical to imagine this kind of restoration being worth the effort. But Miani was driven—and her determination dovetailed with the couple's discovery of Val d'Orcia.

A remote valley that stretches like an olive-catcher's net between the peaks of Mount Amiata and Mount Cetona in southern Tuscany, Val d'Orcia today is a favorite destination for wine and walking tours and photographers assigned to capture the spirit of Tuscany.

Back then this region was, according to Miani, totally abandoned, with its own local culture and a way of life collapsing alongside its homes. The couple bought a house in 1978 and named it Atalante. It was there that Miani first experimented with the limewash pastel colors that would become one of her design trademarks.

Twenty-eight years and seven houses later, what the Mianis could once only imagine has come to pass: Big villas requiring a large staff are out, as are rural imitations of townhouses. Rather, it is their style of renovation—exteriors that reflect the surroundings' rugged beauty, interiors that speak to its romantic charm—that's held in the highest esteem.

From the start, Miani's taste in furnishings veered from trendy Milanese modernism. At the same time, she was never a fan of the somber elaborate English and French antiques seen cluttering up so many Italian homes. Instead, her signature style grew from a preference for things simple: the mov-able furniture of the British colonial period, a cast-iron four-poster bed from the 19th century, slender wooden candlesticks left to her by her grandmother. What she liked, it seemed, others liked, too. In fact, it was by renting out exquisitely restored and furnished houses to a discerning clientele—a crowd including internationally known architects and designers—that the Mianis gained their reputation. Today theirs are among the most photographed of Tuscan interiors. You see them gracing the covers of magazines and coffee-table books. And Miani Style was the title of a recent Italian TV documentary on the good life, in its Tuscan incarnation.

Back in town, Miani's workshop is on the ground floor of her home, a bucolic refuge nestled under the skirts of Rome's Gianicolo hill. This is where, before demand outstripped supply, Miani produced the tables, chairs, lamps, seats, and beds she sold to friends and those who had rented the Tuscan properties. Today these pieces, part of an ever-expanding range she now makes in collaboration with artisans, carpenters, and metalworkers throughout Italy, are available at her shop on Via Monserrato, in the heart of Rome's centro storico. The store, Ilaria Miani, opened in 2003 and is as carefully conceived as one of her houses. It features her own pieces, which are displayed beside textiles sourced from around the world. For those unable to make the trip, a discreetly placed catalogue can be found at each of the properties.

Miani style has evolved over the years. While wooden furniture models—such as the Whatnots, a cross between a coffee table and a portable bookcase—are designed in the neocolonial mode that she repopularized almost 25 years ago, Miani's recent objects and projects are more linear and modern in feel. The best example of this is her own Val d'Orcia property, Casellacce. The larger spaces and higher ceilings of this fortified farmstead prompted her to experiment with what she calls a Donald Judd–like attitude toward refurbishing, which has more to do with designing the empty space than filling it with furniture. She has also started pushing her color boat out into strong Fauvist waters: The sofa units in the living rooms alternate purple and fuchsia elements in a way that may sound garish but actually plays off beautifully against the subdued parchment-hued walls.

Over the years Miani has relied on an organic and functional approach to furniture design: "Everything I made, I made because I needed it." Not everyone who needs a table, of course, would design one and find a carpenter to build it—to say nothing of engineering an ingenious folding mechanism allowing it to be stored easily. But that's Miani style. No wonder it plays as well in Tucson as it does in Tuscany.
Miani's four houses—Zingoni, Palazzolaccio, Buon Riposo, and Casellacce—are available for rent. For more information, contact her directly at ilariamiani@tin.it


Five Easy Pieces

In 1982 Miani developed a line of furniture that's now available online at www.ilariamiani.it (click on "catalogue" and insert the password "ilariamiani") as well as at her namesake store. Most items are usually in stock and ready to be shipped. Ilaria Miani, 35 Via Monserrato, Rome; 39-06/6821-0215. Open Monday 3:30 p.m.– 7:30 p.m., Tuesday–Saturday 10:30 a.m.–2 p.m., and 3 p.m.–7:30 p.m.

Artist's Chair This cross-braced stool is a simplified version of a 19th-century English piece Miani received from a friend. It doubles as an occasional table and, when topped with a cushion ("as in a guest bedroom at Casellacce," she says), it can be used as a dressing-table seat. Available in mahogany, cherry, black, or white.

Polonaise Bed Inspired by a French campaign bed, this four-poster canopy bed in wrought iron was designed by Miani's brother-in-law Francesco Miani. Found at both the Palazzolaccio and Casellacce properties, it ships in separate sections for home assembly.

Whatnot In 19th-century England, a multilevel open display case was called a whatnot. Miani's version—one of the most popular, versatile items—is a good example of her nomad-in-the-home philosophy: "I love being able to change a room around according to one's mood." The Whatnot can serve as bedside table, bookcase, kitchen shelving unit, or portable breadboard, depending on size, model, and the owner's whim. Removable shelves double as trays or discreet drawer units. Smaller Whatnots can be fitted with castors for use in the kitchen or bathroom. Available in cherry, maple, or black.

Tripolina Chair Another design with a military provenance, the Tripolina was based on a chair used by Italian troops in Africa. With its canvas slipcover and light but resilient iron frame, it looks great when arranged in colorful groups on a large flat lawn, which is exactly how Miani has used it in Buon Riposo. The chairs are not foldable, but with the covers removed they can be stacked in piles of 20 or more.

Saliscendi Lamp The Up and Down lamp, as Miani dubbed it, was copied from a model once owned by her grandmother and made by an anarchic Italian count who set up a carpentry workshop in Montepulciano during the war. She later saw—in London's Geffrye Museum—one of the 18th-century originals on which Count Testasecca had based his design. Depending on the finish and shade, the lamp can look classic or modern: In Miani's recent makeover of one of her first Val d'Orcia houses, Palazzolaccio, a black Saliscendi lamp with a red silk shade becomes more Mondrian than Michelangelo.