ARMANI. The name immediately conjures up the image of sleek, cool, understated rooms in which the color palette runs the narrow gamut from pearl-gray to sky-blue. Right? Well, not always. Especially not in the Milanese home of Rosanna Armani, younger sister of fabled fashion designer and avowed minimalist Giorgio Armani. One can only imagine the scene when he first crossed the threshold of her boldly colored and dramatically accessorized lair. "He raised his eyebrows, but he said nothing," his sister recalls. "He respects me absolutely."
As well he should. It has been ten years since Rosanna Armani—photo editor, former model, and master aesthete—moved to this centuries-old stone building in Milan's historical Moscova neighborhood. She was drawn by the apartment's location, nestled deep inside one of those old-world courtyards that typify the many hidden secrets of this northern Italian industrial city. Moreover, it was centrally located, very private, and protected from the noisy street traffic that makes most seasoned visitors insist on a hotel room facing a courtyard or private gardens.
The apartment, a series of satisfyingly quirky, interlocking, and high-ceilinged rooms, suited Rosanna perfectly—well, nearly perfectly.
"It was dark, very dark," she says, shaking her head. "It was absolutely necessary to add some light." And so she did—opening the living room and adjoining study to the spacious wisteria-covered terrace and leafy garden; painting the walls in bright, bold hues; draping colorful, exotic fabrics over sofas, and placing here, there, and nearly everywhere all the wonderful things she had collected from her years of circling the globe for work and pleasure.
"I had no furniture, but many, many objects," says Armani, whose decorating is, yes, emotional, but also the result of a seasoned eye, great taste, and a willingness to take risks with scale and color. "I knew that I had to put all my life in my house," she says.
When one's life has been as interesting and wide-reaching as Rosanna Armani's, that can indeed be a challenge. Though, as she recounts it, it all sounds remarkably easy. At 17, Armani says, "someone stopped me in the street and asked me to model." That's how she became a four-year cover girl in the sixties for Arianna, then a well-known Italian fashion magazine. At 20, film producer Dino De Laurentiis wanted her to sign a movie contract, but she refused. "That was the finish to my movie career," Armani says. "I much preferred to be free." So Armani started working at magazines like Annabella, where she was a fashion editor, and the Italian edition of Playboy, where she was a travel photography editor for eight years.
"After that," she says, "my brother called me to join Giorgio Armani." For the next 20 years, Rosanna worked with the Armani press office, taking care of Italian journalists and working as an art director for the company's catalogues, special-edition books, and advertising campaigns. She also developed lifelong relationships with photographers like Peter Lindbergh, Aldo Fallai, and Paolo Roversi. After taking a few years off to travel the world, Armani returned to the company three years ago as a consultant on photography and advertising campaigns. She clearly loves every minute she spends on location with photographers. "I prefer a week under the rain to a day in the office," she explains. "It's hot. It's cold. It's life. And, if you have a good relationship with the photographer, it works."
Indeed, Armani seems to specialize in days away from the office. She is happiest, she says, when she can linger in a remote locale. "I love it when I have time to see, to stay, to know the people." And to shop. "I find, I take home," she says. But that only begins to explain the diversity of objects displayed throughout her apartment. And though it all looks effortless, everything has been carefully placed for maximum effect: a piece by contemporary Roman artist Luigi Ontani, an Indian photograph, a painting by a Moroccan artist that she discovered during one of her trips, vintage Venini vases, and a gift, from Ettore Sottsass, of one of his great glass sculptures. "My home is not a museum or a static place," she says, "but a project that's continually changing and reflecting my moods."
The drama of the apartment begins at the front door, which opens onto a two-story library whose centerpiece is a white-painted spiral staircase (Armani says that she got the idea from David Tang's China Club in Hong Kong). She calls the room her "personal archive": Images from her favorite photographers cover the walls, and books on design, film, and art line the shelves. The whole space, Armani says, reminds her of a wonderfully eclectic room in a great English country house.
The extraordinary Chinese crystal chandeliers come from an antiques shop in Paris. There are worldly touches wherever one looks: an Indian birdcage, a lion sculpture from Jaipur; a bowl full of Persian beads was a gift from her brother. But that's not the only addition from her more minimalist sibling. "It's possible to put an Armani piece in a house like mine," she says proudly, pointing to the large, natural-textured coffee table. It's one of several pieces Rosanna has from Giorgio's Armani Casa furniture line, and it anchors the living room. "Perfect," she says. "I try not to put too many things on it."
To help translate her ideas into design, Armani called on friends who also happened to be among Italy's most stylish interior masters. Piero Castellini, for example, suggested the unusual high doorways and openings that connect the idiosyncratic series of rooms. He also landscaped the gardens. But when all was supposed finished and in place, Armani looked around and felt things were too pristine, too white.
Enter close friend Giorgio Silvani, an architect who also designed some of the apartment's furniture. "Please Giorgio," she pleaded. "I want color."
They began with the dining room. The walls were painted a pale, luminescent gray-green—the color, Armani says, of police stations she had seen in India. What had been a favorite wooden table from Provence began to look big and bulky. It was "brown and not beautiful" and became the perfect candidate for the kind of makeover Armani and Silvani had in mind. Painted a vibrant high-gloss tomato red, the table was instantly transformed—along with the room. "Any more red than that would have been impossible," she says. "Red can be such a shock, it can add a whole other story." These days, and at night, with candles lit, the dining room, with its bright yellow chairs and shelves of multicolored, gold-rimmed goblets, looks like a page from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights.
Not surprisingly, this is where Armani likes to entertain during the winter. In the summer, she prefers to serve more informally in the garden, whose lush, overgrown vegetation, chaises, low tables, and Oriental rugs add to the exoticness of the apartment.
Because she considered the ceilings too high (a concept that is very hard for most of us to comprehend), Armani searched for a decorative way to bring the eye downward and create a more intimate space. The solution? Hand-painting the unusually shaped living room, the study, and the hallway that winds up to the master bedroom. For color she chose a shade of deep apricot, to which she added a series of dark-red and black stripes. "It's all about creating illusion," Armani explains.
And so it was that color—glorious, rich color—took over every room of the house, with the sole exception of the white-on-white master bedroom. Here, the custom-made fourposter bed is draped in white, gauzy fabric, the chairs slipcovered in white linen, and the walls done in the palest, faintest of blues.
Comfort—which she defines as a place to sit and read the newspaper—is always uppermost in Armani's mind. Vintage French leather chairs and a sofa big enough to fall asleep on set the tone in the living room. In an adjoining study, a daybed is awash in Indian fabrics and tasseled bolsters from Lisa Corti, a Milan shop that specializes in out-of-the-ordinary textiles and pillows. (For additional Milan shops, see the Travel Guide.) The overall look is a mix of textures, colors, and disparate objects that live well together. There is no rigidity here, rather a sense of freewheeling discovery.
Sitting in her living room with her six-year-old Norfolk terrier, Tina, perched beside her, Armani surveys the apartment. She gets up, moves a vase on the mantelpiece a few inches this way and that, smiles at a Burmese Buddha ("I'm happy when I see him"), adjusts the fold of an embroidered throw on the daybed. "I adore all my things," she says. "It's not interesting to have only that one best-in-the-world piece. When I love something, I put it with something else that I love. That's just the way I live."