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Most Fridays, like many smart Milanesi, Giovanna Cornelio jumps in a car at the end of the day and drives three hours northeast to the Engadine, a valley in the Swiss Alps. “I’ve been coming here since I was child,” she says. “In the winter we ski; I especially like cross-country. But in the summer, I come to sleep. Have you been in Milan in June, July, August? It’s impossible—so hot and humid. By Friday you’re exhausted!”
In Christmas 2009, the journeys became a little more frequent when Cornelio—a founder of the Milanese architecture firm CLS Architetti—saw part of a house for sale in this region that she knew so well. It was an untouched section of a grand old building in the village of Madulain, nine miles from St. Moritz. Despite a heavy workload in the studio—CLS creates retail interiors for big names such as Michael Kors and La Rinascente, and designs a large number of high-end private homes—Cornelio couldn’t resist. “The original house had been built for an aristocratic family in the first half of the 18th century. Later, part of it had become the headquarters of a wine company,” she says. Another section is now the Hotel Chesa Colani. “And then there was this apartment—with its own front door—which hadn’t undergone any transformation at all. It had been uninhabited for 20 years.”
By February, the purchase was complete, and she celebrated Christmas 2010 with her husband, a communications consultant, and ten-year-old daughter in the newly refurbished mountain home. During the renovation of the 2,100-square-foot home’s six rooms, all sorts of gems emerged, from a diary written in French and German during World War II—“A local friend told me that someone from Germany had been in hiding here,” Cornelio says—to original inlaid floors of oak and walnut, cabinets decorated with swirling marquetry, and pale larch paneling. “Everything had been painted over in green and red and yellow, and there was PVC on the floor,” she says with a grimace. “We revealed so many things dating back to its 18th-century origins, including the entrance paved in local stone.”
Life in Milan is rather different from this gemütlich world of warm old wood, where most of the family life is carried on in the stube, which historically meant the room with the central heat source. There, the original brick-and-iron wood-burning stove is still in place, although Cornelio has added a contemporary touch with a sofa of her own design. It has a waxed raw-iron base but is upholstered in a dazzling blue Kvadrat fabric that reminds her of the waters of Lake Como, where she grew up.
In the city, the family occupies the top two floors of a 1958 apartment near the Colonne di San Lorenzo, for which Cornelio designed an extra room on the roof. From there she can look out across a terrace filled with vegetable gardens. “Milan is all about big windows and 1960s furniture,” she says. “We have pieces by Joe Colombo and several by Osvaldo Borsani.” The latter is a reminder of her early career when, after having studied architecture at the Polytecnico in Milan, she joined the furniture company Tecno, which was then producing many of Borsani’s designs. “It was such a natural decision to be an architect and a designer,” she says. “I loved building tree houses and little shelters for my dogs—not drawing but making.”
In 1993, she founded CLS Architetti with Massimiliano Locatelli, and the firm now occupies a 16th-century church, San Paolo Converso, on Corso Venezia in the city center. There, they have inserted a series of dramatically modern steel-and-glass boxes inside a beautifully conserved interior that’s decorated with rich marbles and flamboyant frescoes by the Campi brothers, late-Renaissance painters from Cremona. It’s from this space that CLS’s varied portfolio of projects emerges, with residential projects from Italy to Vietnam, including a 32,000-square-foot villa on Lake Como and a 13-story building for a family in Mumbai that will feature, Cornelio says, “guest apartments, offices for the family business, and a pool, gym, and cinema.”
In the Engadine, the play is between the very old and the 20th century—there is nothing from now. “The Corbusier lounger comes from my family’s house on Lake Como,” says Cornelio. “The kitchen chairs belonged to my great-grandmother, and then I found some more to match them.” Essential interventions, meanwhile, have been carefully done. Walls in newly formed spaces are painted black to minimize their presence, while the handsome door that leads to the master bathroom used to guard the entrance to the food store—the most important room in the house during a frozen Alpine winter.
Now the most important room is the stube, where small windows were carefully positioned several centuries ago to maximize the light and the view is of Piz Palu’s peak. “In winter it’s the warmest place, and in summer it stays cool,” Cornelio says. “That’s mountain life for you: simple as can be.”