Man of the Cloth

A few years ago Gianluca Berardi was in India when he began toying with the idea of reproducing, on silk, a Frank Lloyd Wright mosaic of wisteria. To make sure his design captured every shade of green in Wright’s nature scene, Berardi collected leaves from a park in New Delhi, had them dyed, and brought the entire bundle back to his New York atelier. Embroiderers then worked with Berardi’s sketch for four months, using 200 colors of thread to get it right. "Whoever lives with this fabric," Berardi says, "should feel like they are looking at the real thing." The finished panel now hangs in a house in Los Angeles behind an original Tiffany lamp.

It’s the sort of placement that pleases the Italian-born Berardi, 42, to no end. He founded his bespoke textiles studio, Macondo Silks, in 2001, running it out of a TriBeCa loft. He oversees an international operation that involves a small network of trusted handweavers in France and Italy as well as specialist dyers and embroiderers in India. All his commissions are unique and completely custom, ranging from 18th-century-style brocades to classic Art Deco patterns to his own contemporary designs. The decorators he deals with might refer to him as "the fabric guy," but Berardi regards his silks and linens as nothing less than works of art. "If there was a frame around that piece there," he says, pointing to a white-and-silver zigzag pattern inspired by an Italian terrazza, "people would be looking for the artist’s signature."

Humble he may not be, but there’s no denying that the level of customization Berardi achieves goes far beyond the most elaborate embroidered damask in any designer showroom. When the client of one decorator decided she wanted all the fabrics in her house to echo the sea life she had encountered on a snorkeling trip in Hawaii, Berardi studied a book on the state’s fish and created 20 designs, mostly on Italian linen. The white-spotted puffer fish became an abstract bone pattern on chocolate-brown; the Picasso triggerfish turned into a blue tie-dye. Diane von Furstenberg came to Berardi with a watercolor that had been a gift from a friend and he had it reproduced on a silk headboard. Cushions in Berardi’s showroom are embroidered with a design taken from an inlay he admired on an Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann daybed.

"In my world," says San Francisco decorator Paul Wiseman, "the one-of-a-kind object is the thing. Sometimes that element comes from an antique, sometimes it’s a piece of art. But if the client is sophisticated—and has a big enough budget—I show her what Gianluca can do."

The process of applying a Berardi bespoke fabric to, say, a sofa on Park Avenue or to the walls of a bedroom in Pacific Heights is as customized as the materials themselves. And don’t call it wallcovering or upholstery. "It’s more like landscaping," Berardi says. An architect measures the room to within an inch of its life, then consults with Berardi to map out exactly where each stitch will fall. An Art Deco–inspired ecru bamboo-leaf pattern embroidered on pale blue silk can be pruned to the desired density to cluster around the corners of the windows or drape elegantly over a doorway. "One woman," Berardi recalls, "wanted two branches to meet above her bed."

For Berardi the couture approach comes naturally. The aristocratic-looking Italian gets cheeky when you ask about anything besides silk and linen: Where are you from? Newark, New Jersey (from the Puglia region, actually). Where did you train? The street (La Sapienza in Rome). But he will happily recount the time he spent in France developing fabrics as head of the Perrin Group, a luxury textiles mill owned by Hermès. He also did striped taffetas for Christian Lacroix, floral prints for Yves St. Laurent, and all the silk failles in John Galliano’s first show for Dior. After five years he took everything he’d learned about technique (short needles create the most precise stitch; the most vibrant vegetable dyes come from Delhi) and tradition (he can give the name and date of just about every pattern in the three-volume Etoffes Merveilleuses du Musée Historique des Tissus, Lyons) and decamped to London. There he began working with interior designers such as Thierry Despont and Tessa Kennedy.

"The first time I saw Gianluca’s work," says designer Ralph Rucci, noted for being the first American since Mainbocher to show at Paris couture week, "was at the Paris apartment of decorator Juan Pablo Molyneux and his wife, Pilar. They had an entire room—walls, drapes, headboard, bedspread—done in this unbelievable chinoiserie. I told them I had to meet the person responsible. When I finally did, Gianluca, in his way, told me he was no longer getting involved with ’apparel people.’ " But Berardi ultimately relented and the two began a collab- oration that has produced fabrics for the designer’s runway shows, from white double-faced cashmere embroidered with Rucci’s own handwriting in white thread to full-scale replicas of Cy Twombly’s "Four Seasons" paintings on white silk.

"What Gianluca does is take your idea and sketch it out for you," Paul Wiseman explains. "He then sends the idea to India or Italy and it comes back full circle to New York. He opens a box and there it is, translated in color and thread."

Berardi has a few ideas of his own, of course—this is, after all, a man who spent years searching for the perfect coffee table until finally crafting one himself out of construction debris, including a pipe that fell off the building next door. Inspiration, he says, can come from children’s artwork in a kindergarten window or from the background pattern in an Olaf Breuning photograph owned by a friend. Right now he considers his pièce de résistance to be a pair of nine-by-seven-foot panels, each with an image of a storming elephant done in allover silk-on-silk embroidery. Priced at $60,000 apiece, the panels required the work of 50 people. They took two years to complete.

Berardi requires that clients come with an architect, given his need for ultraprecise measurements. Commissions typically take two to four months, from design to delivery. Macondo Silks, 16 Jay St., New York; 212-625-0420.