Roman luxury at play

Roman luxury at play

As first impressions go, ringing the neatly recessed bronze bell at the entrance to Achille Salvagni’s new Mayfair atelier offers an illuminating indication of what’s to come inside.

Compact yet sumptuous, the designer’s flagship London gallery comprises a crisp white space crowned with his already iconic bronze and onyx Spider chandelier, with a richer inner space panelled in contrasting wood: one wall is varnished to a high-gloss in chic Alpaca Silver (a copper, zinc and nickel alloy) and the rest is lined in grey oak wood with a fine bronze inlay lending it a tailored sharpness.

“It took me eight months to find the right spot,” says Achille of the Grafton Street location. “I wanted to be surrounded by equally refined brands and jewellers, rather than other galleries. My pieces are functional but the way they are constructed and conceived is much closer to fine jewellery than furniture.”

The word “perfectionist” doesn’t really do justice to the impeccably-attired Roman architect and designer (he favours bespoke suits made by an ex-Caraceni tailor and shoes by Crockett & Jones), whose finely-crafted, limited-edition furniture and lighting, created in noble materials such as bronze, French-polished oak and onyx, sells for about £20,000 for a mirror or £60,000 for a buffet cabinet.

His clients include some of the world’s wealthiest people — business magnates,
supermodels, musicians, princes — many of them world-famous, yet he refuses to
divulge names. Indeed, if discretion is the watchword for luxury today, then Achille has it nailed — right down to the pared-back façade of the gallery with the platinum logo “Achille Salvagni Atelier” engraved in a simple deco-like font into black glass, elegantly whispering his presence. “I created the font myself,” he nods. “A lot of people said to me, ‘You know, from far away you can’t read it’, and that’s the purpose. I didn’t want to appear like a
supermarket.”

Heart of success

Achille wisely timed his gallery opening during Frieze week, which also coincides with the Pavilion of Art & Design (PAD) fair in nearby Berkeley Square, giving some indication of his existing and desired status. Judging by other recent arrivals to Mayfair also courting a similar clientele — such as Galerie Dutko and Patrick Seguin — the high density of super-rich in the capital is currently making it an appealing prospect. “If Rome is the best place to create, then London is the best place to shop,” he says, and although he’s chosen to open here it is the Italian capital, where his practice is based and where he lives with his wife and two children, that is at the heart of his success, which also inspires many of his designs.

It wasn’t always this way, however. After graduating in architecture, Achille felt weighed down by the ancient history and architecture of the Eternal City. A fan of Scandinavian simplicity and in particular the great Nordic modernists such as Gunnar Asplund, Sigurd Lewerentz and Alvar Aalto, he took himself off to study at Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology. “It’s hard to lose the heaviness of the past,” he says, “but I felt I needed to find a cold atmosphere to refresh my mind, to smooth the angles and move towards a lighter and softer aesthetic. I was really impressed by the beauty of simplicity but I couldn’t get rid of my roots. Gradually, I began to achieve a balance, referencing the past but with a contemporary approach looking towards to the future.”

After stints working in Sweden, Finland  and England, he returned to Rome and set up his multidisciplinary practice in 2002. His big break was a leap of faith. One of his clients bought a yacht and asked him to design the interiors — for free. “He said, ‘I won’t pay because you have no experience in this field, but if you are as talented as I think you are it could really kick off your career.’” The 36m Mikymar motor yacht — for which he drew on
Scandinavian influences to create a more residential feel with a bentwood shell — was an instant hit, scooping a prestigious interior design award at the 2007 Cannes Boat Show. It propelled Achille into another league. He was immediately inundated with residential commissions from a glamorous international yacht-owning elite with houses around the world.

Today, his studio’s work is divided equally between high-end residential, bespoke furniture and yachts — here’s currently a 67m-yacht and a 85m-yacht on the drawing board. Achille insists on a level of personal service that precludes him and his 17-strong team from undertaking more than five or six projects at a time. “I always deal directly with my clients. I never put a middle person between me and them,” he says. And it’s his discerning clients’ desire for what no one else has that is to thank for his foray into bespoke furniture design. They know they can pay to have a unique touch and they want unique pieces surrounding them,” he says.

It was while seeking out one-off designs that Achille discovered the niche design gallery world, buying pieces from dealers in Paris, London, New York and Milan to furnish his residential projects. A regular haunt was 20th-century specialist Maison Gerard in New York, which also represents contemporary artists such as Carol Egan and Hervé van der Straeten. While he was furnishing a Central Park apartment, some of Salavagni’s custom-designed pieces were spied by Maison Gerard’s managing partner Benoist Drut.

Timeless appeal

He was so impressed, he suggested they launch a collection of limited-edition pieces at Park Avenue Armory. Today, only one Spider chandelier (an edition of 20) remains of this first collection and Achille is one of the gallery’s bestselling designers. Benoist  puts Achille’s success down to “the timelessness of his creations, the quality of the materials used, and the modern yet classic approach to his designs. His ability to fully comprehend the past (for example, the work of Giò Ponti), and to create a modern cabinet, like GIO, where the essence of the Fifties designer is fully assimilated in a totally contemporary creation, is genuinely Achille and a stroke of genius.”

The refreshing thing about Achille is that for someone operating in such a rarefied world, he remains completely enthralled by the craftspeople who make his pieces possible, many of whom he discovered while refurbishing historical Rome properties. This appreciation was perhaps nurtured in his childhood when he’d accompany his building-contractor father on site, eating lunch with the workers while his father dined in a restaurant with the managers.

He certainly thinks it helped him to comprehend different materials and he evidently values these skills in others. “These extremely talented artisans in bronze casting, stone masonry and cabinetry take care of old palaces, churches, even the Vatican City. They have fantastic skills that have been passed down generation after generation. I realised if I was going to design furniture they would be the craftspeople to use. They could contribute their knowledge and supreme quality and I could help reinvigorate their business.” These materials and finishes lend his furniture a classical dimension and depth, but also a discernible Roman character.

“I breathe these Roman roots,” he says. “All my pieces use materials integral to Rome. The wood is typical to trees you find growing in the hills surrounding the city.

It won’t always be like this but this is my starting point.” There is also a more intangible Roman aspect at play too, in the narratives behind each piece. Take the Antinoo buffet cabinet in French polished oak inspired by ancient Rome and Emperor Hadrian’s passionate love for Antinous. “He was considered to be the most beautiful man at the time. Hadrian was so jealous he locked him away in his palace to prevent anyone else looking at him. So, the cabinet features a slim bronze face on the facade, referencing ancient Roman warrior helmets. This is Antinous imprisoned by the doors, which are the two arms of the emperor.”

Yet despite all the grandeur on show, there is a playful and poetic eccentricity underlying Achille’s work. Admiring some exquisite textured bronze panelling on the walls of his atelier for example, Achille explains that it was created in the foundry (via the lost-wax method) using pasta —“fusilli and spaghetti”. Design and food combined; it couldn’t be more Italian.

And like any self-respecting Italian, he won’t let guests depart without offering them something to eat: in this case some impeccably on-brand, bronze-hued
truffles. After all, it’s those little details that make all the difference.

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