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Milanese makeover: 1930s factory to stylish showroom and home

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An warehouse space in the Italian city has been cleverly transformed with original features and a mix of styles

Milan isn’t a city short of personality, but it is short on homes with personality that haven’t already been developed into brand-new boltholes or snapped up by the cool crowd. Luckily for Elisa Vassalli, the area of Isola, northwest of the centre, still has a few secret spaces up its sleeve, which is how she ended up finding her former textiles factory home.

“We saw a lot of apartments, but this one was really different to everything else,” says the interior designer, who shares the space with her carpenter and set designer husband, Davide. The factory was built in the 1930s and they are the first couple to make it their home. “We loved that it hadn’t been touched, because we wanted to have a space with a story. It was very important for us because we love the memories of a space and respecting it.”

That they found it is fortuitous, given their precise criteria. Having previously lived a 40-minute tram ride south of the centre, the pair were looking for somewhere that would function as a home and as an HQ and showroom for their interior design company, IsolaDesignStudio. “We were sure we wanted a loft because I don’t like rooms and walls. It’s nice to live in an open-plan space that we can invite our clients into,” says Elisa, who looks after interior design while Davide leads on custom-made fittings and furniture. “Our job is to create their homes, so we like welcoming them into ours.”

In 2017, what would become a two-year renovation commenced, but first the couple had to empty the space of a heavy pile of woollen mattresses that had been left behind – which was as pungent as it sounds. “When we came inside there was a smell of old wool, we were like, ‘Wow!'” laughs Vassalli.

After it was cleared and cleaned, what remained was a 140 sqm warehouse style space for them to fill with their ideas. In 2017, the two-year renovation of the 140sqm warehouse commenced. “For me, it’s very important to maintain authenticity, so we restored everything that was original in the space,” she says. They set about stripping back coats of old white paint to reveal cast-iron radiators, original brick walls and ceiling beams.

To maximise their living space, the couple installed a floating mezzanine level for their bedroom, bathroom and walk-in wardrobe. Up the spot-lit staircase, antique pink walls blend softly into matching velvet curtains that wrap around the bed and stand-alone bath, making it private from the living room it overlooks.

“You have to understand that I’m in love with pink,” she laughs, pointing at her hair, which has tips of the same hue. “Colours are so important to make you feel happy and relaxed at home.”

The solid walnut flooring leads into a mosaic shower room and separate toilet, complete with soundproof glass walls, and on to a huge walk-in wardrobe nicknamed Rinascente (after the legendary Milanese department store), by Elisa’s clients.

But it is downstairs, where the open-plan kitchen leads into the dining room and double-height living room, linked by geometric flooring inspired by the artist MC Escher, that the couple’s vision really sings.

The area is accessed from a quiet courtyard set back from the road so that the hum of the trams can be heard in the distance (if at all and the huge metal-framed windows ensure the couple’s lovingly tended plants thrive in what has become a kind of accidental greenhouse. “We don’t have a space outside, so it was more important for us to bring the outside inside,” says Elisa.

The theme continues across to the kitchen, where her beloved cookbooks are covered in jungle-themed wallpaper by PaperMint Paris. A set of sliding doors conceals the sink and preparation area.

In the front, a large kitchen island built by Davide and covered with scented candles, fruit and flowers houses their collection of pink and green Francesco Fasano crockery (one of the oldest practising ceramic businesses in Puglia, where their families are originally from) and an original set of Berkel scales that the pair picked up from a secondhand market near Marseille for a song. “I love flea markets. I always look for them wherever we go,” says Elisa.

The couple’s ritual of picking up design souvenirs on their travels is displayed best in the living area, where the limited-edition clocks they bought from the Vitra Design Museum gift shop in Germany and the gold ceiling lamps from 101 Copenhagen steal the show. It’s not just recognised design objects they are drawn to, but items with a strong identity, too – including the old traditional light switches they found in a market in Brussels and a giant wool rug snapped up in Marrakech.

“It’s important to have la casa propria [your own home],” says Elisa with a smile. “A mix of styles that reflects you is important, otherwise everything ends up looking the same and starts to look like a set, rather than a home.”

The couple’s own designs lend originality to their home (“I’m lucky because me and my husband are really similar in aesthetic,” says Vassalli), including the chair and footstool they found for a couple of euros and reupholstered in textiles designed by Elisa, and the huge shelving system housing their books and ephemera, built by Davide.

A piece of mixed-media artwork depicting the Last Supper, by Elisa’s father, Sabino, takes pride of place beside the huge window, serving as an apt reminder that this is a home which has been designed to be shared.