cristina celestino: avant garde traditionalist

by clé tile | published: Dec 06, 2021

celestino at fornace brioni headquarters in italy

strong, geometric pattern play. bold but muted colors in unexpected combinations. veneration of materiality, texture, and craftsmanship. classic and futuristic. references to culture and history. a gentle, wry humor. and utterly, quintessentially italian.

these are the playful yet refined hallmarks of the work of award-winning architect and designer cristina celestino, who is also the creative director at clé collaborator fornace brioni.

the pink closet at palazzo avino featuring fornace brioni’s rocaille

sergio rossi’s paris store, featuring fornace brioni’s delizie

in 2005, after graduating from the school of architecture at iuav university of venice, she worked with prestigious design studios, focusing on interior architecture and design. in 2009 she moved to milan, founding two years later her brand studio attica. in 2013 she opened her own design studio. she’s designed interiors (the cult-favorite the happy room) and furniture for fendi, carpets for cc tapis, retail design for sergio rossi, wallpaper for misha milano…and the list goes on.

an avid collector of italian design (which frequently inspires her work) she’s also strongly drawn to fashion and jewelry. it’s evident in her collaborations with italy’s fashion houses, but also crops up in less likely ways: the shape of an earring back first appeared in a collection of pendant lights she designed before finding its way into the design of table bases for fendi casa.

the happy room – fendi casa

it’s this eclectic, winning mix that drew clé founder deborah osburn to celestino’s collections for fornace brioni — which clé is the exclusive distributor in the us. celestino’s fornace brioni collections — giardino all’italiana; scenografica; giardino delle delizie; mosaico; and gonzaga — have ushered in a new era of terracotta.

osburn says, “so much of tile is very masculine in that it’s heavy and you need a lot of strength to create the tile. it’s an arduous task, but cristina has taken this somewhat masculine material and given it a feminine feel — that’s her particular brilliance.”

we recently had a chance to interview cristina on her work, her thoughts on the power of surfaces, and her collaboration with fornace brioni.

fornace brioni + cristina celestino: trionfo

clé: you’re trained as an architect. how does that inform your current design and in particular your collaboration with fornace brioni?

celestino: when i think of a product, i always imagine it in an environment; the proportions and weights of the objects are fundamental: that is my starting point. i have been doing creative direction in the area of surfaces first with other brands and since 2016 with fornace brioni.

coverings are a product that designs the space around us — they are the synthesis of my product/ architecture vision. in recent years we have been increasingly engaged in interior projects that also combine the design of bespoke products and furniture: an extremely rewarding job that allows me to fully affirm my vision. two examples are palazzo avino (a five star boutique hotel in ravello) and the experimental cocktail bar in venice.

working with fornace brioni allows me an approach that’s right up my alley: a type of work that starts from a completely natural and historical material, which is shaped — thanks to the knowledge of fornace — with a combination of the most different artisanal and avant-garde techniques. all this, together with an aware and cultured design, rather than nostalgic, has led this material to be part of the most contemporary interiors.

clé: when you begin a project, how do you go about finding inspiration and doing research (which we know is a big part of your process)? and when do you know you’re “done”?

celestino: when we start off a project, we usually begin with collecting images and suggestions until we find a story that highlights the brand at it’s best, a story that enhances the materials and works with them. i visualize the first ideas of application of the concept to the product, then after quick freehand drawings we move on to verify everything with rendering. the transition from drawing to sketches to material samples to 3d visualizations is continuous throughout the design process.

my design always comes from research into my inner passions: architecture; history of design; nature (as catalogue of colours and texture); jewelry (as function with a high level of aesthetics); and fashion (as research in colours, attitude).

inspiration drawn from celestino’s lobby in milan

in general, i always work with levels, with depth: different levels of references are stratified inside the project. we use this method for both interiors and products — even two-dimensional projects such as wall coverings.

clé: we love the way you weave together the past, present, and future in such a rich way: where do you think your ability or tendency to do that comes from?

celestino: my passion for design began immediately after graduating in architecture with collecting. i became passionate about product design by reading texts and i began to buy design pieces, which then became really many over time — especially lamps. (ed: she has so many she has to store them outside of her home and studio.)

it was very useful for my work to be able to see and touch important lamps and furnishings designed by illustrious designers. they are certainly a source of inspiration, and are part of the wealth of knowledge of the history of architecture and design that every designer should have in order to consciously design with a contemporary vision.

i think it’s difficult to come up with something completely new, and therefore a knowledge of the past is necessary to succeed with our projects and add a new message and an innovative component to what has already been exported and investigated.

(left) celestino’s collaboration with maison matisse; (right) 28 posti restaurant designed by celestino featuring fornace brioni’s giulio romano and trama terracotta tiles

clé: material is such a big part of your work: what are your favorites right now, and why? what are you exploring and interested in (in the future)?

celestino: i don’t have a favorite material in general: in my projects i always like to mix different materials and every time it is interesting to get in touch with various producers who give me the opportunity to deepen new materials and unexplored processing techniques. the textile part is always very important, both for what concerns the search for the correct yield for the project and for what concerns the final result.

in general, i can tell what i feel closest to right now: warm colors, natural shades, the texture of wood and the colors of marbles and natural stones – but overall, the materials and color palette of the project always starts from a reflection on the context and location of the project.

(left) palazzo avino bedroom with fornace brioni’s tivoli terracotta tile; (right) gala collection for saba italia

clé: at clé, we’re inspired by fashion, and so, it seems, are you. what do you learn from fashion? and what do you think architecture and interiors could give back to fashion?

celestino: even before working with fashion brands, i was a fashion enthusiast; it is one of my main sources of inspiration, as it can act without restrictions. i always try to find balance in my work respecting the past craftsmanship and trying innovative techniques and new and exciting designs.

my background in architecture taught me not to be based on abstract geometries or “fashionable” designs but always starting from signs, shapes, rooted in the history of architecture, in the design of gardens, and therefore rooted in the common imagination — which then we rework with an abstraction process that takes into account the peculiarities of the material and the technical feasibility.

from fashion, coming closer to this world thanks to the brands i worked for, i have learned that the value of our stylistic codes and heritage is enhanced by continuous research in the contemporary — i have learned that research must always be free, without fixed schemes. i find the fashion world’s approach to colors and materiality very interesting.

thanks to architecture and a vision of the interiors as experiential places, fashion is represented through boutiques, often interesting and innovative interior projects.

clé: you’ve collaborated with fashion and jewelry brands such as fendi and studio rossi. how do you work with designers working in a different medium?

celestino: i love fashion for its freedom and irony, for its ability to always be different and to reinvent itself. the world of fashion is very fast, perhaps too fast, but it is often able to create objects full of ideas, and with careful research behind it. i turn to the world of fashion when i need inspiration for the colors of a project. for example, even the leather works fascinate me a lot — they look like micro-architectures.

by collaborating with historical brands, such as fendi and sergio rossi, i had the opportunity to access decennial archives of great value, full of research and innovation, so i can combine this rich experience with my idea of design, reinterpreting ideas and stylistic codes. one of the most impressive things about the big fashion brands is their need to make decisions in a short time, often much more courageous than those of furniture companies.

interior of claude cartier decoration featuring fornace brioni’s bibiena tile

clé: you design for your own brand (attico design), you design projects for clients, and you’re an artistic and creative director for others, such as fornace brioni. who is harder to work for: you or your clients?

celestino: for me, there is not much difference between designing an interior versus furniture. in the end, they both must have strong personality, power, and consistency. at different scales, it’s still the details that matter the most. every last finish, all the colours and fabrics must be perfect and work together until i am satisfied, and the interior breathes a unique atmosphere.

what is important is its coherence with the story you have decided to tell.

when it comes to creative direction services, the work is longer and more complex: it is all about the ongoing dialogue with the client. from a shared vision for the brand, this work involves the web-site, the catalogue, the products, the communication, and every other aspect (remaining well aware of the market and of the commercial aspects).

(left) palazzo avino bedroom featuring fornace brioni’s boboli tile (right) gala collection for saba italia

clé: you’ve taken a material that has been around for centuries and given it a modern twist by respecting the historical aspect but giving it a new lens through which it can be seen. how did your partnership with fornace brioni come about?

celestino: i was contacted by alberto around the end of summer 2016 and shortly after that, i visited fornace brioni for the first time before deciding to accept the assignment. i remember that visit: fornace is a tough place where you fully experience the contact with materials and you understand the meaning of manual work. i was instantly fascinated by the various techniques used to shape the clay and by the curiosity and innovation of the brioni brothers.

creative directions imply an almost daily exchange and confrontation with the company: this involves a significant amount of work for the office, but on the other hand it is an inexhaustible source of enrichment and growth. terracotta and ceramic are easy-to-work moldable materials; there are no long waiting times for new molds or prototypes.

on the other hand, the process, in addition to being very artisanal, is very alchemical and not totally controllable: in the moment of cooking (firing), expansions occur, unexpected reactions of the material, rather than variations in color in the case of enamels that make everything unpredictable — only the experience of the brioni brothers is able to partly foresee how matter can react.

although the production remains artisanal, the work in the furnace is increasingly structured and “mechanized” — thanks to new technology that supports handmade work — in order to make manual work more and more precise and efficient.

apartment in paris featuring fornace brioni’s tivoli tile. design: batiik studio / photo: giaime meloni

fornace brioni is a unique reality in its specificity: a deep well of knowledge and a great history in the processing of cotto — which begins with the raw material, earth from the floodplain of po river. it’s a family company, now at the third generation, carried forward by a couple of enterprising, curious, generous and open minded brothers — the perfect combination between craftsmanship and technology, which allows them to give life to products in large scale, with the capacity of a medium factory, and the value of the hand-made.

clé: how does the material inform and inspire your design?

celestino: firstly, i am very interested in designing floors and wall coverings — because they are the closest product to the architect, the one that in an interior project defines the container and therefore conditions all the following choices (of furniture, textiles, colors).

to me there is nothing more homey, traditional, and reassuring as a floor made with cotto tiles. the objective was thus to juggle the fundamental values of the material — its italian workmanship, top quality, durability — and to give it a very bold appearance without altering its typical composition.

for this reason, i kept the genuine material and elaborated on it, drawing on the traditional shapes and patterns in italian culture. the end result is totally innovative yet still reassuring, a balance between nostalgia and cutting-edge design trends.

cotto is a magical material, extremely complex to work with and subject to shrinkage, but easy to shape. even the cooking (firing) process in the oven is very intriguing and almost alchemical: the mixture of earth and water thanks to the fire becomes an everyday product, resistant and durable.

fornace brioni catalogue designed by cristina celestino

fornace brioni catalogue designed by cristina celestino

clé: how do you work to develop a new product in cotto? how involved are alberto + fornace brioni in the development of a product? is there a particular product you feel really changed from original concept to final form based on their input and the making process?

celestino: i have often applied the processing techniques alberto was experimenting on. i am given extreme freedom in projects. we present our proposals and often adjustments are necessary in measurements or minor modifications in the shapes, due to the production constraint related to cooking, rather than deformations of the material during the drying process.

in general, all the modifications in the shapes are always constructive even from the design and aesthetic point of view and never denature of the initial idea – no project has ever been radically modified during the realization process.

28 posti restaurant in milan, designed by celestino, features fornace brioni’s giulio romano and trama tile

clé: what is your dream project?

celestino: i haven’t chanced upon the opportunity yet to design a project for a kitchen or bathroom for a leading firm in the sector, which i’d like to do soon. however, my project for the future is to have no plans: to enjoy the opportunities that the present can offer us and work as if every project (interior or product) is the most important.

now more than ever i have realised that it makes no sense to set time-bound goals and rigid plans for the future. (ed: we echo that sentiment)