“What is it about the work of Gabriella Crespi that makes its appeal so enduring?” This is the enigmatic question posed by architect and critic Joseph Grima, in the introductory text of the exhibition catalogue. In a landscape dominated by fleeting trends and male auteurs, Crespi’s creations, as Grima eloquently puts it, “emerge as a timeless reminder that authentic creativity is not necessarily a function of its own time or any particular time”. This sets the stage for a journey into the profound legacy of Gabriella Crespi, a Milanese designer whose life’s work is currently celebrated at the Nilufar Gallery with the exhibition titled Gabriella Crespi.
Crespi’s impact on the design world wasn’t immediately recognised; it developed slowly, transcending the boundaries of her era and is now fully understood by a contemporary audience who value both aesthetic beauty and functionality. Her refusal to be swept away by the fast-paced trends of her time positioned her as something of an iconoclast, operating in Milan, the epicentre of 20th-century design excellence.
Born in 1922 to a distinguished Milanese family, the designer’s entrance into the world was graced by societal eminence. Her union with the Crespi dynasty, renowned owners of the Corriere Della Sera newspaper, provided her with a passport into high society. However, beneath this veneer of privilege lay an innate drive and creativity that guided her life’s path. Crespi’s daughter Elisabetta, reminisces about her mother’s spirit, an entity that radiated charisma, leaving a lasting impression on everyone she met.
The Italian designer’s insatiable need for creative expression remained the driving force in her career, leading to a convergence of influences shaping her distinctive aesthetic. Grounded in observation of the world around her and the beauty of nature, she skillfully blended product design principles with sculptural abstraction. This is evident in her works, characterised by intricate forms and thoughtful functionality.
This design exhibition housed inside Nilufar Gallery in the heart of Milan, Italy pays homage to Crespi’s artistic legacy. The city itself played an integral role in the product designer’s life, nurturing her creative development and inimitable expression of simplicity. Throughout her illustrious career, Crespi’s design philosophy was characterised by an understated elegance and futuristic elements, crafting a distinct oeuvre amidst artistic experimentation. In the 1970s and 80’s she forged her own path by developing a completely novel aesthetic and playing by her own set of ever-changing creative rules. This is visible in seminal projects such as Rising Sun and Plurimi.
Central to the furniture designer’s creative ethos, was a careful interweaving of artistic vision with meticulous craftsmanship. Her discerning selection of materials proved pivotal in shaping her creations, with the interplay of bamboo, rattan and bronze showing off her artistic vocabulary. Her pieces resonate with the intrinsic qualities of these materials, seamlessly melding natural elements with creative expression. This process was very personal to Crespi as she sourced materials based on their visual allure and tactile resonance, drawing inspiration from her extensive travels and diverse cultural encounters.
The pieces on display in Via Della Spiga 32 illuminate the lighting designer’s finesse. Her Fungo, Obelisco, Caleidoscopio and Scudo lamp design transcend functionality to embody a synthesis of form and purpose casting an ethereal luminosity that transforms spaces.
The Plurimi series, notable for its fluid shapes and playful approach to home furnishing epitomised Crespi’s knack for infusing furniture design with an almost sculptural quality. This modular and transformative furniture underscores her innovative spirit and propensity for versatility.
Despite being born into a world of opulence and luxury, the furniture designer’s fascination for bamboo during the 1970s led to the creation of the iconic Rising Sun collection; an ode to the Eastern mystique. The material frugality of this table design collection did not stand in the way of its expressive qualities, showcasing the designer’s ability to transmute geometric simplicity into functional artworks radiating warmth and vibrancy.
Crespi’s narrative transcends the confines of design, encompassing a spiritual odyssey that began at the age of 65, amidst the serene landscapes of the Indian Himalayas. This chapter, characterised by silence, meditation and communion with nature added a layer to her creative perspective. It attests to the notion that artistic expression is not solely about external manifestation; it is a reflection of inner transformation that fuels and shapes these outward expressions.
Nina Yashar, the creative mind behind Nilufar and the curator, brings a unique perspective to this immersive exhibition. Yashar and Crespi met at the beginning of the 1990’s. Since then, Yashar has followed the designer’s artistic developments while acquiring a few of her creations. In the last four years, the curator started to amass a collection of the late designer’s work that focuses on domestic spaces. This exposition not only showcases Crespi’s creations but also underscores Yashar’s appreciation for the convergence of artistic expression and functional design, shaping a dialogue of analogies and differences.
Adding a contemporary resonance to the narrative, the exhibition thoughtfully enriches an immersive experience by juxtaposing lighting design by Maximilian Marchesani. This dialogue between past and present reflects the enduring nature of design as an evolving conversation across temporal boundaries.
This exhibition encapsulates a transformative journey and is a testament to the gallery’s evolution into a museum-like space. It invites visitors to embrace design as a reflection of cultural narratives and becomes a catalyst for intellectual exploration. As Nina Yashar aptly puts it, "Crespi’s talent resides in her gift for crafting objects that surpass utilitarianism, emerging as timeless icons fused with cultural resonance." In a world where design often chases trends, the enduring legacy of Gabriella Crespi stands as a beacon of artistic integrity and innovation, inviting us to traverse uncharted territories in the pursuit of creative brilliance.
Gabriella Crespi exhibition is on view from October 25, 2023 to January 25, 2024 at Nilufar Via Della Spiga, Milan