A Design Guide to Milan, Italy

Design Snobs Will Love This Guide to Milan

Assago Milanofiori Nord metro station. Photo by Massimiliano Donghi/ Unsplash.

Milan — once overlooked as the middle child of Italy — is really enjoying its moment in the spotlight. There may be more to the city than fashion and design, but, wow, does it do those better than anyone.

MILAN, Italy — Milan is not like Rome, Florence, Venice, and Naples. It’s not an idyllic grand tour destination that hypnotizes visitors with listless, collective memories from centuries past. No, Milan is the kind of city that wakes you up and reminds you that time is moving forward. The wake-up call starts the moment you step off the train at Stazione Centrale and look up. The platforms are covered by spectacular, futuristic glass and steel spanning domes, while the early-20th-century station is a marble monument with sky-high, vaulted ceilings and intricate ornament details. Exalting architecture and dynamic movement are the gateway to Milan.

 Once a shy sister city, Milan has become center stage for design and fashion. In addition to the fall and spring fashion shows, for one week every March, the global spotlight is on Milanese design during Salone Milano design fair, but the truth is that Milan is a celebration of architecture and innovation, design, and art every day. Here’s a guide to the best and the most striking design spots around town.

Stazione Centrale

Parco Sempione

Parco Sempione

Walk the City

To understand Milan’s architecture, it’s important to start in the center and even more important to tag along with an expert like Riccardo Mazzoni of Context Travel. Riccardo is practicing architect and professor whose passion is the unfolding the layers of Milan’s architectural history. His tour starts at Piazza San Babila, home to a beautiful convergence of the city’s modern architecture and arguably the birthplace of modern Milan, then winds through Brera, an enclave of incredible boutiques and cafes also knows as the Fashion Quadrilaterial, and on to Castel Sforzesco, a medieval fortress complete with crenellations, bastions, and a retaining wall in the center of the city that's now a museum complex showcasing at least nine different genres and collections — Egyptian, musical instruments, furniture, manuscripts, and Renaissance art among them — and is gateway to Parco Sempione, a bucolic park in the city center.

Along the way, Riccardo picks out slick, futuristic buildings that epitomize the different movements of the 20th century — the unpredictable Novecentismo, the sharplined Rationalism, and the exaggerated Neoclassiscal — and introduces the names — Portaluppi, Gio Ponti, Piacentini, and BBPR — that brought Milan to the future.

Villa Necchi Campiglio Dining Room

Villa Necchi Campiglio Breakfast Room

Villa Necchi Campiglio Veranda

Full Design Immersion

If Milan’s design heritage can be condensed into one space, it would be La Triennale, the gallery on the edge of Parco Sempione that houses an incredible permanent collection of Italian design and hosts temporary exhibitions. Architecture fans must stop at Villa Necchi Campiglio, the 1930s home that’s a Milanese answer to Falling Water and a monument to upper-class living. Every element — from the building to the plates — was designed by Piero Portaluppi, the poster boy of Milan modernists. (Remember the amazing home in the Luca Guadagnino movie I Am Love? This is it, and you’ll recognize everything, including the pool.) The house tour takes about an hour, but you can linger on the property at the garden café. 

Portaluppi also designed Palazzo dell Arengario, a Fascist era complex comprised of two super-modern symmetrical and identical palaces just steps away from the Duomo. The left-side palace houses the Museo del Novecento, a museum dedicated to art of the 20th century.

Fast-forward to the uber contemporary at Fondazione Prada, a sprawling contemporary art complex outside the city center designed by OMA, with a 197-foot tower by starchitect Rem Koolhaas. On the sixth floor of the main building is a restaurant with a panoramic terrace featuring original furniture designed by Philip Johnson for New York’s Four Seasons Restaurant in the 1950s. Near the entrance is the cinematic and very playful Bar Luce, a café designed by director Wes Anderson. 

Though not quite cutting-edge design, stop into Pinacoteca Brera, a historic art gallery with a collection of paintings from late medieval era through the late 19th century. The Brera has put considerable effort in creating a dynamic space with truly fabulous signage, an open restoration lab, and Caffe Fernanda, a newly opened jewel box of a bar.


Photos courtesy of Nilufar Gallery.

Icons and Boutiques

There are so many iconic design shops in Milan, but the only way to start is at Spazio Rossanna Orlandi, the epic gallery by Rossanna Orlandi, Milan’s original influencer, talent guru, and trend spotter. Orlandi put Milan’s gallery scene on the map — and her gallery is a must-stop on the Milan design tour. So is Nilufar, the gallery owned by Nina Yashar, Italy’s top dealer of modern and contemporary furniture and design, where she showcases incredible emerging and blockbuster designers. Her Nilufar Depot, just north of the Isola neighborhood, is the enormous warehouse she uses to showcase the 3,000+ design pieces she has amassed over more than three decades. 

Milan is full of pocket neighborhoods dedicated to art, design, and fashion. One of the latest emerging areas is Maroncelli Design District, a collective of galleries and boutiques on via Pietro Maroncelli and neighboring streets. Look for Etel, the uncannily clever and eco-sustainable Brazilian furniture design house.

Last but definitely not least is lighting — not just how something is illuminated, but rather how a beautifully designed lamp and expert lighting can transform the entire personality of a space. Every Italian home has at least one lamp or light fixture whose design has a story. A one-way conduit to Piazza San Babila, Corso Monforte is home to the world’s most famous lighting showrooms, including FontanaArteArtemide, and Nemo.

Bulgari Bar

AMOR. Photo by Lido Vannucchi.

Stylish Refreshments

And once you've had your fill of Milan design, the only way to meditate is to enjoy the archetypical Milan aperitivo in the city's very best design bars, like Caffe TrussardiBvlgariLuBar, and The Botanical Club.

If you need to fill yourself up a little more creatively, grab a table at AMOR, the latest by dynamic and Michelin-starred culinary brothers Max and Raf Alajmo. Located at the coveted 10 Corso Como, the groundbreaking concept store created by fashion editor Carla Sozzani, AMOR is Alamo's street food venture — a clever spin on a pizzeria serving Max’s patented steamed pizza. And of course, the design plays a starring role, as the Alajmos worked with long-time collaborator and star architect Philippe Starck to set the playful and striking atmosphere.

This article was first published in Fathom, May 2019.

Back to Los Angeles {Photos}

I used to live in Los Angeles, and when anyone asks me what I liked about the City of Angeles, it is easy: I love the architecture that sneaks up on you when you aren’t looking. I thought I’d share a few scenes from 24 hours in Los Angeles.

Hollywood Boulevard

Hollywood Boulevard

Poolside at The Ace Hotel

Poolside at The Ace Hotel

Inside the restored UA Theatre

Inside the restored UA Theatre

Cloud 9: Fuksas' Nuvola

It's been ten years since I went to MAXXI to hear architecture Massimiliano Fuksas talk about his dreams of clouds, and just  four years since I wrote about the "coming soon" opening of La Nuvola, Fuksas's architectonical actualization.  I've  been that archi-stalker, visiting the construction in EUR as much as I can to get a glimpse inside the glass box.  For a long time, years, all I could see was what looked like a metal carcass.   And then one day this year, I read La Nuvola unveiled itself a Halloween inauguration.   The congress hall/conference center of a new Rome was [almost but not quite] open for business.

Ten years, I told myself.  What's a few more months?  And that's serendipity.  La Nuvola announced public visits, by reservation only,  for four days during the second week of December.  La Nuvola was ready for me.

We head first to an underground, a rectangle black hole, or Kubrick's 201o in horizontal format. This is a monster of a congress hall designed to fit 3000 people, or be divided into smaller components for groups. My inner Spike Jonez wants me to shoot a video here, preferably with Christopher Walken.

Up in the The Cloud, ground level.  It's a diaphanous, amorphic shape, anchored to the floor.  An Ikea paper lantern.  Or a paper-machè Pikachu, waiting for lift off.  It's gleeful.  I am worried about the sun and heat in the summer months.  How will it feel?  Trapped? Will it wilt like all pretty things on a hot  day?  Will it run away like a naughty Pokemon?

Inside the Cloud is a crazy, curvy metal skeleton that makes me think about Barbarella and ordering a black polyeurethane dress.  I wish La Nuvola was a performing arts center because I'd really enjoy a long intermezzo tiptapping around on stilettos and with a cocktail in hand.  And then I remember it's meant for large conferences and key note speakers. I make a mental note to sign up for a conference, any conference.

Pop of color.  The main conference room.  It's like being inside a heart. I love the contrast from white to blood red.

People in glass houses.... The Nuvola is contained in a glass box, that naggingly reminds me of Jennifer Lopez.  I am thinking about The Cell, which means I am really thinking about Damien Hirst.  No one else really like it as much as I did. I want to see people walking up and down the fire stairs.   I want to have someone take hyperlaspe videos of me in a fluoro blue dress running up and down.   I like transparency.

My take? It's about time this Nuvola opens, and if I were you, I'd take a double look at any late 2017 conferences happening in Rome.

Not to miss: #FendiHQ and A New Rome

Head  & Shoulders was wrong, you do get a second chance to make a first impression.  EUR, Rome's "new" city is a  travertine- bedecked neighborhood of rationalist architecture and rectilinear streets designed by Fascist-era architects for the 1942 World Exposition.  The idea was E42, as it was to be called, would show off the best of the 20th century empire through beautifully designed buildings and other features for cultural and sporting activiteis.   EUR is now just another one of Rome' s satellite neighborhoods, with shops, offices, families, prostitutes and parking issues... and it is all home to the hear of Fendi.

Inaugurated this past October, the Fendi HQ takes residence in the EUR's most monumental building, the Colosseo Quadratic, a looming and modernist version of everyone's favorite arena- the central hub of admin and atelier.  And thanks to Fendi and Uncle Karl, EUR gets  a second chance for a first impression with  "Una Nuova Roma" (A New Rome), a beautifully curated temporary show all about EUR.

  For the first time in its 72-year-history, the Colosseo Quadrato opens its doors to the public with Fendi's full force exhibition that shows off EUR from its inception to its 21st century incarnation through photography, video, news real, paintings, sketches, film and interior design. Una Nuova Roma is free (I've seen it two times so far!) and is up through March 7 in Fendi HQ's ground floor gallery, a luminous, marble-coated space whose vibe is a bit meta-- imagine learning all about the evolution of EUR as you stand in the hallowed ground of its most epic building.  

My tip? Head to EUR first thing and walk the boulevard to Fendi. Enjoy the Palazzo and then grab a nibble at Palombini, one of those "broke the mold" bars-pasticcerie-tavola caldia serviced by white-jacket waiters and flavored with a little Fendi fab.

5 Hidden Streets to Walk in Rome

Five Hidden Streets to Walk in Rome originally appeared on October 14, 2015 in Travel + Leisure.

Out-of-the-way gems can still be found in the well-trod city.

For millennia, Rome's streets and piazzas have been walked and then some—the focal point of the ancient empire's transit network, there's a reason we have the saying, "all roads lead to Rome." As the third most visited city in the EU (after Paris and London), it can seem there are few areas left to be discovered, but if you're willing to look up from the map and stretch your comfort zone, a lesser-known, far more modern version of the city appears. From former Olympic athlete housing to a neighborhood devoted to street art, these are five blocks you won't want to miss.

Piccola Londra A few tram stops north of Piazza del Popolo, at the corner of Via del Vignola and Via Flaminia, is the street Via Celentano—though its neighbors never call it that. Instead, it's known as Piccola Londra (Little London), a turn-of-the-century, private road that gives off a Notting Hill-meets-Mary-Poppins vibe. Stop by this stretch to see the colorful, immaculate homes and to marvel at how this haven ever came about.

Quartiere Coppedè In the city's northeast Trieste neighborhood, there is an early-1900s enclave called the Quartiere Coppedè of whimsical architecture by Florentine architect Gino Coppedè. Marble and metal ornaments like spiders, sea horses, and lizards decorate rustic Craftsman-style houses and buildings, which are painted with modern frescoes and beautiful patterns. It looks like a page from a fairy tale.

EUR The EUR neighborhood, a fifteen-minute drive southwest of the city center, may be well-known but it hardly gets the foot and photo traffic it deserves. Originally designed for the 1942 World Exposition by architect Marcello Piacentini in the late 1930s and finished in the early 1950s, its is a snapshot of a would-have-been Rome, with monumental travertine buildings, palaces, and piazzas of Rationalist architecture. Be on the lookout for the Square Colosseum, a stark white minimalist nod to its 2,000-year-old counterpart.

Villaggio Olimpico Built as prototype athlete housing for the 1960 Olympics in Rome, the Villaggio Olimpico (Olympic Village) is one of Rome's planned modern neighborhoods, with duplex stilt building, sweeping piazzas, cinemas, pharmacies, and shops—albeit for temporary use. Now fully residential and permanent, its bare modernist architecture fits right in with the surrounding area, a newly developing cultural and architectural mecca that includes PierLuigi Nervi's Pantheon-like Palazzo dello Sport, Renzo Piano's 21st century, futuristic Auditorium and Zaha Hadid's MAXXI museum. Quadraro Probably one of the best places to get lost, if you can find it. The outer limits Quadraro neighborhood (in Rome's southeast periphery), is a micro-state all about street art. Artists including Gary Baseman, Alice Pasquini, Jim Avignon and Diavu have covered its exterior walls to create an open-air museum, and more continue to add to it.

Excelsior Hotel Gallia, Milan's Great Gatsby


...and to this conception, he was faithful to the end

The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925)

I will admit it. I am a Gatsby, a wide-eyed dreamer with ideas of sky scrapers and all-night parties, luscious marble, loose morals, endless cocktails, and theatrical architecture. Milan is  the perfect setting for a Fitzgerald rhapsody, from its art nouveau buildings with gorgeous moldings and sharp art deco palazzi to the shiny new towers.   The city has the uncanny ability to transform itself from quiet and reserved to decadent,  bombastic and monumental.  And lately, I've noticed that Milan architecture is living up to the most fundamental of Gatsby creed - if you want to woo a Daisy Buchanan, you have to bring the best to West Egg.

Case in point: Excelsior Hotel Gallia, the latest hotel opening* in Milan.


For years, I've had my eye on the Hotel Gallia.  Each time I walked around Stazione Central (Milan's central train station that is immediately in front of the hotel), I studied the Gallia's art nouveau/art deco facade wondering what was going on inside.  Would it be left to the vultures of railway hotels? Would it subdivided into offices? Would it become an H&M?

While I thought the Gallia was hibernating, architect Marco Piva was renovating, gutting the 1932 historic hotel to its marble lobby and  columns, and then rebuilding it into a modern Art Nouveau/Art Deco luxury using only the very best materials.

Daisy, you're home.

Gallia is all marble, light and lines.  When I visited last week, I bumped into Piva in the orange-blossom scented lobby and had the pleasure of talking with him about flow, furniture and font.

Piva was inspired by Art Deco and incorporates its elements throughout the entire hotel, while avoiding creating a period piece by decorating with 21st century design and furniture.  He worked with Poltrona Frau, Flos, Fendi Casa and Cassina to create Gallia unique pieces that show off the very best of Italian design, meanwhile he had his eye and finger on every color and  material (marbles, metal, leather and woods) used throughout the hotel.

This is clearly Piva's West Egg.

The seven-floor hotel is ....  lush and luminous.   The sprawling ground floor area is  a 21st century  Gatsby hang out area of high ceilings and marble, with a lounge, well-stocked library, cigar bar,  restaurant and cocktail bar accented by light hues, warm fabrics and Poltrona Frau furniture.

From floors two to seven, its 235  rooms are beautiful and smart -  with technology and style. I loved the outlets,  nightlights, Trussardi amenities, Marvis mouthwash, Domori chocolate bars, the marble and glass bathroom, and of course the view of  Stazione Centrale, my favorite train station in the world.  I even loved the "lobbies" on every floor with their fluorescent yellow accents and Barbarella-reminicent sofas.  The suites were delicious.  My favorite is in the Art Suite which swims in light and has butter-colored leather quilted accents.  Piva's love for architecture and design is most obvious in the five suites he dedicated to Itlaian architects Gio Ponti, Achille Castiglioni, Vico Magistretti, Luigi Caccia Dominioni and Franco Albini.  Yes,  he brings in elements from each architect in to each suite, with Piva style.

At the time I visited*, the spa and palestra were completed but not yet open. On floor six, the Gallia will have Shiseido spa, a state-of-the art gym, a virtual golf course, while its 7th floor will have a rooftop restaurant and bar aiming to stake its claim in the city's no bar and restaurant scene in a futurist art deco homage.  I walked through the penthouse Katari suite, though yet to be decorated, it looks like it will be amazing.  The restaurant was almost complete-- though chef has yet to be announced.

Hotel Gallia is a  lost weekend waiting to happen.

*The Excelsior Hotel Gallia is still in its soft opening phase.


My idea of fun: Rome's GNAM #emptymuseo


For those of you who haven't figured it out yet, my idea of fun is meandering the hallways and exhibition spaces of a museum.  Any museum will do, though I tend to have a penchant for those with monumental paintings, colorful walls or anything Twombly.

Since Instagram hit the scene, I've had a lot fun "visiting" museums, galleries, art fairs and spaces thanks to hashtags like #artwatchers and #emptymet which let me spy on what you are sizing up.   And I get the opportunity to share the spaces and places I love through my own gallery.  Over the past few years, I've been passionately obsessed with Rome's Galleria Nazionale di Arte Moderna, aka GNAM-- a modern and contemporary national art gallery that is made up of Italy's very best, from the Unification to the present, plus some non-Italians that you know and love.  And it has everything I love--  enormous 19th century paintings, Futurists-a-go-go, Pistoletto, Clemente, Twombly, Duchamp,  a hall made up of broken mirrors and temporary shows.

Thanks to the support of the Italian Ministry of Culture, I joined some friends for a morning of #emptymuseo, cìoe, a visitor-free walk through GNAM in December-- it was an opportunity to capture the museum as we love it.   And I want to do more. If you have a museum you want to walk through, let me know. I'll happily meet up.

December 2014: Matteo Giannini  @mattego, Darius Arya @SaveRome, Livia Hengel @Helium_Tea, Ivan Corrodori @Aivenn


Sala del Mito
Sala del Mito
matteo specchio
matteo specchio

Grande Bellezza: Palazzo Sacchetti

The world revolves around Rome.

Is Rome a fairy tale? No. It's chaotic and surreal existence of contradiction, beauty and argument - a test of true grit with a pretty reward, if you know where to look. So it makes sense that the Eternal City’s unyielding beauty and unforgiving personality are constantly used as backdrop and setting for films.

Case in point: Academy Awarding winning film, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty, 2013), by Paolo Sorrentino, about an overgrown and overripe literary playboy, Jep, whose lives unfulfilled in 21st century Rome. The city plays silent protagonist to the has-been writer by juxtaposing the relentless beauty of Rome to the fathomless emptiness of Jep’s life. Scenes are shot all over the city and showcase every area and era—ancient and modern, panorama and palazzo.

In April, I had the opportunity to visit Palazzo Sacchetti, Great Beauty backdrop and just another one of Rome’s amazing Renaissance-era palazzi. Rome runs rampant with them, and they all come with a pedigree. Palazzo Sacchetti probably has the best. Location is key. Via Giulia is a quiet thoroughfare that connects the Campo de' Fiori area to the Vatican in a beautifully lined street of mid and late Renaissance palaces. The palace was designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (of the da Sangallo architect dynasty) in 1542, right after the renovation and beautification of Via Giulia by Pope Julius II, and is home to grottoes, chapels, gardens, sculpture and paintings by legends like Pietro da Cortona. Since 1648, it has been the property of the Sacchetti family who, to this day, live on the piano nobile, while the remaining floors are rental apartments and offices.

The Sacchetti Family apartment is a glimpse into a forgotten aristocracy where majordomos follow you through out the rooms, tea is served on vintage Meissen and da Cortona frescoes grin at you. And from the moment I entered the piano nobile, I saw red-- a luxury rosso moves you throughout the apartment from the upholstered front door, the papal crest and chair in the main entrance, the details in frescoes in the Mappamondi and the accents in the dining room, salotto and other galleries. Visit organized by Italian Ways.

For more of my photos, please visit my Momentage article.




There are places I remember: Menil Collection in Houston

More than a dozen years ago, my sister moved to Houston for a medical residency.  For an East Coast, Italian family, it was as she moved to Antarctica-- extreme climate and the edge of the world.  I was immediately resistant to the idea of having to visit and refused to consider the idea that she would actually commit herself to the city for more than the four required years.  I was wrong.

H-Town had me the minute we walked around the Montrose neighborhood and stumbled across what would become my yearly  mecca, the Menil Collection.  The Menil, borne out of John and Dominique de Menil's vast personal collection of modern art, and located in one of Houston's coiffed suburban neighbourhoods, is my idea of fun-- a sprawling green park with large public sculpture, picnics and a Renzo Piano-designed free museum (1987) that cleverly resembles a larger version of the aluminium-siding, one-level houses that border the park.

I didn't want to like Houston, I really didn't.  But  how could I help myself when the Menil handed me a silver platter of who's who in 20th century art.  Along with the museum, there is a separate gallery dedicated to Cy Twombly's paintings and sculptures (1995), a site-specific Dan Flavin installation (his penultimate, 1996), a reconfigured Byzantine chapel (since dismantled and returned), the meditative Rothko chapel (1971) and huge Tony Smith, Mark de Suevero, Jim Love and Barnet Newman sculptures.  It was as if Dominique had asked me what I envisioned my world to have.  And apparently, she already had it in mind, commenting in the 1980s that  " .  . .  nobody is visually naive any longer. We are cluttered with images, and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.”

So yes, every time I visit H-Town, I visit the Menil. Sometimes all day when I need a full immersion, sometimes just for a second when I need to find myself-- nothing beats self-reflection than a walk around the Twombly Gallery or a few minutes in the Rothko Chapel.  Or else I swing by the Flavin installation at night to catch a glimpse of his UV rainbow.

Three facts about Houston: it is big, it is kitsch and it has contemporary art.  I like it.