Giorgio Armani is a man who likes to be in control, whether it is commanding his US$2 billion fashion and lifestyle empire or something as simple as managing a photographic shoot in which he and his 19th-century palazzo will star. We are about to enter Armani's private world and, one week before our scheduled photographic shoot at his sprawling home in the centre of Milan, an e-mail arrives detailing the 'run down' for the day. At noon, lunch will be served at the Armani Caffe, one block away from the designer's home on Via Borgonuovo. We are expected to arrive at his 10,000-square-metre mansion at 2pm for a preview. At 2.30pm, Armani will pose for photos, which will be followed by an interview of no more than 45 minutes. The shooting of the rest of the mansion will be carried out after the interview as the designer must return to work at his atelier, on the same street. Armani, it is revealed, prefers to be shot against a dark backdrop and may be inclined to direct the photographer, warns Robert Trifus, the company's worldwide director of communications, because he has a strong notion of how to present his own image. In other words, this will not be a casual chat over afternoon tea. Rarely does the setting up of a home photographic shoot turn into a swat team mission. But none of this is surprising: Armani is known for his meticulousness and, aged 71, remains completely in charge of his empire. This is also the designer who, for more than 30 years, has defined the notion of understated sophistication with unwavering zeal. His clean lines and a muted palette have garnered him a coterie of ardent celebrity fans, including Richard Gere, Jodie Foster, Michelle Pfeiffer and Sophia Loren. Everything he's involved in - from fashion to flowers (Armani Fiori, the minimalist and very expensive florist); from furniture to the soon-to-be-opened Armani Hotels (a joint venture with a Dubai property developer) - exudes the same kind of streamlined effect, so it is hard to imagine him as anything but austere. True to his personality, the facade of Armani's home is unassuming - the exterior stone wall is a burnished yellow and the mansion is barely visible to outsiders. Entering through a high brown gate, we are greeted by two security staff wearing black - fitted T-shirts and slacks. They lead us through an empty hall towards the lift to the second floor. There is a feeling of warmth despite the ultra high ceilings and the long hallway. The flooring, in a dark wood, is polished to a high gloss and sheer white curtains dress the large windows. Although the home is nestled near the bustling shopping district of Via Montenapoleone and is surrounded by buildings, plenty of light finds its way in. We are setting up in the hallway, which is guarded by two sculptures of pouncing lynxes, when Armani strolls in, looking energetic after his lunch. Wearing a fitted navy blazer, a crisp white shirt, dark trousers and white trainers, Armani, flanked by two personal assistants, is clearly the master of his house. Everything about this mansion is a representation of his creative spirit - sensual yet disciplined. It isn't a stark minimalist feel, but it's obvious that every item on display, from intricately carved ivory figures to small chests inlaid with mother-of-pearl and framed black and white images by photographer Herb Ritts, has been chosen carefully. Armani's in a jovial mood, having just enjoyed a long weekend and witnessed a basketball game won by the beloved Milan team he sponsors. Moving into position for the shoot and sitting astride one of the lynxes, he rearranges several stone pebbles on the floor because he thinks they look like 'droppings' from the animal. The steady sound of the camera shutter fills the air as Armani switches poses - removing and replacing his glasses on occasion - like a seasoned model in one of his own advertising campaigns. Although he's busier than ever - new projects include the launch of his couture line, Armani Prive, and a jewellery collection - we are here to talk about Armani's audacious venture into the lifestyle arena. Armani Casa, the designer's home furnishing line, was introduced with fanfare three years ago and a foray into hotel design will see more than 10 Armani-influenced hotels pop up around the world, from Beijing to Dubai. We proceed to the third floor, where Armani likes to spend his afternoons, for the interview. The sprawling space, with windows on all sides, has a well-lit sitting room, a formal dining room, a kitchen and a lounge area replete with cushions. Painted in a soft beige, it is the perfect backdrop for his extensive collection of treasured items and family photographs. A work desk sits in one corner, stacked with magazines ranging from Time to The Economist. A compact but efficient kitchen with a central island made of marble sits next to his formal dining room, complete with Ming dynasty scholar chairs. Settling down on the plush sofa and rearranging the cushions, Armani, speaking through an interpreter, says that for all his years as a fashion designer, launching Armani Casa was a challenge. 'I started Armani Casa in 2000, having spent a couple of years on the development of the concept,' he says. 'I wanted to offer something more than clothing, something for the living space. I've been creating ambience in my boutique for years.' 'But,' he adds, 'it wasn't a simple endeavour. It was a large investment and there is already great competition in this area, with so many good designs in the market. I tried not to let myself be threatened by it all. But what I have noticed is sometimes, there is a difference between an object's design and its usefulness. It has always been my goal to adapt every piece of furniture to our way of living. I started digging a little deeper to find ways of creating pieces people can use, not just [items] pleasing to the eye.' Many pieces from his home are either prototypes or are from his existing collections. Armani loves dark coloured wood, such as zitan from China. The formal, elongated dining table also possesses a subtle Chinese influence. 'I am very comfortable designing both men's and women's wear but when it came to furniture, I think, at the start, I took a man's perspective,' he says. 'The pieces often have strong contours, but I soften the edges.' Armani has merged his approaches to clothing and furniture seamlessly. 'Material is very important to me, the way it feels on someone. Everything about a home cannot be rigid, the pieces have to be interchangeable because people's moods change.' In the same way he takes a minimalist approach to fashion design, Armani says he tries to 'take away the extras and free himself from stereotypes' when creating furniture. He starts with a thumbprint, but unlike clothing, furnishings require him to make many prototypes as even a small variation of, say, a chair's reclining position makes a difference in comfort and look. 'Furniture is different from fashion because I don't think people should go for a total look. The furniture needs to adapt to an environment. I am against people who design for the sake of design; a piece needs to have context because you are not going to enjoy it otherwise. The home is not a stage, you can always pair a period piece with something modern.' The palazzo is his main residence - Armani also has homes in New York, Paris and Portofino, and other places in Italy - and was originally designed by architect Jean Michel Frank. It has since undergone many subtle changes as it has been adapted to its owner's lifestyle. 'Initially, it had the feeling of a loft, but that gradually changed as I added pieces I acquired from trips. It's important that a home is an imprint of your personality and all the things I've acquired - from China to India to Japan - all eclectic, have a link to me.' He opens up a cylindrical wooden container and takes out two figurines of dogs. 'They're not something that cost a fortune, but I like the feeling of them in my hand.' Such objects, often presented on side tables, help give the large living area definition. For example, sitting Buddhas are placed next to a narrow table adorned with scented candles, while a lounge area has been created using floor cushions and low tables, on which he has placed smaller items, such as lacquered trays and figurines. A pair of tortoise shells stand behind a sofa. Despite having spent most of his time in Europe and the United States, Asia has had a strong influence on Armani. A trip to China last year, when he visited historical buildings and markets in Shanghai and hutongs in Beijing, was particularly memorable and gave rise to several design ideas. 'The Chinese way of design is very rational. It's interesting because the way we look at our own aesthetics and the way other people look at [theirs] is different,' he says. 'I see very strong aspects in Chinese designs and I've ... created things that, although they may appear westernised, a Chinese person may find a connection to.' In the Armani Casa 2005 collection, Chinese motifs abound and materials such as bamboo and silk figure strongly. China's influence can be found throughout his home. Returning downstairs to the second floor, we reach Armani's personal space. In his home gym, there is a Ming dynasty coat rack and a reflexology chart. His library-cum-sitting room is an elongated space furnished with comfortable leather sofas. Next to the tall bookcases stands a small kitschy statue of Mao Zedong. The occasional cabinet made of zitan also promotes the Chinoiserie theme. The most private quarters - his bedroom and master bathroom - are where Armani is able to indulge himself. His bedroom, dressed in white linen, leads to a personal walk-in closet containing rails of meticulously organised clothing, while his bathroom, filled with picture frames, fragrances and freshly pressed hand towels, has as its inspiration a surprising source. 'The bathroom is my favourite room in the house and, perhaps, makes a reference to the film The Shining,' Armani says. 'The angle of the mirrors is similar to a bathroom featured in the film.' With such an eclectic spirit in his home, it leaves one wondering whether or not his forthcoming hotel projects will become yet another chain of stylish but standardised rooms. Armani is quick to stress that each hotel will have an original design and will be built with its host city in mind. So far, plans have been drawn up for locations in Dubai, Shanghai, London, New York and, of course, Milan. He aims to have most of these establishments open by 2010. 'Hotels are different to homes because you need to create an ambience for the guests; it's not about just furnishing a place with my furniture,' Armani says. 'For Dubai, everyone was thinking that because it's in a desert, it would be natural to create something like an oasis, but I'd like to keep a bit of the desert in there.' For London, Armani says, he'd like to retain a feeling of the city's historical heritage, while the Shanghai hotel will avoid the romantic Chinese retro designs that have been much in evidence recently. He says the hotel project is giving him a chance to see the world. A tireless workaholic, Armani presents a minimum of eight collections a year and is renowned for his ability to get by on little sleep. 'I've really not had the chance to go to many places, although in my head I travel a lot,' he says. 'Most of my inspiration has come from books and, especially, films.'