Architect Paola Navone finds inspiration from absorbing the world’s details

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 4:44pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 4:44pm

Paola Navone may be an architect, product and interior designer, but it somehow feels more appropriate to view her as a modern-day female flâneur, absorbing every detail of the world around her.

“It is like a sickness, it is not even work!” she says, at the opening of her newest project, intriguingly theatrical interiors for luxury lifestyle boutique Joyce’s Hong Kong flagship.

“I travel all the time but I really travel every day. For me, travelling is looking around. I can travel in Joyce and a supermarket; it is about the way you look. There are people who go to Tokyo for example, and don’t really travel because they don’t see anything,” she says.

The 66-year-old Italian designer, who lived and worked in Southeast Asia during the 1980s and ’90s and who is now based in Milan, says she approaches life “like a little sponge”.

“Whenever I see something I like, I put it in my pocket or in a kind of ‘big basket’ [in my mind]. This is 24 hours a day, every day of the year and so when I have a project, things just come out and that makes the act of designing very fast.”

Renowned as one of the industry’s most independent thinkers, Torino-born Navone freely acknowledges her foray into design began, not with the classic early hints of creative talent at a young age, but when she decided to defy her traditional-thinking father, who believed the study of architecture was a man’s business.

The degree course was “tough”, she recalls, but was the first step to a path-breaking career that has defied trends while ranging widely from cutting-edge experimental material investigations at Milan’s avant-garde Alchimia design group during the ’70s; to creating furniture, products and interiors for an impressive list of clients, including a panda-inspired lamp for Cappellini; textiles for Rubelli; a range of ceramics for Crate & Barrel; the Point Yamu by Como hotel in Phuket and the restaurant Ibaji in Paris. Last year, she created an edible chocolate Christmas calendar for Häagen-Dazs.

At Joyce, her trademark blend of contemporary design and traditional craftsmanship is showcased with an entrance that sports a quirky curtain of ’60s-inspired soft white tinsel, a striking hand-fired black and white ceramic-pebbled pillar, and a whimsical wall behind the ground floor cashier that bristles with thousands of paper price tags. Elsewhere, clothes are suspended from wrought-iron rails, while a vintage gym-horse doubles as a bench.

“I always try to keep a little per cent of fun,” she says.

Navone’s work may be most often associated with blasts of pure colour and playful flourishes, yet her highly disciplined architect’s eye is unmistakable when it comes to her treatment of space: nothing is unnecessary while seemingly simple handicraft details are executed with masterful care.

The designer has a deep respect for the Japanese concept of wabi sabi, which celebrates the beauty of imperfection, drawing on its notions of simplicity and nature to develop her own artful fusion of traditional crafts and contemporary style.

To illustrate how she integrates this in her designs, she tells the story of the consternation of an Italian craftsman who was tasked with decorating a newly installed stairwell at Joyce with walls speckled with a random pattern of white hand-painted polka dots.

“He was hysterical trying to replicate my pattern and repeat the dots perfectly,” she laughs. “I said, ‘Listen, I can’t tell you exactly what to do. It is a feeling. It is like dancing, have some fun!’”

You have to be flexible and intuitive as a designer, she says.

“Design is just like cooking. I can make a very good porcini omelette but if you don’t like mushrooms, then I won’t try to explain that mushrooms are very good, I’ll just make you an omelette with zucchini! The point is that I have to be happy with the result but I also want you to be happy with the food. This is the design process.”

With Joyce completed, the Italian designer’s current projects include creating a new series of products including a watch, Vespa and wallpaper for Swatch to be launched at next year’s Salone del Mobile fair, and the launch of a new book, Tham ma da, outlining her work.

She is also creating the interiors for a new fashion and food centre at Singapore’s Dempsey Hill that, when it opens early 2017, will include a modern take on colonial-style interiors for a Jean-Georges restaurant.

Design aside, there is another reason she has been so successful in her career: her warm, generous personality. As she hands over her quirky, indigo-blue fish-shaped business card on parting, she says, “Come and see me in Milan. I’ll cook you pasta!”