In 2014, in a small booth at a design fair in London, works by the Brooklyn-based designer Fernando Mastrangelo caught the eye of Rossana Orlandi. Mastrangelo had just launched his new line of sculptural furniture, following a decade working primarily as an artist. Spotting Mastrangelo’s hand-dyed cement and aggregate drums on display, the Italian gallerist had her longtime assistant pass a business card to his studio director. After the fair, and upon a quick Google search, Mastrangelo discovered that Orlandi ran one of Europe’s most important design galleries. He emailed her to follow up, then waited for a reply. It never came.
Two years later, after Mastrangelo’s studio blasted out an email newsletter, he finally heard back. Orlandi told him she wanted to present his work at her eponymous gallery in Milan during the Salone del Mobile design and furniture fair. Upon his arrival to install the work, Mastrangelo went directly to introduce himself to the gallerist. “She didn’t know who the hell I was,” he says, with a laugh. Once someone identified him, Orlandi paused, took off her sunglasses, and exclaimed, “Bravo! Bravo!” Mastrangelo was humbled. “I finally got to understand the gargantuan-ness of this woman’s presence in the design world and her history of finding cool, interesting designers before other people do,” he says. “I felt like I wanted to cry or kiss her.”
Orlandi’s eye for spotting design talent is legendary. Her voice as a curator—which rings loud and clear throughout the space—has led many to view her as a sort of design Yoda. Combine this fact with her signature white, big-framed sunglasses and her playful fashion sense, which falls somewhere in line with Iris Apfel’s, and a sort of mythic quality emerges.
“She’s like the Anna Wintour of design,” Mastrangelo says. “She’s got that vibe, at least.” The Dutch trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort, a friend of Orlandi’s, agrees, “She’s made a cartoon of herself. And it works.”
Exhibiting at Orlandi’s three-story, 19,000-square-foot space—which averages around 30,000 visitors during Milan Design Week—has become a rite of passage for many of today’s top designers. Piet Hein Eek, Maarten Baas, and Nacho Carbonell all got a jump-start there. At this year’s edition, the gallery will showcase a wide range of designers and brands (more than 40 in total), including the Italian lighting company Slamp, the Indian furniture maker Scarlet Splendour, NLXL wallpaper, and a presentation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Toward the end of Mastrangelo’s first experience at the gallery, Orlandi asked him if she could represent him. “It was, like, the fucking coolest moment in my career,” he says.
Entering Spazio Rossana Orlandi is a bit like spelunking. It’s nearly impossible to know, as you pass the courtyard and begin to stroll through its hivelike spaces, what you’ll find around each corner. Much of the original aura of the building is intact, which contributes to the soul of the place. The interiors seem to bleed together, a fantastic mass of more than a dozen rooms, filled to the gills with an unexpected mix of objects, vintage and new, some practical, others entirely not.
On a quiet Monday morning this past February, when I met Orlandi for the first time, I found her to be approachable, if a bit distracted, with a warm and grandmotherly nature. (She asked what my name was on four separate occasions, and then told me that it wasn’t until after six months of marriage that she finally remembered her husband’s name. A day later, she texted me to add: “We didn’t talk about my husband … I still love him!”) Though she’s just 5-foot-3, she has the presence of someone at least a foot taller. And at 73, her energy—which Mastrangelo likens to that of the Energizer Bunny—is contagious. The British designer Lee Broom recalls how, at an off-site presentation he organized during Salone in 2015, he had a chaise on display that was perched on a very large, unapproachable plinth. “Rossana proceeded to climb it to test out the chaise for herself, much to the delight of onlookers,” Broom says. Her curiosity is childlike.
In the gallery, you’re likely to find Orlandi briskly walking down a corridor, sunglasses on, a half-smoked cigarette sticking out of her mouth, adjusting this, moving that. It’s clear that she takes pains to create the special effect of the place. Even after 15 years, the gallery feels fresh. More than just a launching pad for young designers, it’s become an established, clublike community of them.
“Rossana is like a mother for all of her designers,” says the Dutch designer Maarten Baas. “She puts all of her heart and effort into these beautiful objects, and she only works with people she loves.”
Simone Farresin, of the firm Formafantasma, which had its debut in the gallery in 2010, elaborates: “This sounds very cliché, but every designer there belongs to the family of Rossana Orlandi, and that’s a very nice feeling.” He adds, “Her space is actually a reflection of how she is. It’s a beautiful mess, and I mean that in a good way.”
Orlandi sums it up similarly. “In here,” she says, “we live like a family. All of us work together.”
Born in 1943 and raised in the town of Cassano Magnago, about 25 miles northwest of Milan, Orlandi had an upbringing that was simple and quiet. “I was super happy,” she says, “but also super bored.” The daughter of parents in the textile-production industry and the youngest of four children—along with two brothers and a sister—Orlandi found herself to be a dreamer, constantly thinking of Milan and beyond. “I always lived in my own world—followed my own ideas. It was a lot of fantasy,” she says. “I was quite outside of the family.”
In her teens, her sister, Susy Gandini, who was 11 years older than Orlandi, opened up her imagination to another realm: high fashion. Gandini worked in Paris with major French houses to develop ideas, materials, and fabrics, traveling in circles with the likes of Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. In her mid-teens—“terribly shy, much more so than now”—Orlandi was able, through Gandini, to visit Coco Chanel in her atelier. “When I saw [Chanel’s] two hands move, I realized she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever met in my life,” Orlandi says. “She was so old, but so full of energy, so charming.”
During this time she became interested in art and design, and knew it would be her path, despite being forced into a more traditional education. Then, “as soon as I got my driver’s license,” she says, “I left my small village and came to Milano.” At age 17, she enrolled in the Istituto Marangoni, where she studied textiles (the famed fashion designer Franco Moschino, who became a friend, was one of her classmates there).
After graduating, she went on to join the family business, promoting the company’s yarns. “I chose to work in knitwear, not fabrics, because I love the idea of creating something from nothing,” she says. “I spent a lot of my time working on the machine and doing textile stitches.” Over the years, she worked as a consultant for a staggering number of big-name designers and brands: Kenzo, Issey Miyake, Giorgio Armani, Jean Paul-Gaultier, Gianni Versace, Vivienne Westwood. (Coincidentally, Armani once attended medical school with Orlandi’s husband and remains a friend.)
After 20 years in the business, Orlandi eventually decided that it was time for a change and planned to go on a sabbatical. Then, while searching for a new apartment in Milan, she came across a former tie factory in the city’s Magenta neighborhood. Fabrics were strewn about; tie-making machines were still in place. It was exactly as the previous owner had left it. “When I came in here,” she says, “I fell absolutely in love.”
Following what she describes as a strenuous cleanup effort, she officially opened the space as Spazio Rossana Orlandi in 2002 with a photography exhibition organized by her daughter. A design presentation during Salone followed shortly thereafter. At first, Orlandi planned to focus on Italian design, but quickly realized how limiting in scope that would be. “I wanted to work with and promote Italian designers,” she says. “But honestly, at that time—I speak of younger designers then—I couldn’t find anybody. So I found work from all over the world.”
Very quickly, Orlandi gained a reputation for selecting works by young and unsung artists and designers, as well as for working with then rising stars like Tom Dixon, Marcel Wanders, and Studio Job—and for displaying it all in a way that could best be described as organized chaos. Lidewij Edelkoort puts it this way: “When I first saw this place, I was blown away. The way she collects her designers is very unusual. She’s not just betting on one horse or one direction. She can go from severely minimal to rather grotesque.”
A sort of magic seemed to coalesce around Orlandi, as well as around the artists and designers she was showing, and it still does today. She now operates two gallery spaces—a summer-season outpost in the resort town of Porto Cervo, Sardinia, opened in 2009—and represents an impressive array of more than 50 designers and firms from around the world. Her roster includes Germans Ermičs, BCXSY, and Nina Zupanc, with many now hailing from Italy, such as Enrico Marone Cinzano, Damiano Spelta, and Emanuela Crotti. When I asked whom she wishes she could represent but doesn’t, she was only able to name two designers: Max Lamb and Joris Laarman. The gallery also continues to own the restaurant Marta, located adjacent to its Milan space, which Orlandi says will get a refresh soon, to open with a new chef, concept, name, and interior this fall.
According to Orlandi, the distinctiveness of the gallery is that its commercial aspect really just functions to keep the place alive and humming, and comes in a distant second to its higher purpose: design education. “People these days definitely understand more about design, but not enough,” Orlandi says, adding, “It’s difficult to explain the value of a piece—that it’s something that’s been studied, and that there is a lot of work behind it.”
The gallerist’s unpretentious yet thoughtful approach is what sets the space apart. “When I find something I like, there is no why. I cannot say any other word than emotion. It’s a sort of bell-ringing.” The echoes of her design affinities, a manifestation of her instinct, continue to resound.