Gae Aulenti (1927-2012) trained as an architect, graduating from Milan’s Polytechnic University in 1954. Her career began at the Italian design magazine Casabella and, throughout her life, she moved fluidly between architecture (most notably designing the Musée d’Orsay in Paris), furniture design (for Zanotta, Knoll, FontanaArte), industrial design, stage design, academia, architectural theory, and installation art. I came to love her work through her furniture design, and, in particular, her lighting. In the spring of 2012, I ended up on her doorstep in hopes of photographing her home for my book, Modern Originals. I had been introduced by a friend of a friend, and after not getting any response for a long while, sent one last-ditch email and received an invitation to see her apartment.
Our first and, as it would turn out, only meeting was a rather quick one. She looked at my first book and liked what she saw. From there, she invited me into her apartment, which is attached to her Piazza San Marco office via a door on the top floor. She waved her hand in a nonchalant gesture, as if to say, “Here it is.” It was spectacular. Through my research, I recognized some pieces I had seen in photographs from the 1970s. By this point, the flat held 40 years’ worth of Aulenti’s own furniture and lighting designs, as well as her extensive and varied art collection added to the mix.
It was late September before I returned to shoot her apartment in earnest for the book, and sadly, she wasn’t at home the two days I was there. I made notes to ask her about the odd popsicle-stick art above her television, how her library was organized—and if she had, in fact, read all those books. A month later, Aulenti passed away from a long illness. I had no idea that I would be the last person to photograph her home while she was alive, or that my questions would go unanswered. But when I recall our one and only meeting, and I tend to think she preferred to maintain the mystery.