Elegant Milan Home of Designer Gae Aulenti

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By Leslie Williamson
Designer-architect Gae Aulenti lived in Milan until her death in 2012 at age 84. Photographer Leslie Williamson got an exclusive peek at Aulenti’s furniture-stuffed flat for her new book, Modern Originals.

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.

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A limited-edition Roy Lichtenstein carpet dominates one wall of designer and architect Gae Aulenti’s living room in Milan. She lived in this Brera apartment, mostly furnished with her own designs, such as her 1964 April folding chairs for Zanotta—from 1974 until her death in October 2012.

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.

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One of Aulenti’s architectural additions to the existing apartment was a catwalk over the living room that leads to a solarium, lit in the evening by one of her 1967 King Sun lamps for Kartell. The door opens onto a roof garden that overlooks the Piazza San Marco.

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.

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Books from Aulenti’s extensive library overflow onto stools—designed by Alvar Aalto and produced by Artek—in her bedroom. The door handle, Otto A, is her own design for Fusital, from 1978.

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British Pop artist Peter Blake’s 1968 Babe Rainbow print hangs amid pottery and kitchen utensils on Aulenti’s stove in her tiny galley kitchen.

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The wicker chair at Aulenti’s bedroom desk is one of her own designs for the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. In the mid-1980s, Aulenti transformed the Belle Époque train station into the world-renowned museum it is today.

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Aulenti bought her apartment and office at the same time in 1973 and reconfigured them to connect via a doorway on the top floor. Aulenti’s family is now considering using the space, which is still as she left it, as the headquarters of her official archives. The sofa is covered in a textile that Aulenti picked up on her travels, and her Festo table—designed for Zanotta—sports a custom felt top.