In the rarefied world of Milanese design, high-profile stars usually work alone. Partnerships between husband and wife are even scarcer. Ludovica Serafini and Roberto Palomba may be the exceptions that prove the rule. Since 1994, they have collaborated on an amazing number of projects: designing bathroom equipment, kitchens, furniture, and lighting for an almost endless list of companies, including Boffi, Cappellini, Salviati, Foscarini, and Zanotta, and winning several prestigious awards, including a Compasso D’Oro—Italy’s highest design prize—in the process.
When the couple decided to look for a vacation home, they turned their gaze far from the hectic world of Milan, their home base, and started house hunting over 600 miles away in the southeastern part of Italy, in Salento—sometimes referred to as the high heel in Italy’s boot—a sub-peninsula in Puglia. "This part of Italy is beautiful," explains Palomba, adding that the family had vacationed there for many years. "We find it rich in poetry," he says. "And since we love the area so much, we decided to buy a house there."
They found the house of their dreams—an old oil mill that dates back to the 17th century—in Sogliano Cavour, a small village in the province of Lecce. "It was love at first sight," says Serafini. "We are architects, and we immediately understood the potential of the place." The couple realized that they could put their own imprint on the house but still retain its raw spirit, keeping the ancient stone floors, walls, and arches intact.
One of the major challenges they faced in making the mill habitable was the old structure’s lack of windows. The two-story building resembled a fortress, as producing the type of fuel needed for oil lamps required total darkness. So the architects carved out a number of skylights and opened up the back of the structure to create a patio, letting daylight flood in.
The ground floor had different levels, with stairs linking the spaces, a feature that might have been off-putting to the average person. But this seeming inconvenience did not bother the designers. "The stairs are an added value and not an element that creates difficulties,"says Serafini. "Beauty is not always synonymous with a regular path. We kept them because they are made of local stone and are perfectly in keeping with the rest of the house."
This attitude applies to their treatment of the entire 4,300-square-foot dwelling; they made as few interventions as possible. Work on the structure started in December 2011, and they were able to move in by August 2012.
The house is home to the couple, their teenage daughter, Ginevra, 16, and their two greyhounds, Zack and George, whom they consider part of the family.
The entire dwelling is filled with the couple’s designs and is a fitting stage for a dramatic presentation of their work. Furnished not only with their manufactured products, the home features pieces they had made especially for it, including all the fixtures, doors, and some iron lamps commissioned from local craftspeople.
Furniture that Serafini and Palomba designed for Zanotta dominates the living room. Pianoalto, a modular seating system, which was just introduced in 2012, is arranged in various configurations throughout the space. Ninfea and Loto—two indoor-outdoor tables created from a composite material of polyester and acrylic resins called Cristalplant—are easily moved to the outdoor patio or upstairs terrace. In one corner, the couple took one of their classics, the Lama chaise longue, and transformed it from city-slick steel and leather to country-cozy straw and red metal. Stone floors throughout the house are punctuated with Karpeta rugs, not of their design.
In the kitchen, the couple artfully adapted to the existing space, combining two of their designs for the Italian cabinetry company Elmar: the EL-01 and Slim, a new system that features a multifunctional, stainless steel island that measures 20 inches deep. "Slim was not created for this house," says Palomba, "but it is a very adaptable kitchen as dimensions can change for base units and islands." An existing ledge provided a home for appliances and tools. A stainless steel screen separates the work area from the dining area, where the couple installed a table they designed and had produced by Exteta, an outdoor-furniture company. For a more rustic feel, they chose Abanica chairs by Spanish architect Oscar Tusquets for Driade. A centerpiece by Emilia Palomba, Roberto’s aunt, a well-known ceramist, completes the tableau.
The patio is furnished with only a sofa and table the couple designed for Driade, but they easily command the space. The overscale seat, dubbed the Grand Plié, accommodates four people comfortably—it’s almost eight feet long. It’s paired with the Piaffé table. (All the objects in this collection are named for dressage poses, and not coincidentally—Palomba is an avid rider.) Upstairs, the terrace is furnished with pieces that the pair designed for Exteta.
The stark bathrooms masterfully exploit the existing spaces and are fitted with Palomba designs—hardware fixtures for Zucchetti and washbasins for Kos. The one exception is the oversize stone bathtub from Pimar, a company located in Lecce, a neighboring town in Puglia. "As stone is a key element in this building, we preferred to have a bathtub that was in key with the environment—we thought that this one was perfect," Serafini explains.
Although the house is rather far from Milan, that doesn’t present a travel problem. "We spend a few weeks there during the summertime," says Serafini. "But we go often on weekends during the year. It’s our buen retiro."
Deputy director of design at Metropolitan Home magazine until it closed in 2009, Arlene Hirst is now a freelance journalist. Her byline appears frequently in New York Times Magazine as well as Surface, Modern, and Interior Design magazines and Elle Decor Italia.