A true innovator and one of the most influent person in forecasting young and upcoming designers Rossana Orlandi has become a design icon herself.
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.
Her gallery in Milan is a bastion of ground breaking contemporary design.
This former factory is so much more than just a showcase for everything from high-end sofas to plastic forks and coloured toilet paper. It is also a laboratory for emerging designers.
Entering Spazio Rossana Orlandi is a wonder at every step as you pass the courtyard and begin to stroll through its hivelike spaces, you don’t know 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.
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.
Even after 15 years, the gallery feels fresh. More than just a launching pad for young designers, it’s become an established, club-like community of them.
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, Studio Job, Piet Ein Heek, Jaime Hayon, Nacho Carbonell, Maarten Baas, Scholten & Baijings, Front Design —and for displaying it all in a way that could best be described as organized chaos.
They can all attest their entry into the highest echelon of global design to this tiny Italian lady.
“She’s like the Anna Wintour of design,” Fernando Mastrangelo, Brooklyn-based designer, says. “She’s got that vibe, at least.” 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.
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.