How Silvia Venturini Fendi happened upon a winning collaborative formula with architects Aranda/Lasch.

When you’re born into one of the world’s most renowned fashion dynasties and raised in an 18th-century Roman villa, good taste is about as optional as oxygen. Fendi’s creative director Silvia Venturini Fendi, the granddaughter of the high fashion house’s founders Adele and Emilio, can attest to this. As a young girl she was forbidden to put up gaudy posters in her room, because the walls were already plastered with frescos. When she asked if the family could get a sofa for the living room, citing the stiffness of the wooden armchairs that she sat on to watch her cartoons, her mother cried, aghast: “No, are you joking? Don’t you know who designed those?”

And so she learned about modernist design genius Alvar Aalto (she treasures the chairs to this day). Later in life, when she began visiting museums and galleries, she’d recognize major works of art with a gasp – because similar pieces used to hang in her dining room.

Signora Fendi’s early immersion into a world of beautiful objects (as head of accessories at Fendi she’s turned out a fair few herself, including the bestselling Baguette and Peekaboo bags) has imbued her with a deep appreciation of the design process. It’s a passion that in the past two years has come to the fore – publicly and spectacularly – thanks to the series of events, installations and performances that she’s staged in collaboration with Design Miami.

Such interdisciplinary initiatives are far from unusual in today’s fashion industry, with its global, increasingly corporate brands keen to impress cynics with their philanthropy and cultural savvy. Though Fendi’s work with Design Miami started as sponsorship, the events that followed have been innovative, collaborative, and, above all, have offered something different.

Last December, for Fendi’s third and latest outing at Design Miami, there came Modern Primitives, in collaboration with Aranda/Lasch – an award-winning young architecture practice. Fendi slung luxurious, but pleasingly Neanderthal throws, across elemental furniture pieces created by the studio.

“I found the chair very primitive, as a tiger is,” says Fendi. “It reminded me of a cave, and I so I thought I’d use fur, which is the most primitive material for a garment. And it was interesting that this block, this chair, could become, in a very organic way, something very soft.”

The next element of the project was down to the visitors at Design Miami, who were encouraged to create designs of their own on an iPad in the installation space over the three days of the exhibition. Aranda/Lasch, together with a Fendi craftsman, then worked to enact the audience’s ideas.

For Fendi this project, as with all her work with Design Miami, was about more than stamping her family name across exciting new work in design. “I don’t want it to be like a big company coming and sponsoring someone,” she says. “Things come up in a very natural and organic way. It’s friends working on the same project with the same enthusiasm.”

Fendi sees herself as more of an artisan than a fashion designer, so the spectacle of designer-makers creating on the fly resonates deeply with her. And she wants it to resonate with us too. “I think young people need to understand why there is this big difference in price between an Ikea chair and one that’s handmade by a designer in a limited edition,” says Fendi. “They have lost the history of things. For me, it’s normal. Living in Rome, I still can go to a shirtmaker and have my shirt made by hand, with a monogram. But there are other people in other countries…”

Photography: Benny Horne
Fashion: Anthony Unwin
Words: Adam Welch

A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland Issue 25, Feb/March 2011