Over the past seven years, founder of interiors bible Cabana, Martina Mondadori, has turned her collectable biannual magazine into a lifestyle world filled with treasures sourced from artisans across the globe. Her maximalist approach to design is infectious, rule-breaking and all about cherishing memories.
Mondadori might be Italian by birth, but it’s the German word, ‘gemütlich’, that sums up her raison d’être, encompassing as it does both the world of Cabana and the impetus for decamping back to her childhood home in Milan, moments before the pandemic took hold. There’s no direct English translation, but the word expresses a feeling of warmth, friendliness, peace of mind and, most importantly for Mondadori, cosiness. This, she emphasises, is key, with the move allowing her children to soak up Italian culture, as well as enjoy some much-needed ‘Nonna’ time. Nothing feels safer than returning to the familiarity of your childhood home, especially when it’s been designed by the renowned Renzo Mongiardino, a close family friend, who created homes for just about everyone who was anyone, from Aristotle Onassis to Lee Radziwill, the Hearsts and the Rothschilds to Valentino Garavani and Gianni Versace. From her office in Milan, Mondadori talks to Wardrobe ICONS about how childhood memories created the lens through which her interiors world has blossomed, and how moving home has allowed her to source and champion amazing artisans throughout Italy.
What makes you resist the itch to redecorate?
I love to move things around, changing a room with a new throw on the sofa, or changing the cushions or a wall colour. Vintage pieces bring multiple stories into a room. I love mixing materials, combining wicker with my collections of vintage ceramics and textiles.
Who has been the greatest influence on you?
Renzo Mongiardino. He decorated my mother’s apartment and my grandmother’s house. He was also a close family friend. I grew up hearing him speak about the houses he was working on. Another huge influence is Cy Twombly and his houses. He was never afraid of going big with proportions. He would get massive statues and sculptures that would occupy a room, and that was all he needed. The way he mixed styles and periods was extraordinary.
Is there something that you always leave to the last minute when decorating a room?
Lighting! It’s the most important thing in decoration, and lighting designers are able to put the right things in place from the very beginning of a project. I have a different approach. I like to see how the light comes in at different times of the day, in different seasons, so I very often end up adding table lamps, chandeliers and floor lamps to create the cosy atmosphere I want. The problem is, it’s very hard getting everything connected with the switches! So there’s a practical downside to that.
Did you always know you would join your family business and enter the world of publishing?
Instinctively, yes, I went for it. My father passed away when I was 21. I was finishing reading philosophy in Milan and at La Sorbonne in Paris, and I suddenly grew up. I felt it was my moral duty to my father and his legacy and went into publishing. My first proper job was in book publishing, with Random House in New York. It was great fun and a great place to live, but I realised I needed something more visual, so I came back to Italy and worked for an art publishing house and then, after having children, I started a company creating visual content for fashion brands.
I love mixing materials, combining wicker with my collections of vintage ceramics and textiles.
What are your tips for laying the perfect table?
Start with the tablecloth – it sets the mood, like choosing the floor for a house. I love big, bold patterns. Placemats play a huge role – layer, and never go for the matching style. Add straw or wicker mats on an Indian block-printed tablecloth, for example. Then choose plates that belong to your grandmother. Mix it up – they don’t need to be from the same set. Then add flowers. I never have a centrepiece; instead, I use lots of smaller vases and then add coral, sculptures or a ceramic piece to decorate and fill in the gaps.
Would you say your personal style mirrors your interiors? Or is it completely different?
It’s definitely merging more and more. I try to be practical, but I love a bit of drama with my personal style. I have lots of vintage Saint Laurent. My mum had some, which is how I started, but I’ve been collecting and buying. I love the way he mixed fabrics and patterns; it’s extraordinary. I’m a huge fan of accessories, belts, pendants and bags. And I’m always wearing flats.
Do you have any exciting things on the horizon for Cabana?
For the first time, we are designing a fabric collection with the American company, Schumacher. It’s been an interesting collaboration as they have a design studio and it will be the first time we will have our own range of upholstery fabrics, both printed and embroidered, that you can buy by the yard. I can’t wait to use them in my own home.
Where is the first place you would love to visit once lockdown ends?
Romania and Hungary have been destinations I’ve wanted to visit for a while. I’ve got books and I’ve collected ceramics and textiles from these two countries. I can’t wait to go with a small group of Cabana family contributors and finally explore!
Tell us a little about how growing up in Milan has influenced you
When you’re in your usual surroundings, your usual habitat and life, you don’t pay attention to things. I never paid attention to my childhood home. But it’s something I started to be aware of once I moved to London in 2012, when my kids were four and two. I wasn’t working, I was a full-time mum and, in that year, I started to become nostalgic, not just for Italy but for my childhood home, and to look at things with different eyes.
How have those surroundings shaped your design aesthetic?
When I started decorating my new home in London, friends would say, “Gosh, you really went for Italian colours!” And it suddenly made me more aware. I began looking at the choices I made. They are all about our childhood. The streets we walk in, the churches we see, the colour that the cities have. Our surroundings play a whole role in influencing our way of visually reading the world.
Can you describe what you mean by Italian colours?
Most buildings have warm colours. Tobacco in Bologna, yellow saffrons in Rome or terracotta in Florence – fall colours. Instinctively, I respond to that colour palette of warm terracotta, ochre, greens and deep burgundy.
What are you first drawn to when decorating your home?
It’s colour first and then texture. I always go for the touch and feel of a fabric, whether it’s for a sofa or a cushion. I love mixing and layering colours and patterns. And I’m not very good at throwing things away. Every object has a story, so I love to recycle things.
Do you always have the same starting point?
Every room starts in a different way for me. Sometimes it might be a wall colour or a sofa fabric, maybe it’s a pair of armchairs I’ve picked up at a flea market. I’m a strong believer that houses need a lot of time to be finished.
How would you describe your interiors style?
It’s a patchwork, it’s where my life brought me. It’s a mix of pieces that I get made and a lot of pieces that I carry with me. My father was a collector of objects, and when he passed away I inherited a few things. Some have just been sitting in a warehouse, but recently I’ve been getting them out. I always love going to flea markets, but since being in lockdown, I’ve been spending hours on different market places, like Etsy and 1st Dibs.
I’m a strong believer that houses need a lot of time to be finished.
What was the impetus to start Cabana and launch your own interiors magazine?
It really started after moving to London, becoming nostalgic for my home town, but also discovering my new home, stately homes and understanding what English decoration was. I became hugely appreciative of the way England has a respect for history and the past in a way that Italians just don’t have. And I realised this decorating world was my tribe. Cabana’s concept was bringing together English and Italian design. The eccentric and eclectic.
Did you always envisage it to be a magazine?
It started life as a compilation of images on a mood board for a book and a series of events, but it became a magazine. And that started a different journey and turned into a world and a lifestyle.
The growth of the Cabana world has been truly organic. What has surprised you about how it has evolved?
I’ve realised how passionate I am about sourcing objects and visiting artisans. The different regions in Italy have different techniques. It’s so exciting to discover a new ceramic maker in Umbria or a textile weaver. I have a huge travel list of new craftsmen that I want to visit.
And your collection of tableware? How did that develop?
I love creating all our different tabletop collections and collaborations. Interacting on Instagram with creative people and allowing that to become part of the business has been so rewarding. The most successful collaborations are when they are authentic, when there is an exchange and dialogue between creative minds. One of my favourites was with Wes Gordon for Carolina Herrera. We spent a year exchanging inspirations.
How do you think publishing can change and survive?
Traditional publishing has to change because what’s changed is the way we interact with news and markets. It’s all on our phones and through different social media channels. So, instead, we need to create a real community and foster that feeling of being part of a tribe – how we respond to things in a similar way, sharing the same interests and visions. It doesn’t matter how big that audience is, it matters how engaged it is.
When describing the world of Cabana, you have used my favourite German word, ‘gemütlich’. Can you explain?
It’s such a specific word for cosiness, but it’s more than that – it sums up why we decided to call the magazine Cabana. It’s a type of dwelling, something that expressed the idea of walking into a hut that is so warm and comforting. It could be a sophisticated folly in the English countryside or a straw hut in a field in Morocco. It’s the idea of how you feel when you’re inside.
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