On Monday evening in Milan, T Magazine hosted its annual party to toast the start of the Salone del Mobile design fair. As usual, guests gathered on the grounds of Villa Necchi Campiglio, the rationalist 1935 home designed by the Italian architect Piero Portaluppi, but this year the property appeared more sprawling than ever. Arranged between the garden’s purple wisteria-covered trellises and beds of sunset-colored poppies were 10-foot-tall paintings on canvas by the Spanish artist Elvira Solana. Interspersed with curtains of maroon moiré Dedar fabric, they depicted, in dusty jewel tones, scenes from an imaginary home — a cornflower blue staircase leading around a corner, a yellow door ajar — suggesting that perhaps another estate existed just out of reach. Finished with the same dappled, frescolike effect was a miniature house that floated in the home’s pool.
The evening’s hosts, T’s editor in chief, Hanya Yanagihara, and design director, Tom Delavan, chatted with guests — who enjoyed Hugo spritzes and arancini — on the villa’s front steps, while others explored the building’s interior, taking in its Picasso sketches and marble bathrooms. In the home’s dining room, Solana had set up miniature wooden models of the works she’d made for the occasion. In addition to the large panels and floating dwelling, her installation included a low-to-the-ground bridge — made to look like a row of columns receding into the distance on one side and a colorful city street on the other — and a set of standing screens where guests, including the architect India Mahdavi, the artistic director Barnaba Fornasetti and the artist Faye Toogood, posed for photos. The latter scene, arranged near the gates of the estate, also comprised two more small houses, these accented in pink and purple and light enough to be picked up. The creative director Ramdane Touhami was quick to lift one over his head.
Solana, 37, typically transforms walls that already exist. To her own apartment in Santoña, Spain, a seaside town near Bilbao, she has added trompe l’oeil paintings that create the illusion of built-in shelves, a curved colonnade overlooking the ocean and a half-open closet. But as she put it, “at Villa Necchi, we couldn’t change the original architecture, because it’s a masterpiece.” And so this was both the artist’s first outdoor commission and one of the first that required her to build her own surfaces — a project for which her formal training came in use.
Raised in Santoña, Solana studied architecture at Madrid’s Polytechnic University, traveling to other cities such as Ahmedabad, India, and Istanbul on scholarships. But after graduating during the Great Recession, when jobs were scarce, she began to question her career path. “I was thinking about my future and my skills, and I realized that I was pretty good at working with my hands,” she said. “And during my education, I’d missed that.” Painting murals was a way to marry her architectural experience with a more intimate, direct way of working.
When it came to conceptualizing her installation for Villa Necchi, she began by researching buildings whose architecture distorts a viewer’s sense of space. She looked at the Italian architect Francesco Borromini’s colonnade at the Galleria Spada in Rome, completed in 1653, and at Portaluppi’s Milan Planetarium, finished in 1930 — structures that both appear larger than they really are. She also considered the work of the 18th-century Irish painter Robert Barker, who originated the term “panorama” to describe his immersive, 360-degree renderings of city views, which, beginning in 1792, were displayed in a purpose-built rotunda in London’s Leicester Square. Using perspective to create an optical illusion, said Solana, “is a pretty old trick,” but one that still has the power to entrance.
Once she’d settled on her concept, she spent January and February making the canvas panels that would be displayed by the villa’s pool. “I could paint them in Madrid, roll them up and send them to Italy,” she says. In mid-March, she moved to Milan, taking over a studio in the Porta Ticinese neighborhood where she completed the wood panels that formed the entrance piece and the bridge, along with the polycarbonate ones that would become the floating house, working with the Italian architect Luigi d’Oro on construction and the lighting designer Cosimo Masone. It was thanks to the latter that, as night fell, the dwelling’s tiny windows lit up, casting a red glow over the pool’s surface.
An hour or so later, guests began to make their way to 10 p.m. dinner reservations — with Dedar tote bags and notebooks, and copies of T’s latest Design issue in hand. But before they left, they were served one last visual treat: square sugar cookies topped with frosting printed with Solana’s designs.