The Italian Method

January 13th, 2010

Italian architect Pierluigi Piu shares his design notes

Pierluigi Piu is an Italian architect whose energetic work stands out for his deep attention to impeccable details as evidenced by the award-winning Olivomare restaurant in London. Today, Piu tells us a little more about his background and design philosophy, and goes in-depth about the restaurant that has brought him so much acclaim.

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DE: What led you to a career in architecture? Was there someone or something in particular that interested or inspired you towards a creative field?

YM: Since I was a little boy I’ve always been interested in arts and crafts, visual and applied arts, and creative personalities have always charmed me. In high school I proved to be skilled in drawing, and my teachers encouraged me. Later on I understood that drawing was only a means of expression, and was grateful to my parents to have oriented me towards humanistic studies, without which none can be a good architect. Living in Florence, where I attended the University of Architecture, further enhanced and confirmed my inclinations.

Chair designed by Pierluigi Piu

DE: You work on a lot of different projects from architecture and interior design to furniture design. How do all the different disciplines test your traditional training in architecture? Do the skills differ greatly?

YM: I think this kind of multidisciplinary approach is encapsulated into Italian architects’ DNA. Perhaps this could be explained by the fact that, until not very long ago, and still at the time of my studies, apart from art academies, funny enough there were practically no schools for design, interiors, fashion and arts and crafts in Italy; so the only school one could follow if he was aiming to be formed for any kind of discipline implying a project, was the University of Architecture.

Such restriction, combined with renown Italian creativity, generated a number of eclectic personalities: most Italian designers of high reputation are basically architects; great fashion designer Gianfranco Ferrè was an architect himself and the same for Gio Ponti, besides being the architect everybody knows about, was a brilliant designer and decorator, too.

I believe the skills of all these disciplines do not differ greatly, and studies of architecture give a young boy one of the most important ones to approach any design problem: method.

Olivomare in London

DE: So let’s talk about Olivomare in London. What was your method/approach in designing this fantastic space?

YM: My aim was to design a contemporary interior, that still referred to the op art. I wanted it to talk about the sea world to customers, but I wanted it to do it with a fresh and updated language. I wanted to stay cool and ironic, sophisticated yet simple.

My strongest effort was to make this premise look larger than it actually is. I wanted my client to have a new restaurant in which his customers could feel a connection with his two other restaurants, and the delicatessen shop next door, that I previously designed for him; a fish restaurant where it doesn’t “smell” fish but rather “tastes” fish in an appealing yet relaxing interior.

DE: You certainly achieved all of those things! Tell us more about all the different wall textures and bold graphics that you used in the restaurant. Were the graphics bespoke for Olivomare?

YM: During my first visit in London for this work, in 2005, I stated that one of the strongest trends in interior decoration was the coming back of wallpapers. That was an interesting starting point but, at the same time, it was too weak: wallpaper was just a cheap trend and it was not going to last long (as today, just a few years later, we can easily confirm).

Piu drew inspiration from works like M.C. Escher's Metamorphosis II (1940)

I did need a textured pattern of an higher aesthetic value, a reference of high descent and, of course, evoking the sea world in a possibly not banal way. I immediately oriented my research towards Maurits Escher’s pieces of art. This artist is better known for his drawings of impossible endless staircases and impossible architectures, but he has also conceived a huge number of drawings inspired by the animal world where, often, a shape is subtly and smartly converted into another, and most of them are structured on a repetitive pattern, and seem to have been created to become a jig-saw puzzle: they actually haven’t, but this was the reference I was looking for to give strength and quality to my project and this gave me the idea to rework one of his drawings (adding a little something of mine: the pattern on the wall is inspired to a not very well known study sketch of Maurits Escher that I’ve reworked in order to enhance the presence of big fish that keep chasing and devouring smaller ones, and of a small sail boat. I also completely re-worked the palette of colours, accordingly to the guidelines of my project) and converted it into a huge jigsaw puzzle.

Detailed view of Piu's Escher-inspired fish

Such a puzzle is made out of laser-cut and inlaid laminated plastic (Formica). I used this technique in order to obtain a decorated surface richer than a simply painted or printed one; from my point of view this inlaid work has an added value in itself implied by its sophisticated and highly precise execution technique. The choice of using laminated plastic was intended to obtain a fully opaque surface, yet durable, easy to clean and allowing me to make light cladding panels. Laser-cut is certainly not my invention (unfortunately) but, since one can practically cut anything with laser, my invention was to use it to get very precise tesseras for my mosaic out of plastic laminated: as far as I know none has done it before. It was a hazardous challenge, but I’ve been lucky enough work with an extremely skilled and accurate executor.

The way I treated the walls in this interior is an important contribution to its overall appeal. All of them have a strong plastic and tactile component, which I find important in a space devoted to the pleasure of senses, as a restaurant is. The inlaid jigsaw-puzzle with its perfect yet perceptible joints, the glazed partition with its thin yet highly protective fire resistant frame, the wavy wall with its almost sensual reliefs, and the coral reef engraved on the walls of the toilets lobby, with its surprising effect of disorientation and envelopment, all together enhance the sensation of being in a special emotional space.

The coral reef engraved into the walls of Olivomare

DE: With all your experience working on such varied projects, and in such a detailed manner, is there a certain type of project that you enjoy working on most then?

YM: Refurbishments and renewals stimulate me quite a lot. I am very much interested in the possibility of building up a second or a better life for premises and buildings which could not live their first one at their best or have already exhausted it.

View of Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy

DE: That is a lovely sentiment. And speaking of things that stimulate — please tell us a little bit about your hometown of Cagliari. What drew you back after years working in Florence and abroad?

YM: Cagliari is Sardinia’s chief town, and Sardinia, as everybody knows, is an island. People say that islanders can never get rid of their birthplace…

DE: Finally, can you share with us your favourite meal?

YM: While I detest nouvelle cuisine and all its “tra-la-là“, I certainly am fond of the traditional Mediterranean kitchen, food which is rich, tasty and healthy. It may sound like a commonplace, but none can overcome the skills of good Italian housewives.

DesignEats would like to thank Pierluigi Piu for sharing his insights and thoughts with us today!

To learn more about Olivomare, please click here.

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