Hill-Top Haberdashery: How Can We Safely Bring a River Into a House?

Vaprio D’Adda (BG), seen from Canonica (BG). Photo by Malangela.

Mum was from Vaprio D’Adda, a small village on the river Adda, traversed by il Naviglio della Martesana and loved by Leornardo. She arrived in Saronno the day of my aunt’s funeral. Both were 24 years old. One came, the other left. Mum mistook the funeral for a wedding – flowers and people covered the main square. Dad met mum shortly after and they got married a decade later. It would have been their wedding anniversary today.

Vaprio’s Adda and Naviglio are irresistible, their water is every shade of green-silver-blue-gold; their temper is fast moving. Adda gets angry when the wind changes, Naviglio sulks when starved of fresh water. Saronno and Vaprio are welded together by a flow of memories and by the road that my brother and I travelled almost every weekend as children, the one that I now take every time I am back.

Five years after mum’s passing, dad and I decided to work together on the tiny house she left us, a late 19th century building nestled proudly in the upper part of the Piazza, the bottom part of which opens onto the the river Adda. Dad gave me a blank canvas. I started with three tenets: openess to the future, continuity with the past, and reflection of the place.

Last dawn of 2019, Vaprio D’Adda. Photo by Malangela, similarities noticed with Bellotto’s Vaprio.

#1- First, the house had to be open to the future: it had to be bright, warm, dry, and low maintenance. The idea was big, and my budget tiny. The first question was: is it possible to have a comfortable house with no furniture? Ideas emerged and most were realised: the walk-in shower, the poured concrete kitchen, the reading alcove, the concrete floor, and the rail wardrobe. Architect L. Greco from Arnuova, took these ideas and turned them into form; a work of brilliance given that simplicity done well never comes cheap. Greco is also from Saronno, we met on a plane.

#1 Poured concrete kitchen and #2 grandparents’ sink. Setting by Arnuova, photo by Malangela.

#2- Second, the house had to share a continuity with the past. This tenet materialised in several forms, including the re-use of old objects, such as my grandparents’ kitchen sink. Arnouva was very attentive to the history of the house and its stories. For instance, I had once told them that the place used to be a haberdashery, owned by my mother’s aunt. As a kid, I loved playing with buttons, ribbons, and silk threads. Now lightbulbs hang from the ceiling on cotton threads, playing giddily with the past.

# 2 Lights hanging from cotton threads, #3 kitchen table. Photo by Arnuova, see feature on Instagram.

#3- Finally, the house had to be a reflection of the place. The river with its gold-green colour had to get in somehow, and so its temper – kind, nurturing, but also fiery and rebellious. The question was: how can we safely bring a river into a house? Its presence, had to be felt, tamed by sight and touch. Such a character, could only be the centre-piece. And so, the river walked into the house as a commission: an iron and resin kitchen table designed by Arnuova, and crafted by Saronno-based artist Gio’ Canegallo.

#3 Selecting the pigments and texture for the table top – with top-right proof chosen, photo by Gio’ Canegallo.

This project started in 2014 and uphill. Dad took ill shortly after its start and never saw it finished. The initial idea was that he would share his know-how while we worked together on a relatively small project, a warm-up before the Officina’s much longer journey.

And it is exactly what he did.