Cristina Celestino believes in the power of compelling narratives, creating inspiring stories for the spaces and furniture that she designs

Milan’s sunny yellow trams are ubiquitous in the city, bringing both a sense of nostalgia and a pop of colour to its modern streets. For Italian designer Cristina Celestino, the opportunity to transform a historical tram from the 1920s into a roving salon was a real treat—the light-rail vehicle became a sumptuous space dressed in collections from Venetian fabric house Rubelli during Milan Design Week in 2018.

This rosy-hued tram is emblematic of her creative approach, which is at once romantic and playful with its harmonious mix of the old and the new. “Tram Corallo was inspired by the theme of the journey as an experience with dreamy and surreal overtones,” recalls Celestino, who considers it one of her favourite projects to date.

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The designer’s recent work continues her goal of creating beautiful narratives. Named the Designer of the Year at the recent September edition of Maison & Objet (M&O) in Paris, her Palais Exotique installation at the fair comprised vibrant spaces decked in a selection of Dedar fabrics; the space also functioned as a tearoom and restaurant. Here, we gather insights into her creative process and how it shapes the projects that Celestino works on with Attico Design, her Milan-based studio.

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How would you describe your design approach?

Cristina Celestino (CC) In one word, I would say narrative. My aim is to create emotional visions; I study traditional materials and their qualities to create new design typologies. In my work, I usually mix heritage elements with contemporary details from architecture, design and fashion, or with shapes and colours inspired by nature. All these references work together, and the result is a synthesis that’s often unexpected and ironic.

Can you tell us more about the Palais Exotique installation at the recent M&O fair?

CC We’ve focused on a mix between reality and personal insights; the latter refers to inner landscapes and personal memories, and to what we feel we should save from those memories. We wanted to open windows to other worlds, creating bridges between the past and the present, where different cultures could coexist in an experience out of time, projecting us into a dream-like and irreverent scenario, and where decor is manifested on equal terms with architecture.

The project is seen as a layering of shapes, suggestions and colours. We wanted to recall the concept of the jardin d’hiver[winter garden in French] in restaurants and cafes, playing with ideas of enclosure and lightness, solidity and transparency; all this as part of a reinterpretation of an iconic palazzo. The internal spaces are permeable, defined by see-through surfaces rather than walls, creating unusual and unexpected points of view, and bringing the outside feeling to the interior spaces.

We tried to mix various patterns together with graphic elements: we selected Dedar fabrics with geometric patterns and monochromatic shiny velvets and applied Misha’s wallcoverings on big framed windows creating a view of surreal landscapes where big colourful fruits coexist with regimental patterns.

What’s a colour that you’ll always find timeless?

CC The colour palette of a project comes from the brief: the specificities of the place, the context, and from the story that I want to tell. I really like playing with shades of the same colour applied to different materials. In my opinion, design is about achieving a balance, while being daring with unexpected combinations as well as strong, colourful accents.

Which materials do you enjoy using and why?

CC I don’t have a favourite material. I enjoy experimenting with the companies I work with, always approaching materials differently in order to use them in multiple ways. For years, I have been working with terracotta. Borosilicate glass was one of the first materials I designed products with. I am increasingly interested in natural and sustainable materials such as wood, marble, ceramics and natural-fibre textiles such as hemp. 

What’s a design era that you love and continue to feel inspired by?

CC If I had to choose an era to live in, I think I would choose the 1970s, and in a big city like Milan. Really innovative things happened [during that period] when it comes to art and design. Many of the great furniture companies were born in that period or had experienced moments of great creativity and experimentation.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges for designers today?

CC Our design approach will become increasingly humanistic, experimental and innovative in terms of materials, techniques, attitudes or unexpected functions. In addition to the commercial aspects, a designer should work with higher values in mind, such as for the concept of community, made-in-Italy [products], the importance of the production chain, and human dialogue and interactions.

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