Curator Valentina Guidi Ottobri, who grew up in Florence, Italy, was surrounded by architectural marvels: Here was the eye-catching black and white Baptistery of St. John the Baptist from the 12th century; There was the ornate Florence Cathedral from the 15th century. She was impressed with the patience, vision and spiritual dedication required to construct these ambitious buildings – projects that often took more than three generations to complete. “I’ve always loved the idea that patrons like Cosimo de ‘Medici invested in work they knew they’d never see in their life,” she says.
Ottobri later studied communication and semiotics as a student at the University of Siena with the Italian author and medievalist Umberto Eco. She earned a master’s in brand management and one in curatorial studies, worked in public relations at Bottega Veneta and briefly took a position in India as a fashion stylist for Marie Claire magazine. In 2012 she returned to Florence at the age of 23 and joined the city’s exclusive concept store, Luisa Via Roma, first as assistant to the jewelry buyer and finally as director of the boutique’s housewares department. Every six months she completely redesigned the interior of the store in collaboration with various creative people. In 2018, with the help of Milan-based designer and architect Cristina Celestino, she built a house within the store. In 2019 she asked the Italian production designer and artist Sara Ricciardi to transform the room into a modern Garden of Eden. “I was never interested in working for money,” says Ottobri. “It was always about turning my visual fantasies into something real.”
Today, Ottobri is doing just that. The 32-year-old has converted a rural Provencal property into both a home and a showroom for her company, VGO Associates. The art, craft and design collective uses the area with its orchards, the olive grove, the tangled gardens and the outbuildings as a lively gallery space. At the entrance to the property is “The Gate of Light” by Ricciardi, a free-standing archway made of aluminum and stained glass, topped with a colorful eye that is illuminated in the evening so that, as Ottobri says, “it seems to be in the dark at night hover. “Nearby, a giant bronze pod by Italian artist and leather goods designer Serena Cancellier dangles from an olive tree branch and explodes with streams of crystal seeds that sparkle in the fading afternoon light. On a patch of lawn stands a collection of knee-high ceramic vessels adorned with the removable, molded faces of mythical beasts that Ottobri designed with the Pugliese terracotta masters Fratelli Colì – part of a network of qualified Italian manufacturers that she uses to create the ideas who develop artists and designers for VGO Associates. The works are then exhibited on the property and sold on the collective’s website. “You can use them as trash cans, or you can take off faces and hang them on your wall as masks,” she says. “I am fascinated by talismans and objects that are useful but cross the line of art.”
OTTOBRI’S HOME, which she shares with her boyfriend Lapo Becherini, an athletic performance trainer, is a humble stone farmhouse from 1852 with two bedrooms, beamed ceilings, terracotta tile floors, and whitewashed stucco walls. This is where their vision of combining the spirit of a rustic property with the latest modern art, craft and European design comes together. The room is filled with a constantly changing selection of avant-garde furniture and decorative objects – a side table made of stone and Plexiglas by the Milanese designer Thanos Zakopoulos; A glazed ceramic table lamp reminiscent of an alien creature by the British artist Hannah Simpson – designed by employees of VGO Associates. These are softened by peculiar pieces (paper mache masks, medieval-inspired ceramic sculptures) and the elegant cornerstones of a French country house: Roche Bobois furniture, blue and white Delft products, sisal carpets, toilet wallpapers.
The work of the youngest employees is everywhere in the living room. An abstract, six-foot-high, bull-shaped cabinet (the horns also serve as incense holders) made of blackened ash wood by the Italian transmedia designer Matteo Cibic sits next to a coffee table made of mirror glass on which the Moroccan multimedia artist has engraved ancient symbols Mo Baala and a rust-red leather -Haiselongue decorated with hundreds of hand-tied leather flowers by the Italian designer Tal Lancman and the couturier Maurizio Galante. Today they are in their house, but next week they could be outside, in the artist’s residence or in the Chapel of the Moon – an abandoned shed that Ottobri has turned into a meditation room that the Italian illustrator and designer paints with stars and goddess figures became Ludovica Basso, who is known under the name Clorophilla. In a time of thoughtless consumption, Ottobri believes that everything the energy needs to generate should serve more than one purpose, which challenges us not only to use an object but also to consider its meaning. “The objects in your room should be as targeted as talismans,” she says. “If we have learned anything in the past year, our houses are our chapels.”