AT HOME IN TANGIER. Nicolò Castellini Baldissera is an interior designer, aesthete, and garden dilettante whose recent book “Inside Tangier: Houses and Gardens of Tangier” with photographer Guido Taroni was published by Vendome Press. Born in Milano, he was raised there in his family palazzo Casa degli Atellani which was restored by his paternal great-grandfather, the famous architect Piero Portaluppi. His father, Piero Castellini Baldissera, is also a renowned architect, and Nicolò studied in London at Sotheby’s, where he has lived as well as in Paris, in Switzerland and the United States. He found his happiness by chance in Tangier, the very special Moroccan city that stands at the gate of the Mediterranean.
Listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Nicolò Castellini, was it because your mother was a descendant of the opera composer Giacomo Puccini that you called your house in Tangier, where you are in this moment, Casa Tosca?
It’s a funny combination between the famous great-great-grandfather and my beloved dog, a dachshund whose name is also Tosca. I couldn’t escape the obligation.
Is opera important to your life?
I’m an avid consumer of music and it’s always been part of my life. I don’t play any instruments, which is a big regret, but I try not to make regrets part of my daily life.
How come you are both an interior designer and a gardener?
I love gardening, but wouldn’t call myself a gardener. I am completely self-taught and was fortunate enough to grow up in a home which has a lovely garden in the centre of Milan. I was accustomed to nature, garden trees, flowers and the whole process of tending to a garden since I was six. It was a passion I practiced as an amateur until I came to Tangier and met Umberto Pasti. He went much farther with his experimenting, creating beautiful gardens, and he did my tiny garden in my home here in Tangier. Through this process I learnt a little bit more about plants and flowers. I love the process of decoration, both indoor and outdoor, with wisteria and wallpaper.
Why did you fall in love with Tangier, buy Casa Tosca and spend as much time as you can there?
I fell in love with Tangier back in 2009. I had been once before in 1985, with my mother, coming for a party by boat from the south of France. It remained in my heart as a lovely postcard. I kept coming to Morocco quite frequently, mostly to Marrakech, and many years later some French clients asked me to come along with them to Tangier. They had in mind a project to open a maison d’hôte, a project which did not happen, and I found myself here with a few days to spare. I started to look into real estate, which is something I enjoy doing just for fun, to see what’s around and peep into people’s lives. I fell onto a house that was tucked away in the Medina, a small riad with only two windows, larger than average by Tangier standards, but much smaller than those beautiful riads that you find in Marrakech. I restored it entirely over a year and a half, and I lived there for six years but didn’t have a garden. One day I was walking along the Marshan, the residential area that starts close to the Kasbah and then stretches along on the plateau. It’s full of freestanding villas in different styles, most of them very European, and I fell upon this ruin. It reminded me of the homes that you find in a Milan Boulevard called via XX Settembre, which used to house all the big mansions of the most prominent Milanese families.
Since you found in Tangier a connection with the streets of Milan, in what kind of place do you feel you are?
I feel free when I’m here. I feel that everything is possible in Tangier, maybe not to the eccentricity levels of the 60s, 70s and early 80s, but it’s a city that offers shelter to people from every path of life. Foreigners have been attracted to Tangier because it is a special part of Morocco, having benefited for many decades from the status of being a zone franche or a free zone, and having been governed by different nations. It always allowed a more liberal lifestyle, close to the edges. All of this has created an incredibly cosmopolitan and global vibe.
When you decided to do the book “Inside Tangier” with your friend the photographer Guido Taroni, how did you decide which homes to include?
The book features twenty-four homes of expats. There aren’t any Moroccan homes except for one friend. I was sorry about that, but I am a foreigner to this country and the publishing house is American based so the focus of the book became about being foreigners in a foreign land.
You are an interior designer. When you went into these people’s houses did you want to change everything you saw?
No, not at all. My feeling was of great curiosity. For me, the best part of this book was when Guido and I went to the houses to meet the owners, not for the very first time, but for the first time in order to accomplish this project to paint their lifestyle through photography and their words. We asked them to tell us about their life, and why certain choices were made in their homes. What came out of all these encounters, meetings and talks was an incredible mix of characters, nationalities, and taste.
“I feel that everything is possible in Tangier.”
Nicolò Castellini, you are recognized all over the world for your colours, from pink to mint, from green to yellow, and especially your favourite colour, the peacock blue that you have in your bedroom. Did the fact that the city is white make it easier to create your palette of colours?
I love white outside, but otherwise for me white is a non-colour. Morocco is very rich with colour pigments. It is a bit of a myth to think of Tangier as a white city. It’s customary to paint the base of the whitewashed houses with the most beautiful palette that ranges from pale blue to indigo to pink to yellow ochre.
Why is peacock blue your favourite colour?
Peacock blue is a recent love. I’ve always tried to find colours that can soothe, particularly in a bedroom where you have to sleep. I did try in my past sleeping in Pompeian red painted bedrooms. I even went as far as orange. My sleep did not benefit from it.
How do you deal with your clients?
I first like to establish a personal relationship, to a degree of course. I need to know who’s in front of me. I try to understand what their ideas are about the place they are going to be living in. Sometimes they say we don’t know what to do, we don’t know what we like. I disagree with this. You may not be a colour expert, but given the choice whether you like pink or blue, you would come up with an answer. Within us, we do know what we want and can interrogate ourselves if we like something. We all have a vision.
You are eclectic in your choices for yourself, are you also in your choices for your clients?
I’m trying to do the best for my client. I am definitely very eclectic for myself, but I have no restrictions with myself so I am allowed to do whatever pleases me. But when I come to a client, we do establish a thread of rules. Some people have very specific ideas, and they say we don’t want anything flowery on our fabrics or we hate the colour red or we can’t stand this and that. Some people don’t have such strict ideas. I work along with my clients, because my job is to deliver a home, which is everyone’s nest at the end of the day.
Are clients similar in different countries?
There are differences between countries. Americans have a very specific idea of what a decorator should be doing. They’re incredibly demanding and incredibly generous when it comes to one’s fees. America allows a decorator to thrive financially. Europe is a different story and the financial aspect is not as rewarding, but I don’t do this for money. I do it only when there is une entente, an understanding.
How does money work in these relationships?
You don’t necessarily need a big budget to achieve a nice result in decorating a house. A house can be a wonderful, charming house with very little, and I also like to recycle existing possessions. Casa Tosca is a collection of furniture, objects, and paintings coming from five different homes around the world. Every time I look at them, it makes me smile that that armchair used to be in my home in the mountains, or that that picture used to be hanging on my wall in my Parisian apartment, and so on and so forth.
Did you inherit your vision from your great grandfather, Piero Portaluppi, a modernist designer who loved to mix antiques from around the world in his houses?
I certainly was influenced by his style. I sadly didn’t meet him as he died the year before I was born, but my great grandmother outlived him by eleven years, which made me ten when she died. Since the age of six I used to go for lunch with her every Thursday, and the house had not been touched since his death so I could breathe his own home style. At first I ran away from that influence, because I thought it was rather stuffy and was too young to understand the architectural value of these details that I’m now crazy about. My major influence was my father. We had a chance to live together for a few years, and then, when my parents separated and later divorced, his place was ever changing. You could visit my dad one week and see a set up in a room and go the next week and that set up would be something else. The colour of the walls and other extreme changes took place very regularly. That was the greatest influence on me.
“Italy has the widest array of the most beautiful cities that are mostly unknown to the rest of the world.”
Nicolò Castellini, am I correct that you are passionate about Japan and its architecture?
In Japan there is the beauty of simplicity and the beauty of the artifice. Everything in Japan is calculated. It’s perfect to a degree that nearly reaches a certain retentiveness, which I appreciate enormously, because they – and only they I find – have this art of displaying perfectly everything in a perfect balance, and yet it feels natural. In fact, it isn’t. It’s a whole process that takes ages to achieve, aiming for perfection. I am a bit messier, but I do admire it elsewhere. During my first trip to Japan, which was as recent as 7 years can be, I was mesmerized by their gardens. They control every single little stone; every single leaf has its place, and it follows the seasons and the blossoming. It’s quite the opposite of something wild.
After you spent many years out of Milano travelling around the world, do you find the apartments and houses have changed a lot since you left?
Some have. I am working on my next target, a book that gives an idea of our city of Milan as a very eclectic one, with different styles from different professions and categories; from the Milan of fashion, the Milan of architecture and design, the old Milan with its old palazzis that are still very much in place and running.
You used to live in London and recently went back to Milan. Why?
I felt like I had done my duty abroad, and duty called back home. When I had just turned 50 I found the need to go back to my roots, the same roots which I ran from thirty-two years previously.
Had the city changed?
The city changed dramatically. I came back to a Milan that was vibrant, full of international people, a city that had just held a very successful Expo. A lot of projects were taking place and you can still see buildings ambitiously popping up and changing the Milan skyline. I found a city that was back on track. When I left it in the late 80s, Milan was a dark place. I found it very claustrophobic, also because the structure of Italian city societies is tight. Over the last few months I’ve also been thrilled to discover Genova, a city I knew very little about. Italy has the widest array of the most beautiful cities that are mostly unknown to the rest of the world. They are a treasure that often we don’t know what to do with. It’s a matter of getting more in love with our country. Being born with it, you take things for granted. I was very lucky to bring some of my best friends from America for their first time to Venice, and to see the joy on their faces made it the most beautiful time I’ve ever had.
Did you also do some work in Venice?
I did and I hope I will work there more. It’s a city where I would love to live. It’s the water feature. I have discovered over the years that I love to live in cities that have water.
What are your new projects?
I have always loved Rattan Furniture and I have a line of furniture accessories, as I like to call them, which are produced in Tangier. This allows me to be here often, as it gives me the excuse to come and check on the production. Needless to tell you, the name of the brand is Casa Tosca.
Nicolò Castellini’s drawing room in Tangier, with a plaster mantlepiece inspired by a 17th Century Piedmontese villa. (Photo: Guido Taroni)
The loggia in Nicolò Castellini’s Casa Tosca pulls together pieces from various past homes, such as an antler chandelier and Parisian daybed. (Photo: Guido Taroni)
This living room in London was designed to showcase a collection that later went to auction. (Photo: James MacDonald)
In this guest room, trompe l’oeil tenting creates a warm space for visitors. (Photo: Guido Taroni)
Looking from his Milan living room into the dining room, Nicolò Castellini Baldissera displays his daring use of color. The rug was designed by Federica Tondato and the dining table is a reinterpretation by Nicolo of his great-grandfather, Piero Portaluppi’s design. (Photo: Guido Taroni)
“We all have a vision.”
Nicolò Castellini, since you came back to Milan you have a new house. Does it have a name?
It’s a rented apartment that has a nickname: Lo Squallidone. When I first found it this very sad, squalid (squallidone means very squalid), banal, big, flat, was spacious but without any particular feature of interest. This gave me the chance to play with colours and transform it into a box of colours.
I introduced a deep blue in a bedroom, and yellow – which is missing in Tangier – but I still used pink, in a different shade, and not quite a peacock blue but similar in the living room. The great novelty was the gold walls and ceilings in the dining room.
Nowadays when people cannot go to restaurants because of the coronavirus has the kitchen taken on even more importance?
I make the effort to eat in the dining room so that I can avoid the kitchen, but sometimes it’s nice to be in the kitchen and it’s less work. My kitchen in Milan is quite jolly. It’s a teal, blue/green. And I have been hanging fragments of Islamic tiles, Portuguese tiles, and a collection of 18th century prints of views of Milan. It’s more of a living room than a kitchen.
It has been interesting to discuss the intermixture of your life, your job and your house, which is very much the same if I am not wrong?
Yes, you’re absolutely right. They all go together and merge into who I am. They are all part of myself, of my life, and I’m very happy about it.
Thank you very much Nicolò Castellini Baldissera. And lucky you, who are in Tangier.