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cupfuls of calmness

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people; Italian-born and London-based, minimalist master designer Claudio Silvestrin doesn't mind sharing his ideas about houses, offices, art and nature. But like everything else in his life, he keeps them simple and easy by bridget stott. photograph by

In 1998, the bbc's Modern Times series described Claudio Silvestrin as the great master of minimalism. But what does minimalism mean beyond tidy rooms with white walls? According to Silvestrin, minimalism is 'about creating a clean, calm, modern design that feels natural and effortless, and that's all'.

Italian-born Silvestrin has lived and worked in London for the last 20 years, but studied under A G Fronzoni in Milan. 'Fronzoni was a big influence. We had similar sensibilities and he made it clear to me that simplicity is the essence of nature.' Following his time with Fronzoni, Silvestrin studied at London's Architectural Association, and then worked in partnership with fellow architect, John Dawson. Between them they created Calvin Klein's New York apartment and Silvestrin's best-known work, the Neuendorf Villa in Majorca. When the partnership dissolved three years later, Silvestrin went out on his own. He worked hard to maintain his own purist style and refused, as he still does, to be swayed by evolving trends. As a former teacher at the Bartlett and a visiting professor at the Ecole Superieure d'arts Visuels in Lausanne, he impressed upon his students this single- minded approach.

Silvestrin now works from his canal-side studios in Islington, a haven of peace and quiet. He shares the space with six architects and an interior designer, but prefers the solitude of his white-painted office overlooking the canal. The high-ceilinged room contains a large black angular table with matching bench seating and a simple limestone fruit bowl distinguished by the vertical incision of a fine knife cut. The inspiration for the bowl's design comes from the slashed canvasses of Italian artist, Lucio Fontana. 'He's one of my favourite artists' says Silvestrin, 'His work says so much, but is ultimately so simple.'

This focus on the simplicity of design is apparent in all of Silvestrin's work. Doris Lockhart Saatchi described his work as 'holding a visual serenity that comes from a refusal to indulge in decorative details' (Vogue Decoration 1991). True, Silvestrin doesn't dally in the decorative, but he has great respect for the elements surrounding him and employs a rigorous yet sensitive selection process when choosing finishes and materials, the essence of each design.

Take the 3m long Millennium Hope table first conceived for the Sitooteries, a major contemporary arts, architectural and design event organised by English Heritage. The table top features five walnut veneer planks, one from each continent. 'It has a quiet significance and seems somehow more ethical,' he says. 'It's a very good example of my work, as nature dictates the finished look. I just consider how best it can be revealed.'

Another example of Silvestrin's need to reveal nature at its most stunning is the Neuendorf villa in Majorca (1994). The monastic-style house seemingly frames the mountainous landscape around it. It features geometric exterior courtyards, glassless windows and doors, and a swimming pool that stretches like a blue ribbon over the horizon. 'The villa feels serene and free from everyday disorder,' he says.

Current domestic projects include a house in Ireland, the Starkmann house in Provence and the Girombelli apartment in Milan. Each project features glass, smooth stone and timber, positioned to highlight planes of soft light and shadow, reminiscent of a deserted Cistercian church on a warm, sunny day.

Silvestrin also professes a liking for Romanesque and Islamic architecture, but shies away from the term, Amonastic. 'Only wine should be labelled,' he says.

Inspiration is also found in the work of architects, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Luis Barragan and Tadao Ando, artist, Anish Kapoor and fashion designer, Issey Miyake. 'I admire abstract over figurative art, which might explain why I am drawn to those who produce work with similar aesthetic sensibilities to my own.' Unsurprisingly, Baroque and Rococo styles send Silvestrin into orbit. 'Grotesque and over-blown, I see no beauty there, just wealth and power.'

Much of Silvestrin's best-known work is for the corporate market and currently includes shop interiors for Giorgio Armani. The first shop opened on Paris' Place Vendome in 1996, and provides the perfect simple backdrop for Armani's understated collections.

Silvestrin has taken a similar approach to Calvin Klein's office in Milan, the White Cube Gallery in London and art installations at the Hayward Gallery for the Anish Kapoor, Robert Mapplethorpe and Lucio Fontana retrospectives. Silvestrin says the designs were so unobtrusive that people didn't realise an architect had been involved at all. Tim Hilton of the Independent described the make-over as architectural re-design of the spaces, rather than an installation. 'Blocked-off exits and entrances, new walls and altered room shapes give a feeling of new and pristine solemnity.'

Silvestrin is currently designing a new contemporary art museum in Turin, his first major public building project. Located in the industrial heart of the city, the new museum will resemble a simple, 3000m2 box. 'I wanted to create something that would not draw attention away from the exhibits on display or the immediate environment.'

He has also begun designing commercial product ranges, including a bathroomware range for Boffi incorporating his essential trademarks. The Po stone bathtub looks like a nut split lengthways, while the cedar top of the Adige stone basin resembles a thick blade cutting through the base. 'I have used a simple geometrical style to create both useful and practical shapes that would fit into any home,' he says. A simple life is also his philosophy for happiness. 'There's no room for excess.'

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