Viola Lanari, the Artist Making Off-Kilter Furniture Out of Plaster

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Beautiful Monsters Viola Lanari Jermaine Gallacher Lant St
Beautiful Monsters by Viola LanariPhotography by Bill Batten

Viola Lanari’s solo exhibition, Beautiful Monsters, at Jermaine Gallacher’s Lant Street space is opening this week. Here, the artist tells Milly Burroughs about her unusual practice

“The interiors crowd in England is a bit stuck in being pretty and predictable,” says Italy-born, UK-based creator Viola Lanari. “I’ve been observing and talking with Jermaine [Gallacher], who is hosting my show, and we have been wondering what happened? All of these people have personalities of their own, [so] why are they following this pastel-colour fashion?”

On September 11, the experimental lighting and furniture artist is opening a solo exhibition at Jermaine Gallacher’s Lant Street space, entitled Beautiful Monsters. The show will feature brand new works, incorporating furniture into her oeuvre for the first time. While Lanari’s home country is synonymous with refined and architecturally precise interior design, she spent her youth escaping the classicism of the Milanese art scene for weekends exploring the eclectic exhibitions of London. These works therefore are anything but conformist.

Lanari broke into the world of art and design as a stylist, working for renowned interior design magazine House & Garden, where her penchant for earthy browns and creating her own abstract worlds was perhaps a little ahead of its time. “There was a lot of confusion and a lot of re-shoots, because it wasn’t House & Garden material,” she recalls. “We don’t have the same vision of interiors. I would use a brown background and they would have it re-shot because House & Garden doesn’t open with brown – but it’s a colour! Now, funnily enough, brown is there. After I left, there was a cover with brown furniture and stuff like that. I don’t want to take the credit, but ... ”

Despite rejecting the pretty and oftentimes formulaic domestic interiors spotlit by House & Garden and other magazines of that ilk, Lanari might not have created her first sculptural lighting pieces if it wasn’t for the very designers known to create them. “House & Garden organised a pop-up shop and asked me if I wanted to make some lamps to sell,” she explains. “So I bought table lamps to cover up and I made 15 or something. They sold and they had lots of enquiries. I just sort of didn’t stop.”

Born of a truly organic process, Lanari’s lighting and furniture pieces are created out of plaster, a material that requires her to give in to unknown outcomes while restricted by the small window of time the material is malleable. “I start with an idea, and I do quick sketches on a small notepad, but it remains a sketch of what I want because the material and the process would never achieve it,” she says. “I never have an exact idea and I like this. I like that with the final result I sometimes need time to look at it and think is this OK? Is this what I want? Does this fulfill my expectation? And it’s never what I expected.”

More art than design, Lanari’s lighting and furniture pieces are undeniably botanical, but her rejection of precise finesse provides ample opportunity for the observer to draw their own conclusions of what the story being told could be. Discussing the role mystery plays in interiors, she explains: “What interests me is when the sun goes down, and you turn your lights on, how everything transforms and how the shadows project. It’s very important to have that for me. To play with shadow and darkness. The way plaster is so white gives a greater contrast. It completely changes from white to dark grey or black at night. It becomes quite dramatic. It’s like how at night you see a form in your bedroom and it looks like something that it’s not – that sensation that you had when you were a kid.”

While Lanari’s practice – conducted very privately in the solitude of her Wandsworth studio – has veered away from the restraint of notoriously precious designers of elite homes, it is undoubtedly those same people who will seek to procure her work. When asked what she hopes visitors to the upcoming show take away from it, she says, “I guess I’d like them to see that this is a piece of furniture, but it’s a sculpture. It’s awkward, but it’s very beautiful. I wish that people will be inspired by it. To be more brave.” Although Lanari would like to inspire others with her work, it is her own voice she continues to strive to find. “I can’t express myself in words very well, in either language! I’m foreign everywhere I am. I can express myself only through what I make. Maybe that’s why I’m so much stuck in my studio, I feel that it’s the only thing that I can do to tell what I am.”

Beautiful Monsters is at Lant Street from September 11 – 20, 2020