Strokes of Brilliance

Colored by the warmth of old Italian earthenware traditions, the extraordinary hand-painted ceramics of Laboratorio Paravicini still feel like a secret after nearly three decades.

In the heart of Milan, just south of the city’s soaring, gothic Duomo, a narrow labyrinth of streets known as Cinque Vie (“five ways”) has been a haven for local artisans since the Middle Ages. Milan today is Italy’s most buzzingly contemporary metropolis of course, but Cinque Vie remains a neighborhood where bygone crafts survive—goldsmiths, bronze workers, engravers, and in one secluded and stone-paved courtyard, the mother-daughter ceramicists at Laboratorio Paravicini, a studio where fine tableware is handpainted using the old-fashioned art of gran fuoco sulla terraglia bianca (“great fire on white earthenware”), then delicately decorated by hand.

Images by Stefan Giftthaler

“Milan is a city where what’s most magnificent is hidden,” says founder Costanza Paravicini. “You have to explore its inner courtyards to find secrets like this.” Located on the ground floor and inner courtyard of an 18th century building formerly owned by Paravicini’s grandparents, the workshop expanded from a garage housing a humble pottery wheel to an assemblage of skylit showrooms and ateliers lined with raw concrete walls, Beola marble floors, and shelves of countless hand-wrought plates.

Always an impassioned artist, Paravicini “might have become a portrait painter,” she says, “But I fell into the world of ceramics and never wanted out.” Today her two daughters, Benedetta and Margherita, assist in the family enterprise, and have added a gently contemporary direction to the classical representations that inspire Paravicini’s graceful brushwork. “[My daughters have] helped me refresh my eye, even as antique imagery always forms the foundation of my designs,” she says. “There’s a certain mood to all of the inspiration. It’s nostalgic. It’s magic. It’s exotic—like the circus of another era.”

Images by Stefan Giftthaler

According to Paravicini, in the 1700s Milan’s artisans were renowned for crafting exquisite tableware in imitation of what they had glimpsed of or imagined about the arts of China and the Middle East. She carries this through in the fanciful images with which she decorates the elegantly slender plates at the studio and shop—jungle animals, Italian gardens, hot air balloons, trapeze artists, and tightrope walkers among them. A series called “Play Plates” employs a mesmerizing trick: the detailed figures appear animated if the plate is quickly rotated. A zebra seems to jump through trees; a swallow takes flight. Paravicini says she practiced painting plates for two years before perfecting her hand.

It’s just one sleight of hand that illustrates the mastery and subtle touch Paravicini has gained. The ultra-fine plates, tea sets, centerpieces, and vases she paints are today mostly handcrafted by a local ceramic artisan and fired at high heat to create a bisque base. Paravicini paints her designs on this rough, matte initial phase of the earthenware with a slim brush, creating smooth lines across their coarse surfaces. The painted colors change drastically in the final glazing, but decades of experimenting has taught her what outcome to expect. The pieces are dipped in a solution of water and glass powder, which produces a glaze as the powder melts over the surface in a second firing in the oven, thereby sealing the design (and rendering it non-toxic and dishwasher-safe) with a brilliant, enduring gloss. A single plate may require up to ten hours to fabricate.

Images by Stefan Giftthaler

Paravicini frequently develops custom designs in tandem with clients, and she has turned the annual presentations of her new collections into a highlight of Milan’s Salone del Mobile. Today, she also works with a selection of contemporary artists to execute her designs, and has introduced occasional tableware with hand-applied serigraphs and digital patterns.

A treasure trove of surprises, the Laboratorio is one of the delicate secrets shared among Milan’s most discerning households and visitors—an artistic rarity that feels like it comes from the pages of a storybook rather than a sprawling industrialized city.

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The PRIOR editorial team, overseen by David Prior, works together to write and produce stories that inspire curiosity about, and the desire to connect to, places and people across the world.

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