For the Italian-born, London-based artist and designer Viola Lanari, creativity is often fueled by a hunt for solutions. When she moved into her two-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a handsome Victorian terrace house in Earl’s Court in 2011, she discovered two unappealing brushed-metal table lamps that had been wired into the fitted alcove cabinets of her living room by a previous owner. Rather than reaching for a screwdriver, she set about reinventing them with a cache of plaster strips left over from an art project she’d completed during her time at the London College of Communication. Inspired first by the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s 1930s Tête de Femme lamps, shaped like semi-abstracted female figures, and later by the idea of a fragile flower, she began layering the nondescript bases with the soft, water-soaked gauze. The resulting sculptures are naïve and enchanting: One depicts a woman’s face, its features smoothed and barely discernible, like those of a timeworn marble sculpture; the other evokes a bloom with delicately layered petals, their alabaster white surface mottled by the marks of the artist’s hand.
“It was just for fun,” says Lanari, 32, when I visit her home in early March. She gestures to the two pieces, which now flank the simple white-painted wood fireplace in her living room. “I remember thinking, ‘It’s not bad for a first attempt.’ But I never imagined anything would come of it.” When she showed the lamps to friends and design editors, though, they soon commissioned her to make similar creations for their own homes and professional projects. Now, these sculptures — which, depending on the hour, cast dramatic shadows across the wooden floorboards and plum, emerald and tawny brown walls of her apartment — are the foundation of her practice. Each morning, Lanari makes the 20-minute trip across the city in her 1980s Volkswagen Polo to her studio in Clapham, South London, a diminutive, 345-square-foot stone-floored Victorian outbuilding — part of a larger warehouse complex now occupied by artists’ work spaces — whose weathered yellow-brick facade is obscured by a profusion of climbing ivy. Here, she strives to keep pace with the demand for her growing collection of plaster lighting and furniture, which she makes for both private clients and collaborators, including the interior decorator Beata Heuman, the antique and design gallery 8 Holland Street and the luxury bathroom specialists Balineum.
Apart from that original pair of spontaneously executed lamps, few objects in Lanari’s charmingly ad hoc, ever-changing home are anchored in place. “I rarely hang things,” she says, referring to the unframed found canvases of daffodils, roses and pastoral scenes that lean precariously against walls, door frames and even the back of the living room’s dusty blue sofa, itself a chaotic patchwork of leopard-print, floral-patterned and embroidered cushions and throws. “Nothing is fixed,” she says, “which allows me to swap things around easily and play. It’s an interior that’s never going to be finished.” Indeed, Lanari’s home is a living scrapbook of materials and inspirations. On every surface are assemblages of objects and ephemera that she has collected on her travels and on weekly pilgrimages to Portobello Market, from a wicker Kenyan tea set that now rests on a round end table of her own design by the fireplace to the beaded turn-of-the-20th-century macramé samples she won at an auction and now displays over the backs of two Victorian nursing chairs. Such habitual sourcing is a throwback to her previous job as a stylist and assistant shoot producer for decorating magazines — and provides a rich stream of ideas for her plaster art.
“I like looking at objects and materials and thinking about their possibilities,” she says. “It’s research — you note the proportion of things, the color, the texture, and it all gradually builds up in your mind.” One disc-shaped mirror she picked up at a flea market has found its way into her latest work; it forms the bold centerpiece of a thick, textured rectangular console, built from a chicken-wire base covered with discarded scraps of fabric — many of them donated by her friend, the textile designer Kirsten Hecktermann — dipped into hard plaster and carefully molded and carved to create a raw, unfinished texture. “It’s like a collage,” she says of the piece, which currently sits in her living room and is offset by a dark brown hand-painted devoré velvet Japanese wall hanging discovered at a Swiss brocante by her mother. Next fall, this creation, along with a series of other new works Lanari is producing, is scheduled to go on display in a solo exhibition at the Lant Street design showroom in South London. She’s also developing new objects, including a floor lamp and a mirror frame, to add to her white-plaster collection of lighting, consoles and side tables for the British design company Porta Romana.
These projects are encouraging Lanari to experiment with new ways of working: She’s exploring the illuminating effects of adding metal oxides and stained glass to plaster, and plans to create some terra-cotta sculptures (she recently inherited a kiln from a neighboring studio). Yet five years after her first endeavors with plaster, the powdery, malleable material still captivates her more than any other. “It’s so full of soul,” she says. “It can be shiny, like Venetian plaster, or rough; it’s supple but strong, fragile but sturdy. It’s so generous in its uses.” And so, for now at least, she will continue to fill her studio, and her home, with the luminous, unmistakably handcrafted forms that only plaster could produce, layer by gloopy layer.