From Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea Palladio, whose influence on architecture cannot be overstated, to Ettore Sottsass (buildings, furniture), Carlo Alessi (appliances and kitchenware), and Vitale Bramani (Vibram soles), it’s axiomatic that Italian artisans, designers, inventors and architects have the twin gifts of the eye and the hand. They know form, they know function, and they know innately how to weld the two occasionally warring elements of production into useful, attractive things. Mirko Arbore, scion of the Bari-based Arbore family firm of architeture and design, has been grinding at the cutting edge of Italian interior design in New York, London, Paris, Riyadh, Doha, Marrakesh, and in his native country for years now, and is rocking through that confident, mature phase of a man hitting his commercial and aesthetic stride.
“It’s about the client,” he says from behind the wheel of his Ferrari, motoring from up to Lake Como after last week’s design shows in Milan. “It only matters that I am able to deliver something that expresses exactly his or her wishes, especially if they can’t quite articulate them. Each job is the job of a tailor, custom made. A sarto, a tailor, fits to the body. I fit to the mind. But the work must look as if it just came to be.”
Equally at home in New York or Paris – until 2007 the firm had offices in New York – Arbore has brought his 40-man team firmly into the 21st century by bringing his particular brand of spectacular, yet sleekly understated style to the Middle East, specifically to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to the Emirates, and to Qatar. A welcome figure in the royal recesses of Riyadh and Doha, itself quite a diplomatic feat, Arbore has designed palaces, retreats, apartments, and guest houses across the Middle East.
Along the way, much like his French competitor and colleague Philippe Starck, Arbore has done superyachts, sailboats, and in one extraordinary case, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
“He liked the orca, the killer whale, so, we gave it that sort of look,” Arbore explains drily, as if waking up one morning to paint a Dreamliner as a whale were the most natural thing that he might do. “One unusual thing about doing planes, even the big ones, yes, you can have the wood, but in a Dreamliner, it’s all veneer. Behind those few millimeters of veneer is paper, because of the weight.”
More traditional are his domestic interiors and houses – as pictured here in Marrakesh, Riyadh, Knightsbridge and Paris – where Arbore fashions a heady mix of Middle Eastern and European influences, approximately, acres of good marble and fine Italian fabrics that bring an arresting mix of patterns to the surfaces, and the painterly, coquettish deployment of screens.
One might be in Riyadh, but one could as easily be in 11th-century Venice, Byzantium, or in a luxury suite in Elon Musk’s futuristic colony of Mars; Arbore’s influences hark back to the Great Silk Road trade that came through the Adriatic and, significantly, to the origins of Islam. This level of cultural sophistication in an architectural waltz through history means that, in a cool and coolly curated Arbore interior, the palette may be subtle and restful, but the eye is only rarely coming to rest, being constantly enticed to decode the next pattern. Weaving together the very elements of construction — stone, steel, wool, cotton, leather — Arbore rooms are tapestries in themselves.
It’s not a mystery, then, that Mirko Arbore has become the best-kept-yet-passed-along secret among his very well-heeled client base in Europe and the Middle East. What is a bit of a mystery is how the secret has been so well kept for so long.