It was the night the lights went out that Carla Sozzani realised just how influential she’d become. On that day in March 1999 — nine years after founding 10 Corso Como, arguably the world’s first concept store, on an unremarkable thoroughfare on the northern edge of Milan — she was putting the finishing touches on an exhibition in the space when the neighbourhood went dark. “I called the city,” Sozzani recalls, “and they told me, ‘Carla, you’re going to be very happy, the power is off because the construction work has started. Corso Como is going to be a pedestrian street from now on.’” By putting down roots outside of Milan’s centre, Sozzani had forced its fashionable shoppers out of their comfort zone, and like-minded businesses had followed suit. Suddenly, this tract of city was the most exciting place to be.
Nearly 25 years later, Corso Como, the avenue, has evolved into a fashion and nightlife hub against a backdrop of newly erected skyscrapers. “There was a greengrocer there and not much else,” she says of the area when she first arrived. Her plan at the time was to open a gallery that would exhibit the work — including images by photographers like Paolo Roversi, Sarah Moon and David Bailey — that she’d fallen in love with during her 20 years in magazines. (She became the founding editor in chief of Italian Elle in 1987, and after that the director of special editions for Vogue Italia, where her younger sister, Franca Sozzani, was the editor in chief until she died in 2016.) But bit by bit she kept adding on: In 1991, she opened a boutique on the gallery floor selling forward-thinking fashion lines like Maison Martin Margiela, Comme des Garçons and Alaïa; that same year, just upstairs, came a bookstore devoted to art and design; in 1998, she debuted a cafe serving simple Italian food; and in 2003, she took over a stack of apartments in a building across the shop’s courtyard and transformed them into a three-bedroom hotel. Sozzani likes to compare 10 Corso Como to an Italian piazza. “Everything you need is inside,” she explains. “You just need a drawbridge to close yourself in.”
From the start, 10 Corso Como’s concept and visual identity have been the joint product of Sozzani and the American artist Kris Ruhs, to whom Sozzani was introduced on a trip to New York in 1989 and who has now been her partner for 31 years (his work was the subject of the gallery’s first exhibition in 1990). Ruhs designed the store’s hand-scrawled logo, and its interiors are filled with his playful sketches, elaborate curtain-like wall hangings made of painted Plexiglas and black-and-white cloudlike paper mobiles. He has also had a hand in shaping the apartment the couple share on a leafy boulevard in northwest Milan.
Sozzani tells me the story of the blackout on a scorching July afternoon while sitting on a grey-and-white Osaka sofa by Pierre Paulin, which is surrounded by piles of art books and exhibition catalogs, in her and Ruhs’s cavernous sitting room. A former 1930s-era office, the home has herringbone parquet floors and bright white walls that are contrasted by a veritable crush of art and objects. When she purchased the U-shaped unit in 1986, Sozzani demolished most of its compact rooms to create a single open living space, punctuated by the occasional load-bearing partition wall. On this day, she is, as always, impeccably dressed, in a pristine white Alaïa shirtdress, pressed black trousers (“Dior, from the Galliano era,” she says) and studded leather sandals, also Alaïa. With a pale, almond-shaped face and a sly grin, her countenance is part Modigliani muse, part manga heroine, and framed by long blond waves tied at the nape of her neck with a velvet ribbon.
In the living room, which looks out onto a lush private garden, the walls are covered with Ruhs’s monumental mixed-media reliefs constructed largely from found materials like metal, rope and paper in black and white with the occasional fleck of red or blue. In the adjacent dining area, a glass-topped table with an interlocking carved wooden base of Ruhs’s design sits beneath a cluster of his raku ceramic pendant lights, which resemble bulbous jack-o’-lanterns. And in the hallway, which acts as an informal gallery space leading to the couple’s bedroom and private quarters, there are a spindly black chair, a chrome concave seat and two wavelike plexiglass chaise longues, all made by Ruhs and arranged next to a black-and-white Joe Colombo tube chair. Ruhs even had a carpenter build the kitchen to his specifications, using wooden boards painted in his signature polka dots and loopy hand-drawn forms in lieu of a conventional backsplash.
Sozzani describes her decorating ethos as combining “layers and layers of life.” Thus, the home is also a palimpsest of her long career spent at the nexus of the worlds of fashion, art and design, and nearly everything in it has a story to tell. As we’re talking, a spotted Bengal cat leaps onto the sofa, nuzzles my knuckle and announces herself with a loud meow. “She was Azzedine’s,” Sozzani tells me, referring to the designer Azzedine Alaïa, who was one of her closest friends. “I took her after he passed. She’s named Lola, after [Julian] Schnabel’s daughter,” she adds, pausing to stroke the cat’s skinny tail.
Many of the furnishings have similarly rich histories. The Pierre Paulin sofa, for example, which she found in the ’90s at the Clignancourt flea market in Paris, is the exact model later re-editions are based on. “Pierre came here in the 1990s to take the measurements,” she recalls of the pioneering French designer, who died in 2009. “His own version had been lost over the years.”
In the ’80s, Sozzani socialised with Ettore Sottsass, the founder of the Italian postmodern design collective the Memphis Group, among whose members she discovered another of her favourite creative talents. “Ettore, his wife Barbara and I spent so many nights together singing and drinking. That’s how I met Shiro Kuramata,” she says, referring to the Japanese industrial designer. She keeps one of his iconic Miss Blanche chairs — a straight-backed armchair, made from clear acrylic resin in which roses are suspended as in amber, that was inspired by the protagonist of Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play “A Streetcar Named Desire” — in her dressing room. “I use it every day,” she says. “When I put my socks on, when I put my shoes on. It reminds me of those times.” She also has a rare Kuramata prototype, an early version of his curvy Side One drawers in rough, unvarnished plywood instead of the usual black-and-white ebonised ash and steel, a set of which she also owns. When Giulio Cappellini, the art director of the Milan-based design firm Cappellini, took over Kuramata’s archive, she tells me, “I convinced him to sell me the original.”
But her first love in furniture will always be the Danish midcentury designer Arne Jacobsen. “His Cylinda tea set was the first piece I collected in the 1970s,” she says of the 1967 stainless steel service, which features a tall cylindrical pot with a spout sprouting from the base like the arm of a Saguaro cactus. “It’s very beautiful, but totally useless.” She went on to amass an army of his fluidly formed chairs (a smooth, curved white Egg chair, designed in 1958, sits in the corner of the living room, offsetting the rough surfaces of Ruhs’s reliefs). “I think the purity of the shapes is what attracts me,” she says. “They’re very sensual. There is nothing forced.” Her zeal for his work even led the Danish design brand Fritz Hansen to enlist Sozzani to collaborate a relaunch of Jacobsen’s bent plywood Series 7 chair last year. Perhaps surprisingly, given the restrained palette of her home, the collection features 16 new colors, ranging from muted pink to forest green, that were inspired by a vibrant storefront Sozzani saw on a trip to India.
These days, though, most of her Jacobsen collection lives at her office at 10 Corso Como where, as our conversation winds down, she plans to return for the remainder of the afternoon. Thirty years after opening its doors, Sozzani is as dedicated to the store as ever and is still planning its expansion. She is currently preparing, for example, to add a space for pop-up design exhibitions, which will open during the Salone del Mobile furniture fair in September, to the already sprawling compound. “10 Corso Como is where I spend most of my time,” she says. “It will always be my first home.”