June 2017. A warm, sunny afternoon. A bowl of fleshy, tasty, in-season cherries. Strong, brewed coffee in small, delicately hand-painted cups. Little objets déco, lamps, vintage mirrors, books, plants, upscale fabrics and textures, pieces of furniture, all around, settled quietly, each their own place. Overall tranquility. And a sense of melancholy. All interrupted once in a while by the insistent barking of Yoshi, the cute and so-lucky kennel rescue doggie, obstinately asking for attention. In the comfy sitting-room of her house – design studio with its tall ceilings and windows through which the light of the beginning of summer avidly slips in, Simona Rizzi unfolds her life story openly, nostalgically, in a charming mélange of Romanian, Italian, English and French.
My personal life journey is quite interesting. I do think I am a fortunate person. At the time of my birth, few people would travel extensively; yet, my own family had been living abroad and had already been experiencing the out of ordinary. What may seem banal now, back then it was rather uncommon. My parents, both Italians, met in Ethiopia, which was an Italian colony in the ‘60s. My paternal grandfather is mentioned in the celebrissima Encyclopedia Treccani as the first to have had a banana farm in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia. My mother completed her studies in Italy at a later date, but she and my father met, fell in love and married in Ethiopia, where I came into the world. Soon after, my father got a job offer in Zair, currently Congo, and we all moved there. Maurilio, my one year younger brother, was born there. Then we moved and lived in Kenya. Following my father’s decision to open his own business in Italy, the whole family re-settled in our homeland. I was 13 years old when we left Africa behind. My two other brothers, the twins Lorenzo and Francesco, were born in Rome. In 1997, I took them on a trip to Africa to show them the places of my childhood, but I regret that trip enormously; it left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Nothing seemed familiar anymore: the wild beaches with elephants, giraffes, monkeys had been replaced by cement with restaurants, pizzerias, bars.
When I rewind time back to my African years, there is always that sensation of “wild” – not in the sense of nature sauvage; rather, the whole atmosphere was literally very wild. I cannot think of a better word. My parents’ entourage was formed by Italians, French, a lot of Belgians, especially in Congo, which was Congo Belga in those years. We’re talking the ‘70s. Work was stressful, the conditions were precarious, there was little comfort. And they turned to divertissement to suppress it all. Parties on and on. People had a lot of fun. Their social life was lively and intense. I grew up playing in the dusty streets, in the vicinity of wild life that could turn dangerous. A bite by a certain snake species would be lethal. Nevertheless, no one would give possible perils too much thought. It was all part of local life dynamics. Some of these life perspectives would also build up your strength. An illustrative episode is how I learned water-skiing on Fiume Congo. Giorgio, a friend of my father, threw me in the river with my skis on and told me: “You have two options, either get up, or get eaten by crocodiles.” That was that! Simple, full stop! Certamente, stuff like this shaped my character and personality in a certain fashion. I am very sanguine, obviously. On the other hand, I also developed phobias, for instance of driving on narrow roads. Whenever my father and I would go on safari, we had to drive on this portion of mountainous road that narrowed down to the point where, if two cars came from opposite directions, one had to back up, which was so terrifying to me. There was the mountain to the left and the abyss to the right. The roads were dirt roads. Whether it rained or not, there was no other way.
I found it bizarre to return to Europe and to face a reality completamente different from the African one. At the same time, the other children perceived me as a little strange, as well. My way of dressing and seeing things. I recall this kid asking me why I was wearing my socks the way I did. I could not understand what was so weird about it. In truth, in Africa I would seldom wear socks, given the climate, and I would probably put them on in a fashion seen by the other kids as awkward.
In Africa, I went to the Belgian-French School in Congo. Same in Nairobi, so I learned English at the local French school and simply by living there, as Kenya was a British colony. In Rome, I continued my studies at a French school run by Dominican nuns. It was a private school, and the graduation diploma was not accepted for the university exams. At 16 years old, I switched to Lycée Chateaubriand of Rome, and I was awarded my baccalaureate in Grenoble. I studied architecture for one year at the University in Rome, where I discovered my passion for interior design. There was just one dedicated-class, but enough to open up my appetite for it. I instantly knew that was my calling, and basta! Let’s be clear: an interior designer is moulded in a way that differs from an architect. An architect can do interior design, but not vice versa. Still, an architect interested in interior design needs a certain level of sensibility; it is an area that requires skills different than in architecture. There are other themes, motifs, proportions, details. In turn, interior design has other sub-fields, such as window design. Well, not everyone can do that. It demands solid expertise, alongside the inherent aesthetic sense and artistic instincts. So, in the absence of a sturdy interior design department at the university, I decided to drop it and I enrolled for the the Istituto Europeo di Design, a two-year private school that provided much theory, but too little practice. Lentamente, I started working for various design studios in Rome. And I met and fell in love with Giuseppe.
My Roman period ended when my father gifted me an apartment in Florence. By Ponte Vecchio. Bellissimo!! That did not mean that I could just idle around doing nothing, or that my parents would back me up financially. On the contrary, my father told me: Simona, vuoi mangiare, lavora! Punto! Finding the right job was not easy, as a graduation diploma was required and I did not have one. During one interview I was told that, even though I was superior to all the other candidates, a less skilled one was chosen because of the diploma. I’d do all sorts of jobs, hoping for the right one, eventually. At one moment, a personal problem occurred; and I asked Giuseppe to help me find a job in Bologna, where he lived. Giuseppe’s mother is Francesca Anderson, one of the biggest interior designers in Italy. It just happened that his mother’s business partner was looking for a secretary. I was hired on the spot thanks to my ability to speak French and English.
I was entering the Bolognese decade of my life. Francesca Anderson saw my passion for interior design and transferred me to her store. I learned everything from her, while realizing the little use I had from all the school studies. Only practice teaches you to understand materials, textiles, colour combinations, how to work with proportions. So, I started in her store, where, in about one month, I absorbed everything with the avidity of blotting-paper. Two years later, I was already her braccio destro. At the age of 23, I started my apprenticeship with Francesca; by 24-25, I’d accompany her to the work sites. I took part in projects that were featured in Architectural Digest, a very exclusive magazine back then.
I felt fortunate to be Francesca’s disciple, aware of the huge chance to learn from the best. On the other hand, it was extremely difficult. She was a very tough, demanding, and hard-to-handle person. She would never praise; still, she never missed a chance to criticize. One day, I handed in my resignation. I told her I could not cope working with a person like her, so hard to please. She talked me into staying. I did. But she remained severe. What ended our 10-year collaboration was my break-up with her son Giuseppe. I was an emotional wreck, I suffered a lot, I would cry daily, and I could not afford sobbing in front of clients. This amorous micro-drama was a turning point that changed my life. I decided to leave it all behind and go on a self-discovery journey. Oh well, not exactly like in Eat, Pray, Love. My journey was a lot shorter.
Bon! When I returned from this “Band-Aid” holiday, I decided to stay with my family in Arezzo for a while. Still, I had to find work, I could not just do nothing. Luckily, a position opened at a big local store dealing with everything related to interior design. And soon after, ecco!, an even bigger chance: a construction company with projects in Romania contacted me to cover the interior design area of their projects. I did not know much about Romania, but given my past experiences living abroad I remain curious about any challenge and I also have the courage to go for it. I believe that any experience is a good learning opportunity. I accepted immediately and there I was, in 1997, in Romania for an initial period of 6 months. Things worked out really smoothly. I liked it a lot and, at the same time, I became increasingly aware of the opportunities lying ahead. There were not many interior designers at that time, nor a big variety of design stores. It was rather limited, and the product range was very narrow. I proposed to the construction company to let me bring in some brands that were not on the Romanian market. And I decided to stay. It was very easy to integrate. I was always embraced very warmly. It could be mainly because I was a foreigner. But I like to think that it was also because of my talent, professionalism and seriousness. There was a bit of reticence at the beginning because of my young age, I guess. Francesca’s letters of recommendation helped, as well. The first couple of projects pushed me into the credibility zone. I would be invited to tv shows and featured in magazines. I even started to feel un pocco preziosa, but that never got to my head, I’d say.
I met some incredibly talented and skillful craftsmen here with whom I’ve been teaming up for 20 years. Grandi artigiani! For instance, my upholsterer is now 80 and still incredible. Ecco! A propósito, I’ve always employed as much local expertise and materials as possible. Unfortunately, the skills of craftsmen have started to decline lately; and this is a painful fact.
I love Romania. I feel at home here. It’s been fascinating to see all the changes taking place in the past two decades. When I started, the clients were more rigid, less open to accepting something more off-norm, such as wood flooring in the bathroom. “Wood in the bathroom? How so? Won’t it get damaged?” was the usual reaction. “Well, what are boats made of?” I would reply. I would then explain that wood could be treated to resist humidity, etc., etc. Or the stand-off-ish reactions to bolder colour palettes to paint the walls. Indeed, there was a lot of reticence. People started travelling more and more, their lifestyles changed, the mentality opened up, their needs and priorities shifted. I feel I’ve been part of everything going on. And I constantly need to align with the changes in my field, as well. Rules change here, too. Or rules that were compulsory 10 years ago are now purposely ignored. Now you can mix and match in a way frowned upon some time ago. Still, even these mixes need to be done correctly, using your brain.
Here I also have Alvaro, my horse. Together we participate in jumping competitions. We’ve won a lot of them. He is now in training. He is a beautiful, intelligent, cooperative, docile horse. Alvaro is like a kid to me. I love horses. Horse-riding is my passion. It relaxes me the most. Yoshi, my kennel rescue doggie, and I drive outside of Bucharest to see and spend time with Alvaro every weekend. Almost no exception! This equestrian passion started in my African childhood, at the age of 7, in Nairobi. After my return to Rome, as a kid, I was selected for a very important competition where each town and city would send a carefully selected participant for each age group.
In my studio, I always tune in to Italian radio stations: that homeland nostalgia still lingers on, wherever you are. Mother tongue remains mother tongue! And I must confess to a pretty frequent craving for salumi italiani. Not to speak about espresso had at the bar, in the purest Italian style! Nowadays, more and more people have espresso machines in their homes, but for us Italians, the real espresso is the one you drink at the bar. Actually, the first thing I do when I land on the Fiumiccino Airport in Rome is stop at the first bar and order: Un espresso, per favore!
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Editing & Translation ✒ ADINA SHOLLENBARGER
Photo © GABRIELA DUMITRAN