Low-key sophistication defines the work of design duo Festen—and nowhere more so than in the minimalist, old-world space they call home. Alexandra Marshall reports.

Photographed by Jonas Unger.



The creative polymath Ashley Hicks’s artistic adventures in lockdown are enough to make even the most productive aesthetes quake in admiration. At home in the English countryside, for instance, he insouciantly transformed his bathroom with a fresco of figures after Michelangelo: He now describes it as “The Sistine Bathroom.” He created a collection of obelisk table ornaments that appear—thanks to his alchemical paintbrush—to have been assembled from shards of lapis, porphyry, or malachite. He’s made a group of vibrantly colored resin sculptures and a series of chiaroscuro trompe l’oeil panel paintings—all while assiduously keeping up a lively design-centric Instagram account (@ashleyhicks1970) and a series of virtual tours of storied houses on Instagram Live. And when his collaborator Martina Mondadori relocated from a London town house to an apartment in her hometown of Milan last year, it provided not only a new canvas for her and the aesthetic that she has defined in the pages of her cult magazine, Cabana, but a further opportunity for Hicks to brandish his painter’s easel.


Mondadori founded the biannual design publication in 2014 (with friends Christoph Radl and Gianluca Reina) to showcase a selection of atmospheric and layered environments that made patina glamorous—she describes their unifying spirit as gemütlich, warm and inviting—and to celebrate the revival of craft around the world. The magazine proved so potent that it became a noun (as in “that lampshade fringe is so Cabana”) and swiftly engendered a tribe of devoted contributors and acolytes—and an enticing product range. Hicks soon became a contributor, turning his lens and pen on such subjects as the fabled frescoes of the Villa Imperiale in Pesaro.


Hicks’s passion for photography resulted in the handsome 2018 volume Buckingham Palace: The Interiors, for which he documented not only the storied royal residence’s staterooms but remarkable private areas as well—familiar only to members of the royal family, their staff, and their guests. (Hicks himself is a cousin of HRH Prince Philip.) He followed this up with 2019’s Rooms With a History: Interiors and their Inspirations, a book that is “full,” as he has written, “of deeply pretentious opinions on everything from ugly colors (do they exist?) to flowers (I love them, who doesn’t?)”


Meanwhile, working together on projects at Cabana, Hicks and Mondadori realized that their rapport extended beyond a shared aesthetic—and a deeper relationship bloomed. “We complement each other,” says Hicks, “and compliment each other, so it all works quite well.”

For both, design is in their blood. Mondadori, scion of the publishing house of Mondadori and the Zanussi home-appliance company on her mother’s side, grew up in a wildly atmospheric Milanese apartment that was decorated by family friend Renzo Mongiardino, Italy’s genius of interior design. Mongiardino layered the rooms with Indian and Persian textiles, shamelessly posthumous “Old Master” works, and extraordinarily convincing trompe l’oeil, suggesting by turns maple-wood marquetry or marble panels. As a child, Mondadori craved “a minimalist white house,” she says, but now she gleefully embraces the maximalist Mongiardino aesthetic: “I can’t live without color.”


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Hicks’s own exacting father, the decorator David Hicks, meanwhile, redefined the way the jet set wanted to live in the Swinging Sixties with his strident use of color and audacious innovations. He later recalled that his childhood home in London, for instance, featured “glossy Coca-Cola-colored” walls and windowpanes of “tinted glass.” Hicks père thought this a clever way to counteract the city’s light; his son considered it “terribly dark and gloomy.”


Mondadori reached out to Hicks about her new apartment in May of 2020 as Italy began to ease out of its strictest lockdown. She sent him images of the classic turn-of-the-century bourgeois space, composed of an enfilade of three principal reception rooms, laid with its original kinetic parquet floor and linked by glazed doors. A long, terrazzo-floored corridor runs alongside like a spine and leads to bedrooms for Mondadori and her children (with her ex-husband, financier Peter Sartogo), Leonardo, 12; Tancredi, 10; and Cosima, 4.


Hicks decided to “make a separation between the three rooms,” defining each with different effects. In a small sitting room are trompe l’oeils that he painted on hessian panels—a technique that he employed to dazzling effect in his former London residence at the Albany, the storied Piccadilly apartment building created in 1802 for Regency gentlemen, including Lord Byron and William Ewart Gladstone, the future prime minister, to live unmolested by family responsibilities. It was an apartment that his father had made a calling card for the evolution of his own decorating innovations.


Mondadori and Hicks plan to divide the rooms with Egyptian curtains embroidered in the Cairene souks by Mondadori’s friend Goya Sawiris of Malaika, while Hicks’s own textile—inspired by a late-15th-century Florentine velvet at the Victoria and Albert Museum—has been artfully arranged to block unseen shelves: “Mrs. Cabana needed some storage,” he explains, “for her plethora of stuff.”


Mindful of Mondadori’s nostalgia for the atmosphere of her childhood home and of her passion for Renaissance Italy and the Middle East—“always part of Cabana’s world,” she avers—Hicks took inspiration from two late-15th-century textiles: a Renaissance cut velvet and an Ottoman saz silk with a motif that Hicks likens to “peacocks or dancing ladies. It’s got a wonderful energy,” he adds, “so I thought it would be quite nice for this lady dancing back to Milan.”


“It was hilarious because we are starting from two very different color schemes,” Mondadori recalls. “I kept saying to him, ‘No turquoise allowed, please!’ He was like, ‘You’re obsessed with terra-cotta.’ So there was this permanent joke of Ashley saying ‘Be careful or I’ll put in some pink or turquoise.’ So far he has behaved. Maybe if I leave him alone for two weeks in this house, I will come back and it will be covered in Tiffany blue!”


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When travel restrictions lifted, Mondadori stayed with Hicks in England, where they planned the scheme in Hicks’s Oxfordshire home, deep diving together into his formidable decorative-arts library. In August, Hicks came to Milan to paint the rooms himself, discovering that Mondadori’s apartment is fast by the Casa Degli Atellani, where Leonardo da Vinci worked on the Last Supper fresco for the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie across the way. “Milan has a reputation of being an ugly, modern industrial city or something,” says Hicks, “but it couldn’t be further from that, really; there are so many Renaissance things…so many tiny hidden gems here. You would never get any idea of what the city is really like until you live here and you go into these courtyards, which are all green and wonderful.”


In Mondadori’s apartment he used a stencil for the repetitive saz pattern that licks its way around the room like flames, but then painted in highlighted shadows to suggest sunlight streaking through the windows. Hicks also closed the door from the former dining room to the service corridor (filling it in with bookcases) to create a cozy sitting room at the end of the enfilade, and painted its walls after Piranesi’s original 1777 studies of the Paestum ruins (from which the artist created a famed series of engravings). Hicks had admired some of Piranesi’s originals in the London house museum of the celebrated early-19th-century antiquary Sir John Soane.


Hicks had hoped that the overdoors would prove to be over-painted glass, but when the accretions of the decades were scraped away, he discovered that they were solid wood. He used them as a canvas for a series of martial still lives inspired by those in Milan’s Villa Reale, occupied at one point by Napoleon’s brother-in-law Eugène de Beauharnais when he was viceroy of Italy, and notable for what Hicks describes as “the most fantastic Empire interiors.”


When we spoke via FaceTime in January, Mondadori was waiting for a long-delayed shipment of furniture and belongings from her former London house. The interiors, she explains, will also involve “quite a lot of upcycling and recycling of old pieces of furniture from my father and my mother’s first house, done by Mongiardino in the early ’70s in Verona.” There are additional treasures from her late father, Leonardo, who was, she notes, “a collector of very eclectic things,” including master drawings (Goya and Degas among them), medieval art, and early Renaissance furniture. This is a genre in which looks trump comfort, as evidenced by a doughty X-frame chair that would seem right at home in an interior by Piero della Francesca. “It’s dreadfully comfortable,” Hicks deadpans. In fact, he calls it “the torture chair.” “You do need a cushion,” concedes Mondadori. She, luckily, also has a passion for the commodious, handmade wicker chairs that Mongiardino designed for Bonacina—furnishings that became signature details of his client Marella Agnelli’s fabled interiors. Mondadori has sleuthed other treasures too—from dawn raids on England’s Kempton market to the dealers of Jaipur and Istanbul and the antiques fairs of Padua.


Meanwhile, the indefatigable Hicks painted Mondadori’s portrait with her children as a Christmas gift, and worked with Mongiardino’s former metalworkers to create his “Footlight” tabletop lamp, inspired by historic theater stage lighting. “It lights up the stuff in front of it and the wall,” Hicks explains, “which I think is rather ingenious, but then I would, wouldn’t I?”


“Working with Ashley on this house, on these walls, has also inspired me,” says Mondadori, who is now developing the first Cabana fabric collection (with Schumacher), which will include the saz design from Hicks’s scheme. “It’s been great fun, I must say,” she adds. “It is great fun,” says Hicks.

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by Daniël Geldenhuys

Photographed by Alexa Singer

Anthony Smith loves a good corner. The streetwear designer’s Woodstock house is on a corner, a flight of stairs leading to the front door bisects the roads at 45 degrees. 2Bop is well known as one of the holy trinity of Cape Town streetwear brands that thrived in the now-closed cult-followed Corner Store. We meet for chai lattes at the coffee place on the corner of Salisbury and Fairview – his suggestion. 

 

The house, like Anthony, is unique and unassuming. Nothing screams fashion designer: the most obvious clue that this is his home would be the Polaroids framed by the stairwell. The arcade games depicted in the Polaroids lived in corner stores under apartheid South Africa, portals through sanctions into the digital fantasies of 80s game masters oceans away. Access was priced at twenty cents, colloquially a 2Bop. “You need to have a concept that that’s gonna keep you inspired, that really resonates with you,” says Anthony of the arcade game aesthetic defining 2Bop’s DNA.

“I like to give my audience the benefit of the doubt. I think they can handle it.”

Pressed to name an all-time favourite game, Anthony chooses Street Fighter 2. “I’ve referenced it like a million times in my work. There’s a nostalgic element to it but it’s also just pure design genius. I could geek out for ages.” Perhaps accidentally, his elaboration on the game’s evolution sounds like a metaphor for the erratic journey that is running a local fashion brand. “You could never really master it,” he says. “You could always improve. There were serendipitous things that happened in the game’s development: a programming glitch where you could do one punch and it would go straight into another. People started mastering these things and it became a part of the strategy.” 

 

Of course, running a South African label means you need to do a lot more than have a strong concept that fuels your creative direction. The business savvy necessary to support creative outputs - an entrepreneurial role young designers are forced to adopt - has been a part 

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Model Juliana Coetzer wears pieces from 2Bob's Blue Sky collection.

of Anthony’s story since he did “the sensible thing” and enrolled in UCT’s BComm degree after high school. Half way through second year “I basically smoked myself into obviation.” The situation spiralled: Anthony put his course on hold, moving home to Port Elisabeth to recalibrate. When he returned to UCT it was to study Film and Media, levelling up with an Honours in English Literature, his thesis on the commodification of hip hop culture. 

2Bop was born in 2004 as a side hustle. Four years later, Anthony partnered with graphic designer Bradley Abrahams to work on the brand full time. In 2011 they opened Smith & Abrahams, “a modern take on the classic mens’ outfitters,” in Woodstock. Sneakers, streetwear and magazines were sold in the front, and 2Bop was manufactured in the back. “I think it was a bit ahead of its time,” says Anthony, though even then reporters lauded the space for its ‘cult following.’ That following multiplied in 2016 when Anthony and Bradly parted ways and the space became Corner Store: a home for 2Bop, Sol-Sol, and Young and Lazy. All three brands were (at least partly) produced and sold on the premises, and for a time it was also home to a design agency - easily Cape Town’s coolest creative space. 

 

Corner Store closed in 2018, not necessarily for lack of business, but more the challenges in finding common ground between three businesses at very different stages of their evolution (Sol-Sol, for example, is 10 years younger than 2Bop). Does Anthony miss having a physical home to sell his product? “To be honest, no,” he laughs. “A lot more work goes into managing a retail space for relatively small returns.” Selling online, he admits, isn’t as easy as it may seem, explaining that a lack of physical presence can be detrimental to moving product. Still, just shy of a month after our meeting, the AW19 Blue Sky collection is almost completely sold out on 2Bop’s online pre-orders. 


Freed from the admin that is boutique retail, Anthony enrolled in Threads, a fashion business accelerator course/competition hybrid by Standard Bank. 14 weeks of coursework compiled by an Italian university spanned traditional lectures and field trips across the country to fabric manufacturers and retailer head quarters. “It was kinda like a mini MBA,” says Anthony, confirming that he’d finally reached a place in his life where he could thoroughly appreciate a business course. And though he’s definitely too humble to mention it, he walked away 

with first prize, which included funding to participate at a trade show in Paris, a popup at Patta in Amsterdam, and a fancy Benz to drive for a year. 

 

“There needs to be an incubation program for young entrepreneurs,” Anthony muses. “I get approached about once a week by a young entrepreneur who needs guidance - I don’t have the time or resources. There are a few corporates that are planning to initiate incubation programs - I’ve written proposals for how they could operate based on what I’ve seen and what people ask me.” The ideal program would need to involve the perfect mix of education and funding: “A lot of people come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Being able to develop their first range in a risk-free way would be ideal. Maybe the first range is 100% financed, the second 50%… there’s all sorts of models you could use.”

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Model Juliana Coetzer wears pieces from 2Bob's Blue Sky collection.

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A key ingredient in 2Bop’s success may well be that its creator has never been seduced by the fashion industry’s false promises of glamour and status. “I never thought of it as going into fashion,” Anthony says of starting the label. “To this day I don’t see it that way - I see it as a medium to express design ideas. I tend to take my inspiration from other media like art or music. I’m not saying other fashion designers don’t do that, but I’m just sort of oblivious to what’s happening in that fashion world – I almost don’t consider it. I think for me it just feels more honest, not being aware of what other people are doing. I feel you can get influenced like really easily, even subliminally – it can be kind of dangerous that way. Things are just more honest if you look elsewhere.”

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