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.”
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!”
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.