Designer Spotlight: Nanda Vigo

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Nanda Vigo is arguably one of the most prolific Italian designers of the post war period. Known for her exceptional use of light and colour, Vigo was on the forefront of 1960s and 1970s design working with such esteemed names as Gio Ponti whilst simultaneously forging a successful name for herself and her Milanese studio. Vigo has worked across a number of artistic disciplines including architecture, interior design, sculpture and furniture design and continues to work and exhibit to the present day dividing her time between Milan and East Africa. Vigo's work challenges perception fully embracing the avant garde and our assumptions of what design is and can be. Vigo's unique approach to design was a natural fit in the 1970s for the Italian genre film in which directors showcased the very best in Italian design through interiors and fashions. Vigo's monochromatic interiors are perhaps some of the most memorable in Italian genre cinema and although Italian film fans may be unfamiliar with her name, they're such to recognise her striking interiors that have been prominently featured in key films of the giallo and poliziotteschi.

During her prolific interior design period Vigo designed six monochromatic interiors; Zero House (1959-1962), Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia (1965-1968), Casa Remo Brindisi Museum (1967-1971), Casa Blu (1967-1972), Casa Gialla (1970) and Casa Nera (1970). This series of interiors embraced a pop art sensibility that seamlessly integrated art, architecture and the interior. Vigo's interiors were showcased in seminal Italian design magazine, Domus and quickly became key examples of Italian interior design of the period. The visceral nature of her designs were a natural fit for the big screen and three of her key interiors; Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia, Casa Blu and Casa Gialla were featured in Italian genre cinema of the time. In this article I'm going to examine these interiors in relation to the films they feature in and shine a light on why Vigo's interiors were so integral to the distinct visual look of Italian genre cinema of the early to mid 1970s.



In 2016, I contributed an essay to Arrow Video's Killer Dames release which contained Emilio P. Miraglia's Gothic gialli; The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave (1971) and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972). My essay examined the production design in Miraglia's films and the various ways in which production designer Lorenzo Baraldi conveyed key themes and ideas through costuming and interiors. In particular, I touched upon an interior featured in the final scenes of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave which takes place at a Northern Italian residence known as Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia (The Beetle Under the Leaf named due to the building's beetle like shape). Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia was conceived in 1964 by renowned Italian architect, Gio Ponti. Ponti designed the house for art collector, Giobatta Meneguzzo and entrusted the interior design to Nanda Vigo, a artist/designer involved in the radical art scene of the 1960s. Ponti agreed to work on Meneguzzo's house plans for free providing that he invested in the house's experimental design, resulting in a mesmerising array of art and innovative design features that make Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia one of the great Italian interiors of the latter half of the twentieth century. It's wonderful, innovative design made the residence an ideal film location and in 1971, three years after its completion, Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia was chosen as a filming location for Emilio P. Miraglia's The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave.



The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave predominantly takes place at an English country house (despite the exteriors clear Italian location - they were shot at Villa Da Porto Colleoni in Thiene, Vicenza) and as such; the interiors have an old fashioned, Gothic sensibility that's more in line with the settings of Antonio Margheriti's work than Dario Argento's. Miraglia's two forays in the giallo genre have earned his films the reputation of Gothic Gialli primarily due to their distinctive Gothic elements that are perhaps considered at odds with the genre's fascination with modernity. Although there's certainly an early 1970s element to the film, it's decidedly far more muted than your typical giallo with the more contemporary elements of design taking a back seat to the classical paintings and ornate stone work of Lord Alan Cunningham's castle. The Gothic nature of the film is played up in the film's storyline with Lord Alan torturing beautiful women in his dungeon filled with strange torture devices that appear to be relics from a bygone age. For the majority of the film's running time, the action takes place inside Lord Cunningham's castle until the film's final scenes at Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia. The thoroughly modern interior of Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia is a vast contrast to the dark, Gothic design of Lord Cunningham's castle emphasising the tonal shift of the film's climax. It also makes for an effective murder scene with its shiny white surfaces acting as the perfect contrast against the bright red blood of the film's victims.  



Vigo's interiors are famed for their use of artwork and demonstrate how art and interiors can work symbiotically to create a vivid, stylised cohesive environment in the avant-garde style. There are many artworks on display throughout Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia by renowned artists of the period, many of whom are affiliated with the post-war Zero group movement. Enrico Castellani's Superficie Bianca (1963) was specifically created for the house and features prominently alongside his mentor Lucio Fontana's Teatrina (1965). Other artwork includes the Édouard Manet inspired Déjeuner sur l’herbs by Alain Jacquet (1964) as well as work by Julio Le Parc, Agostina Bonalumi and Turi Simeti and other artists affiliated with the pop art movement. The majority of the art featured in Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia has a 3D quality to it playing with perception, texture and material to create a living, breathing artistic space.

Miraglia certainly revels in the house's elaborate interior with inventive camerawork that showcases the design intricacies of Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia's interior from its art to its faux grey fur spiral staircase to its mirrored wall panels that emphasise the fractured identity of the film's characters. In one scene Marina Malfatti's Gladys and Erika Blanc's Susie lounge across a chrome and fur chair and sofa before meeting their untimely deaths showcasing Vigo's revolutionary furniture design whilst simultaneously acting as a beautiful late sixties background to an intense death scene. Miraglia and Baraldi clearly understood the importance of interior design in creating a cohesive cinematic look and the attention to detail in regards to how costume design mirrors interior design is admirable - Gladys' peach dress with ribboned arms matches the aforementioned fractured mirrored panels she stands in front of and her dress and Susie's yellow maxi perfectly reflect the select colours on display through the house's interior. Miraglia and Baraldi understood the aesthetical expression of an artist manifested in a physical space and were able to utilise this in cinematic terms.



It's a refreshing change to talk about a poliziotteschi on this blog and Umberto Lenzi's Gang War in Milan (1973) is a fantastic example of what the genre has to offer. Without digressing too much from this blog post's remit, it's often difficult for me to discuss poliziotteschi from a design point of view as they're less likely to celebrate/depict the ostentatious jet setter lifestyle that's typically associated with the giallo. That's not to say that the poliziotteschi is without its share of glamorous interiors - the homes of wealthy victims, hip nightclubs and the dwellings of flushed criminal masterminds and drug barons inevitably make for palatial homes. However, I'd argue that these films are far more concerned with depicting the political and social upheaval of Italy during the Years of Lead which tends to involve a far more realistic portrayal of the criminal underbelly of Italian cities. Inevitably, you'll see far more abandoned warehouses, run down hideouts and sparse government buildings in the poliziotteschi than in your typical giallo. However, as previously mentioned, it's imperative to show ostentatious wealth in the genre in order to highlight Italian economic and class disparity as well as to underline the affluent lifestyle afforded to those that pursue the dangerous lifestyle that criminality offers for the select few. This affluent lifestyle of criminality is beautifully depicted in Gang War in Milan through the criminal bases of the two warring criminal factions at the centre of the film. One of the most memorable interiors from the film and arguably the poliziotteschi is the base of kingpin pimp, Tito; a mesmerising apartment in a monochromatic palette of cobalt blue. This interior is another one of Vigo's works and is known as Casa Blu following a tradition of naming her interiors after the colour they're inspired by. Casa Blu, located in the film's setting of Milan, was designed by Vigo between 1967 and 1972. Following on from my lengthy discussion of the interiors on display in Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia you can see the same design sensibility applied to Casa Blu; the synergy between interior, art and architecture runs throughout the space with Vigo's signature approach to the esoteric elements of design on display.






Casa Blu underlines the differences between the warring drug factions at the centre of the film. Philippe Leroy's Roger Daverty is a French drug baron who exhibits a thoroughly French sensibility; he appears traditional and refined compared to Italian pimp, Tito who is very much the stylish hot headed Italian. Roger Daverty aka Il Capitane resides in a palatial Italian residence filled with classical oil paintings, ornate wooden furniture and floor to ceiling length windows that flood the apartment with light. In comparison, Tito's Milanese apartment is covered in strange modern art, avant-garde furniture and appears almost windowless. This vast contrast between the two men presented by visual indicators such as fashion and interior design are evidence of their vast differences from their mode operatus to their national identity and character traits. Vigo's extravagantly stylish interior exaggerates the stereotypical idea of the Italian that Tito embodies in the film.

Like Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia, Casa Blu plays with perception. The apartment's mirrored ceiling reflects the surrounding art around the room making the main space appear much larger than it is, once again amplifying visual and tactile perception through art. Vigo's incredible use of light is on display in Casa Blu; its effect is heightened as it refracts around the apartment's glossy surfaces. The low level lighting appears to be amplified by the reflective nature of the room. Mirrored shimmering tiles and artwork that appears to shift and change contribute to the changing space made up of a variety of textures that make for such a fascinating space. 



Unfortunately, there's a real lack of information available on Casa Blu although I do believe the original interior no longer exists. The art and furniture from the interior has inevitably been divided up and it's difficult to identity individual pieces. However, it's evident that the majority of the artwork from the apartment is from artists from the pop art movement as is the case with Vigo's other interiors from this time period. Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia's art was on a much larger scale than the art presented in Casa Blu but as always, the pieces featured on the apartment's walls and glossy surfaces contribute to the cohesive look of the interior as a whole and make the apartment appear to be part home, part gallery. Umberto Lenzi and his production crew were clearly enamoured by the look of Vigo's interior and showcase it throughout the film. The character of Il Capitane is introduced in one of Vigo's incredible wooden curved back chairs, whereas other characters lounge on the apartment's deep blue plush sofa which could be rearranged in various combinations. In one scene Tito sits at a glass desk in a yellow and black lined silk bathrobe which perfectly mirrors the colour palette and lines of the painting directly behind him. Characters interact with the artwork surrounding them and are always framed by the psychedelic art that adorns every wall and surface. By using Casa Blu as a filming location, Lenzi's film is injected with a sense of style that reflects the character of Tito and his gang as well as presenting the affluent, designer lifestyle that crime can afford - a stark contrast to the squalor that the prostitutes they work with are confined to. 



In the criminally underrated, The Killer Must Kill Again (1975), another of Vigo's interiors is present; this time prominently featured. Vigo's aptly named La Casa Gialla was used as the marital home of Giorgio and Norma Mainardi; a wealthy couple living in palatial surroundings but suffering from marital woes due to Giorgio's philandering ways. Greedy adulterer Giorgio, unsatisfied with his shrill wife, hires a contract killer to murder her in order to get his hands on her riches. Inevitably, things don't quite go to plan when a pair of teens take a joyride in the killer's car with Norma's body in the trunk. Giorgio must subdue the police as the killer attempts to retrieve the body before its discovered by the joy riders. The film's premise is fairly straight forward and deviates from the typical giallo blueprint but it works fairly well as a thriller on its own terms. Due to the fairly low budget of the film, The Killer Must Kill Again could easily feel cheap and uninspired but Luigi Cozzi's choice to shoot at La Casa Gialla was an inspired choice elevating the film stylistically above other gialli of the mid 1970s.



La Casa Gialla was designed by Vigo in 1970 and was one of the final interiors in her monochromatic series alongside Casa Nera which sadly, to my knowledge, was never featured as a filming location. La Casa Gialla feels in many ways like the opposite of the aforementioned Casa Blu acting at opposing ends of the colour spectrum. The decision to give the apartment a yellow monochromatic colour palette was at the request of the client, a Southern Italian who wanted to be reminded of home. Unlike Casa Nera which, at the request of the client, was dark with subdued atmospheric lighting, Casa Gialla celebrated light and the warmer climbs of Southern Italy with its warm bright lighting and shiny reflective surfaces. The expressive nature of the colour yellow and Vigo's astute lighting choices makes Casa Gialla feel like an experimental yet highly polished space. It amplifies the perceptions of those that inhabit it making it the perfect space for a giallo that features a flushed, educated married woman.

The decision to film at La Casa Gialla is a wonderfully astute choice, referencing the genre's literary origins and association with the colour yellow. The colour yellow plays a prominent role in the film and is utilised in several scenes outside La Casa Gialla linking back nicely to Norma and Giorgio's marital home; the colour is used in ice rink seats, initials on a lighter, the police station's walls, the clothes of Giorgio's friends, the nighttime exterior lighting and the seaside villa's furnishing. You'll find that many later period gialli utilise the colour yellow to reference the genre's literary roots as well as to provide a clue to the culprit's identity, for example Midnight Ripper, but The Killer Must Kill Again is perhaps one of the first gialli to feature this self aware visual clue to the Italian thriller's origins before it became more commonplace in later period thrillers. 



Outside of Casa Gialla's obvious connection to the giallo itself, it fundamentally highlights Norma's wealth and her gauche approach to money. Norma wants to fill her home with the finest art and furniture and to be a showcase for her avant-garde taste but she is oblivious to her husband's misery who feels locked inside her gilded cage desperate to break out and use her money for his own nefarious desires. Like Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia and Casa Blu, the apartment is filled with pop art from vivid paintings in a yellow and blue colour scheme to strange sculptures in polished metal. The  apartment features some eye catching furniture including a striking perspex desk and chair that feel somewhat reminiscent of Shiro Kuramata's work in the 1970s as well as yellow and blue oversized couches covered in teddy bear like fabric. 

Despite the film's somewhat limited budget, Luigi Cozzi injects a real sense of glamour and Italian style into his film via the use of Casa Gialla as a filming location but alongside highlighting the Mainardi's extravagant lifestyle, the apartment acts as a visual focus for a film that would otherwise be fairly aesthetically dull. Furthermore, Casa Gialla acts as the perfect contrast to the films's final scenes that take place at a dilapidated seaside villa. Arguably Casa Gialla is a fantasy style apartment where theatrical events take place bordering on the comical but the film's brutal finale and unrelenting rape scene feels hyper real acting as a stark contrast to the fantastical setting of Casa Gialla at the film's beginning. By contrasting Casa Gialla with the seaside villa, Cozzi bookends his film subverting your expectations by turning a comical, fantastical thriller into something dark and throughly unpleasant. 



The Killer Must Kill Again is arguably best known for its elaborate yellow interior and Casa Gialla demonstrates that with the right setting, a giallo can be given a much needed bolster stylistically which can set it apart from similar films in the genre. Although La Casa Gialla is not as effectively used as Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia in The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, it still anchors the film's visuals and serves as a centrepiece to the film's production design.

What is perhaps so inspiring and enjoyable about Vigo's work is the sense of theatre and participation that she brings to her creations, they are truly living, breathing works of art that capture the imagination of those that view them even from the screen. Vigo's interiors are undoubtedly not for everyone with many viewing them as excessive and set like but in my opinion, the radical playfulness of her work is what truly brings an immense amount of joy to those that view it. As an avid watcher of Italian genre cinema, I can recall with great fondness the first time I saw Vigo's interiors, La Casa Gialla in particular left me spellbound and has probably elevated The Killer Must Kill Again considerably in my mind. Vigo's place in the Italian cinematic landscape has been truly earned and it's important to recognise her contribution to the films she gave visual life to through her art. Alongside her obvious mark on the design world in relation to Italian cinema, it's also perhaps important to realise how Vigo's designs and her contemporaries impacted on later period Italian design as I'll go on to briefly discuss now.

I've recently discussed the use of postmodern design in the Italian horrors and thrillers of the 1980s and how many genre fans take issue with this supposedly radical design departure from the gialli of the sixties and seventies. Granted, postmodern design can sometimes feel at odds with the aesthetic of the gialli of the prior decade. However, despite their initially jarring differences, you'll find that there's a lot of similarities between the two design movements. Many designers and architects who were prominent in the 1960s and 1970s went on to shape the Italian design landscape of the eighties as part of the New Italian Design movement that included the Memphis Milano design collective. Vigo herself would go on to reject the monochromatic colour palettes of her earlier work, embracing a more colourful aesthetic that was indicative of the new Italian design scene of the eighties and her work during this period arguably has more in common with the likes of the Memphis Milano collective than the work of her early 1970s contemporaries. In many ways the later style of Italian design was a reinterpretation of the pop art aesthetics of Vigo and her ilk; fusing an avant grade experimental sensibility with images of popular culture and consumerism, utilising block monochromatic colours and pattern and unconventional forms. Although Vigo's interiors of the 1980s did not feature in Italian genre cinema (at least to my knowledge), you can look at her work from the decade such as Abitazione privata a Verona (1988-1989) to see the parallels between her work from the period and key interiors of 1980s Italian genre cinema like Obsession: A Taste for Fear (1988) and Too Beautiful to Die (1988).Vigo's progressive style extended far beyond the interiors she was initially famed for and the continuation of her work up until present day demonstrates her talent as a taste maker and artistic visionary.

Abitazione privata a Verona (1988-1989)

Vigo's incredible interiors demonstrate that set and production design are an integral component in the giallo and Italian genre cinema's aesthetic appeal and legacy. Whilst we tend to praise the fantastic cinematography, set pieces and fashions of the Italian genre film, it's also important to acknowledge and praise the contribution of set design and interiors to the unique, visually arresting look of these films. Nanda Vigo and her contemporaries perfectly encapsulate this cinematic period of Italian design, demonstrating why the giallo is deserving of its reputation as the most stylish subgenre of horror and thriller cinema.

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1 comment:

  1. I rewatched The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave a couple of weeks ago and remember being struck by the impact of that last scene in Lo scarabeo sotto la foglia. Part of it was just being wrapped up in the story and marveling at the duplicitousness and callousness of Enzo Tarascio's character, but part of it was the staging as well -- as you note, the gleaming surfaces of that house were such a huge shift from the gothic interiors and woodsy exteriors of everything that came before. In particular I loved the low angle shot of the murders in progress (as shown in your screenshot above), with Enzo casually standing over the dying Maria and Erika, and that huge painting in the background -- it's as if the people in the painting are looking at the mayhem and find it slightly amusing. I tend to be a bit lazy in my thinking and always credit the director for so much, but I'm glad you highlighted the importance of the interior decoration and art direction -- there are so many integral parts of film the director doesn't necessarily touch.

    As a bit of digression, it's not the sort of art I usually like, but I can't stop looking at that huge matchbook on the wall -- I want that! Also The Killer Must Kill Again looks great -- one more giallo to add to my watch list. So much gialli, so few easy-to-find, affordable DVDs. (sigh).

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