TIMELESS CONSTRUCTION MATERIAL, multifaceted artistic medium, rejuve- nating cosmetic and health therapy, and the stuff of childhood play: Clay has lately been recast as a design treatment that’s as luxurious as it is natural. A fervent advocate of the creative interior use of this raw material, Matteo Brioni defines his eponymous unfired clay wall finishes as terra per l’architettura—earth for archi- tecture. They include TerraVista, a dry, ready-mix interior finishing plaster for vertical surfaces; MultiTerra, a monolayered finishing plaster suitable for creat- ing rough effects; and TerraPaper, clay applied to rolls of fiber glass. Collaboration with furniture manufacturers led to the development of TerraPlus, clay rein- forced with mineral and synthetic binders so the result can withstand abrasions and contact with water. Matteo Brioni products have been used in a wide variety of projects, from private residences and high-end boutiques in several European cities to a museum of mountaineering in the South Tyrol province of Italy.
The formation of humankind from clay is a recurring theme in creation myths around the world, so we feel an authentic connection to the substance, says the 43-year-old Brioni. “This is a natural material. It’s a return to our basic origins.” Indoor use of raw clay not only advances the biophilia in interior design, but also offers a practical and sustainable design option. Fire-resistant and nontoxic,
raw clay requires no thermal energy in its production, is completely recyclable, and can help regulate indoor temperatures, air quality, and humidity.
Depending on the application tech- nique, the results achieved by coating wall and ceiling surfaces in clay can range from silky to crackled, and can mimic leather, suede, and patterned fabrics to create one-of-a-kind effects. “The effect is one of the passage of time, but it was just made,” explains Brioni. Stenciling juxta- poses floral and geometric motifs in relief, and adding materials like jute, hemp, mica, mother-of-pearl, onyx, and quartz boosts texture and luminosity. For a ceil- ing at a vacation complex in Taormina, Sicily, leaves gathered from the owner’s plants were added to TerraVista. The effect was further enhanced with care- fully positioned LED lighting. “We’re on the border between art and architecture,” Brioni says. “It’s artistic craftsmanship.”
Architect Philippe Meyer of Geneva, Switzerland, used MultiTerra in shades of gray—“pepe nero” (black pepper) and “sale grigio” (gray salt)—in two recent proj- ects: on an interior wall and the corridor leading to a courtyard for Maison Dumont, a contemporary addition to an apartment complex in Geneva’s old town; and on the main living room wall in Villa QDC, offices converted into a private residence on the Swiss side of Lake Geneva. “We like the way the material talks to the light. Every day we have a different dialogue,” says Meyer. The goal, he adds, was “to create a contrasting and vibrating atmosphere between the light and the material structure.”
The MultiTerra-coated wall at the Lake Geneva villa, explains Meyer, “is very important. It plays the role of a filter between the two parts of the house, and we needed it to be a standing force and to reflect the daylight with its own lan- guage. The pattern was chosen specifically to amplify that wanted effect. The wall language follows the mood of the day, in a sense.” The closer you come to the wall, “the more you discover its deep nature.”
For many, the Brioni brand conjures bespoke men’s tailoring. However, the Roman couture house (which took its name from the Brijuni Islands in Croatia) has no connection to Matteo Brioni’s designs in clay. His body of work is grounded—literally—in multigenerational family experience working with earth in the Lombard city of Gonzaga, about a half-hour south of Mantua. In 1920, Brioni’s paternal great-grandfather, Emilio, purchased a plot of land with a clay pit where 80 workers made bricks by hand. A fatal hunting accident pre- vented Emilio from ever running the brick-making firm, which was ultimately founded by his son (and Matteo’s grandfather), Giacomo.
By the time Matteo’s father, Fausto, inherited the kiln in 1973, it was solely making bricks for the construction industry. In the 1980s, the company revived its tradition of making bricks by hand, and then shifted to producing handmade terra cotta tiles in the 1990s. In early 2000, Matteo and his younger brothers, Alessio and Alberto, began working for the family firm, Fornace Brioni. Ten years later, Matteo branched off with his line of raw earth products while his brothers continued to produce handmade terra cotta tiles. Today, the two entities share facilities in Gonzaga and have partnered on some projects.
Trained as an architect at the University of Florence (where he obtained his degree in 2000), Matteo Brioni draws inspiration from the theorist Adolf Loos, who wrote that “cladding is older than structure,” and for whom architecture was synonymous with the use of space to create mood-stimulating effects. Referring to Spoken Into the Void, a collection of essays by Loos, Brioni notes, “You know when you read a book when you’re young, but at the time you don’t feel as though you’ve really understood it or that it was even anything special, but then you re-read it as an adult and it seems to be a manifesto of your own thoughts and convictions? That’s the effect that book had on me.”
But Brioni’s head isn’t stuck in theoretical clouds. Fashioning clay surfaces is a hands-on endeavor that entails person- ally scouting high-quality materials from pits in hilly regions throughout Italy to provide clients with a broad natural palette. Cacao-colored clay comes from Calabria; a grape-colored clay from Sardinia is named vinaccia (“It’s the trendy color of the year,” says Brioni). A mustard-yellow variety is from Piedmont; a superfine red clay, from Puglia. The only clay currently sourcedoutside Italy is white. It comes from Germany, though Brioni— ever cognizant of his firm’s environmental footprint—says he’s still looking for a supply closer to home.
“We collect the clay from the quarries in the summer; we buy a 30-ton truck of each color,” says Brioni. At the Brioni facility in Gonzaga, five production workers remove impurities, set the clay to dry in the sun, and then hammer mill it to a fine powder. But not every type of clay can be used to make plaster. It has to be tested in a clay-sand mix, where the clay acts as the binder and the sand is inert. Five types of sand are used to enhance the color and texture of the various mixtures, including volcanic soil from Sicily, with the ratio of sand to clay dependent on what the final product will be. For minimal environmen- tal impact, the mixtures are stored in kraft paper sacks that Brioni’s 72-year-old father seals by hand.
For a typical project, Brioni consults with Linda Antonietti, who heads research and sample development for the firm. Together they develop mood boards to evoke a project’s concept. If the client is happy with them, they explain the concept to the designated installer, who then creates a sample in his or her own hand that, upon approval, will guide the application process. The craftsper- son chosen will depend on the complexity of the project and location. “A smooth finish requires three coats, so two to three days’ time; more highly decorated finishes could take seven to eight steps, so four to five days,” explains Brioni.
“I take pride in having had a hand in realizing an architect’s vision,” says Brioni. “We have the know-how of almost 100 years of working in clay. But we’re not just a supplier of a product; we’re a supplier of design. A wall made for you in a unique way is a luxury. It’s like a custom-made suit.”
Spoken like a true Brioni.