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Domestic Sensibility

Friday, December 15, 2017


Verona Carpenter Architects • Irina Verona, Founder and Partner
Photography by  Walter Smalling Jr.
Center for Italian Modern Art
by Camille LeFevre

Laura Mattioli grew up immersed in the art she enjoyed viewing on her father’s apartment walls; an apartment Gianni Mattioli—an Italian businessman and art collector, particularly of the work of the Italian Futurists—dedicated solely to the exhibition of his art collection.

“My father had an apartment full of all the paintings of the collection close to his house,” Mattioli told Artnet News. “The apartment was only for the artworks. He opened it for free to the public and then went himself to explain to the people what modern art was; he did this for 15 years. And I think CIMA came from this experience.” CIMA is the Center for Italian Modern Art, which the younger Mattioli founded in New York City in 2013.

The art center, located in SoHo, occupies 4,000 square feet in a 19th-century, cast-iron structure designed by New York architect Griffith Thomas. Originally constructed for light industry, the building was converted to live/work studios in the late-20th century. In the early 2000s, the building was renovated again into apartments and later into condominium lofts. That’s when Mattioli bought the residence with an eye toward transforming the space into one reminiscent of her father’s art-filled apartment.

“We designed the art center like a residential loft project; it has a kitchen, living room and bathrooms,” says architect Irina Verona, Founder and Partner, Verona Carpenter Architects, New York. “While she was growing up, Laura experienced a uniquely domestic relationship to art. Living with art, looking at it throughout the day and getting to know artwork intimately are all concepts about which she cares deeply. It’s an experience of looking and study known in the art world as ‘slow art’.”

CIMA, a nonprofit exhibition and research center, was organized around the principle of “slow art” and encourages close looking. Housed in a spacious, light-filled and airy loft arrayed with Italian modernist furnishings, CIMA is an exhibition space presenting long-term shows on specific artists or groups of artists.

The center mounts a new exhibition every year, which is typically dedicated to one or two Italian artists. The first one focused on Fortunato Depero, followed by Medardo Rosso, Giorgio Morandi, Giorgio De Chirico and Giulio Paolini, and most recently Alberto Savinio. The first exhibition drew extensively on Gianni Mattioli’s collection. In subsequent exhibitions, artwork has come in part on loan from other institutions. Because the art center is designed more like a residence than a typical gallery, public visits are limited to 15 to 20 people, to foster an intimate experience with the art. 

First and foremost, however, CIMA is dedicated to promoting public appreciation for and advancing the study of modern and contemporary Italian art in the United States and throughout the world. It’s renowned as a place for serious scholarship. Fellowships are awarded to art historians doing work on Italian modern art. The art history Fellows—who spend their days studying the art, and lunching with each other and the center’s staff in the kitchen—conduct the Saturday public tours, which begin with a complimentary espresso. 

The renovation primarily involved “upgrading the space to accommodate the display of art,” says Verona. Museum-grade lighting systems were integrated, including flexible track lighting with LEDs for work hung on the walls and for two- and three-dimensional work on pedestals. “We recessed the track so it disappears and is flush with the ceiling; all you see is the track head,” Verona explains. “It was very precisely done.”

More sophisticated mechanical systems were installed to control the temperature and humidity levels necessary to preserve and maintain art. Six air handlers were concealed and interspersed throughout the loft, to feed different areas. Because the loft is in an historic building, the existing wood double-hung windows along the front part of the main gallery couldn’t be replaced. Instead, the design team added a second layer of windows to control humidity, temperature and sound.

The biggest challenges were columns bisecting the main living or gallery space, and working with the structure’s original exposed tin ceiling. “We needed to make the space more neutral for the display of art,” Verona says. The design team dropped the ceiling (that way, ductwork could also be inserted) and removed walls away from columns to correct the space’s proportions. Otherwise, Verona says, “Our layout isn’t much different than that of the original loft. We largely worked within the limitations of the existing structure.”

CIMA’s main gallery is in the living room on the north side of the loft. In this large, flexible space—which is also used for symposiums, meetings and presentations by the Fellows—three-dimensional sculptures on pedestals occupy the space along with art on the walls. Above the fireplace, the design team inserted a mantle of blackened steel and plastered the area above for the display of art. A brick wall retains “beautiful and well-preserved cuts in its surface,” Verona says, created when an elevator shaft was removed during earlier renovations. The design team also created a long, blackened-steel bench across the north side of the gallery, which, in addition to providing seating for events, conceals the radiators.

A brick wall in the master bedroom was retained to give the room, which is now an alcove gallery, “texture and a sense of scale,” Verona says. A brick wall in the enlarged master bath also brings a sense of history to the space. Smaller bedrooms were repurposed as offices. In the kitchen, a new layout, seating and equipment were incorporated to accommodate brainstorming sessions, informal gatherings and espresso preparation for public tours.

Proportions were also tweaked in the hallway connecting the north and south portions of the loft to create a linear, transitional gallery. Throughout the loft, furnishings include pieces by such icons of modernism as Gio Ponti, Charles and Ray Eames, Hans Wegner and Florence Knoll. Floors were buffed and re-stained a lighter tone.

CIMA’s elegant loft-like home creates a “domestic relationship with the art, which is important to the foundation and how it operates,” Verona says. “Not unlike the art salons of the 19th century, this private foundation enables the public to access art in a domestic, non-institutional setting, combining a private context with a public mission and aspiration.”

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