There are few artisans that can manipulate wood in the way that master carpenter Pierluigi Ghianda can. Considered one of the world’s most important cabinetmakers, he creates cult-status objects from his stunning Milan studio.
One of the greatest cabinetmakers of our generation lives in northern Milan in a house-workshop-atelier that is artfully filled with contemporary art and design, unique pieces of furniture, full-scale and scaled down models and, of course, logs, cuttings, and samples of inlay of myriad precious woods. More than just a carpenter, Pierluigi Ghianda is considered one of Italy’s most important artisans, a master of manipulating wood. As well as working under his own cult-status name, he has has collaborated with everyone from respected architects (Frank Lloyd Wright, Gio Ponti, Ettore Sottsass) to luxury brands (he enjoys a particularly special relationship with Hermes for whom he has deigned all wooden furniture and jewelry over the last 20 years).
Born into a family of carpenters, Ghianda’s father created wooden aeroplane propellers and his mother was a cabinetmaker. It was his mother who passed down the family tradition to her two sons. As Ghianda says: “She would place her hand on top of mine to show me how to ‘steer’ a tool.”
It is this training that led to Ghianda creating the sort of ultra-rare objects that are highly sought after by collectors. His Kyoto table, designed in collaboration with Gianfranco Frattini, appears in the permanent collections of the Musee D’Orsay, Paris, and MOMA, New York. He designed the 19 ebony trolleys that were originally used on Concorde flights, one of which now resides in his office. The folding armchair he created for Hermes is a house classic with a Birkin-like waiting list.
But more so than even his striking designs or impeccable craftsmanship, what marks Ghianda apart is his love of his chosen material. Canadian cedar, Tuscan cypress and ebony from Gabon is the language in which he talks. He is prepared to travel to find the best: he knows the trees of the Amazon rainforest particularly well; he once bought a centenary elm direct from the gardens of Buckingham Palace; and when the Swiss government allowed its ancient pear trees to be cut down, Ghiandi was first in the forest making his selection. As he remarks about a chest of toys created for Pomellato: “You see this spinning top? That black part is ebony and that yellow part is gold. The ebony is worth more than the gold.”
“Pierluigi Ghianda is a wonderful cabinet-maker, who has worked with all the great masters of design. Magistretti’s Vidùn table for De Padova, the Hermès rosewood pill-box, Pomellato’s Swiss pearwood boxes, the cypresswood sample-holders for Loro Piana cashmere... but also the furnishings of Villar Perosa, the Crespi writing-desk at the Correre della Sera, the library of Cardinal Martini in the episcopal palace: he made them all.
Ghianda is a cabinet-maker who travels widely, and not just because he’s in demand worldwide: he furnished two floors of the Trump Tower in New York, a house by Wright in Connecticut, now he’s making furniture in Paris and St. Petersburg, and he knows all about Japan and its extraordinary tradition of working with wood.
But he travels above all in search of rare and precious woods. Years ago he went specially to England to get the trunk of a centuries-old elm tree that had to be cut down in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. He wandered through the Swiss forests buying ancient wild pear trees when the Swiss government gave permission for them to be cut down.
He waxes cypress wood without varnishing it, to keep its perfume intact for decades and explains that you should touch Induin often, because the oils in the skin makes it soft as silk... Once he showed us round the room where he seasons his wood: it was like a bank vault, with an armored door and no windows... but it was crammed to the ceiling with neatly stacked wooden boards colored black, violet, pink... He taught us to understand the refinement of Swiss pearwood, the weight of ebony, the veining of elm, the texture of wengé, the scent of cypress.”
- Luca Bergo, the author of the book, Pierluigi Ghianda, published by 5 Continents.
Tell us about your Milan workshop.
We were [previously] located in the centre of Bovisio Masciago. At the time, there were three or four families, then a courtyard with the workshop below. At the time, we did things fast, on the way home from school, first you went to the workshop and then home. The first object I made was a sword, I think: in those days, Zorro was our idol! My passion for this work grew with time: I’ve always liked being an engraver.
We moved here [to Milan] at the end of the 1960s. This workshop is four times larger than the previous one, but when I moved everything here, I realized that I would never manage to get everything inside! For that matter, when you know you don’t have a lot of space, you have to use your imagination.
How many people work here, and what kind of work do they do?
About 8 people work here. A craftsman must know how to do everything, not just a table or a chair; he must love the material. With wood, you can do whatever you want: from chairs to tables, from eating utensils to spheres to spectacles - anything.
How many types of wood do you know or have you worked with?
Hundreds, maybe: I have always been a stickler about going to look for wood in foreign countries. An inexhaustible source of material and inspiration is the Amazon forest: trees of many colours grow there. But there are also extremely beautiful trees in Europe and Japan. I could go on and on talking about wood forever!
Where do you get your inspiration?
Inspiration comes from any situation and develops with anybody. Let’s say that with some people, you get on immediately and things happen more rapidly.
We have the bad habit of not throwing anything away: a scrap that doesn’t mean anything today – you set it down over there, then somebody else comes along, photographs it and I get an idea, seeing the photograph: this is really what inspiration is.
Do you think that the evolution of technology has changed your work?
For production in series, it’s really important! Let me tell you this anecdote: one day an engineer came along; while we were going around the workshop, he said: “With the machines we build today, your objects could be carved in five minutes”. I answered that when they make machines with fingertips that feel like our fingers and eyes that see like ours, I would order ten of them. But until that time comes along, don’t come and tell me that machines work better than humans!
What does the design world say about Pierluigi Ghianda?
"I have rarely met anyone with such a deep knowledge of the material he works with or identifies so closely with it. He’s a connoisseur – not just a great, but an immense connoisseur – of wood! He feels it sensuously, he identifies with it, he knows it well and loves it deeply. He always chooses the right kind of wood and he’s simply incapable of working it badly. Impossible!"
- Rena Dumas, the late architect who designed all the furniture for Hermès and who worked with Ghianda for twenty years.
"Ghianda’s creations are jewels. He’s not a carpenter, he’s an artist!".
- Maddalena De Padova of the Italian furniture manufacturer, De Padova.
"He’s extraordinary, he has great style. Just think how he dresses: in those shirts and those light-colored linen garments, he looks like a Confederate general! Now he’s no longer young he visits us every so often, dressed all in white. A truly fascinating man.”
- Designer Cini Boeri, who has collaborated with Ghianda on several interior design projects.