THE ITALIAN WORD is often invoked at Studio Peregalli, the Milanese interior design and architecture firm co-founded by Laura Sartori Rimini and Roberto Peregalli 27 years ago. The term, which translates to “patinate,” is rarely used as a verb in English, generally because it’s something that’s accomplished by time, not by human interference. Yet the dozens of craftsmen trained and employed at the firm are able to create the illusion of age where none exists: scraping, scratching, staining, waxing or soiling walls, floors, furniture and fabrics until each element of each room looks like it’s been around for decades, if not centuries, even though it may in fact be newly reconfigured. Virtually everything that makes it into one of Studio Peregalli’s spaces that’s not already an antique undergoes this process, creating a singular aesthetic that has attracted admirers such as the late French fashion executive Pierre Bergé (the former partner of Yves Saint Laurent), the husband-and-wife American artists John Currin and Rachel Feinstein and the German publisher and philanthropist Hubert Burda.
But though they are known as master restorers, what Studio Peregalli actually does is more nuanced than straightforward restoration. Their ambition is to excavate a house’s history, or even to create one from scratch, making a space not so much what it was but what it could have been: Their simple yet sophisticated redesign of the 19th-century Milanese townhouse featured on the cover of their 2011 book, “The Invention of the Past,” was inspired by the bourgeois parlors described in the plays of the 19th-century Russian writer Anton Chekhov; the pale blue palette of the covered patio of a Tangier riad alludes to a series of watercolor sketches for “Carnet de Voyage au Maroc” (1832) by the 19th-century French painter Eugène Delacroix. “Places have a soul,” the designers wrote in their 2018 book, “Grand Tour”; Studio Peregalli’s mission is to awaken that spirit.
A RECENT PROJECT that epitomizes that goal is a traditional stuccoed stone house in southeastern Switzerland’s Lower Engadine valley, purchased in 2006 as a retreat for an Italian woman and her extended family. Though just 20 minutes northeast of St. Moritz, the village remains unspoiled, with views of cow-speckled pastures and, in the distance, the magnificent snowcapped Albula Alps.
The 10,700-square-foot house was built in the early 19th century as the village’s bank, then was converted to a private home in the second half of the 20th century. Peregalli and Sartori Rimini were unable to unearth the house’s early blueprints, but it was immediately clear that few of its original charms remained when they received the commission in 2010. The building had fallen into disrepair after a series of uninspired renovations: Construction begun years earlier by the previous owner had stalled, leaving a pillar placed awkwardly in the center of the living room and the garage gutted but never refinished. Drawing from the local vernacular, Studio Peregalli chose to incorporate elements of a , a typical 17th-century Engadine home with a wide hall vertically dividing the living quarters from where the livestock would traditionally have been kept.
They also imbued the boxy, undistinguished structure with a sense of grandeur by introducing more architectural flourishes. In the central entrance hall, for example, they vaulted the eight-foot ceiling of the windowless space and covered the walls in sgraffito, a technique in which a surface is scratched to reveal a contrasting color underneath, commonly used on the exteriors of the region’s mostly 17th-century stone and tinder houses. Off this 6-by-30-foot hall are the most richly decorated rooms of the home: a paneled library with a collection of leather-bound books from the 17th to the 19th century; a dining room lined with mirrors and ornately carved Italian chests; a living room furnished with burgundy velvet sofas and a collection of 17th-century globes; and a powder room outfitted with 19th-century taps and a toilet made of blue-and-white porcelain. The one exception to the ground floor’s opulence is the , a cozy pine-paneled room common in Swiss homes, heated by a massive, 16th-century majolica stove.
Peregalli and Sartori Rimini chose every item in the house themselves, scouring Europe’s lesser-known auction houses (Nagel in Stuttgart, Germany; Cambi in Genoa, Italy; Pandolfini in Florence; Il Ponte in Milan) as well as flea markets from Parma to Paris. Throughout the home, they favored large-scale Continental furniture built in the 17th or 19th centuries over more delicate 18th-century furnishings, installing dark walnut cassoni in the living rooms and generously proportioned armoires in the upstairs bedrooms, which are modest in size and some of which are paneled in age-darkened pine. The pieces feel as if they have always been there, a part of the rich tapestry the studio has created. The same can be said of the art: The 700-volume library is dominated by “Christ in Front of Pilatus,” an early 17th-century painting of Jesus and Pontius Pilate by Matthias Stom, a Dutch painter who was influenced by Caravaggio. When the sun slants through a bay of small arched windows in the morning, it casts the room in a nearly identical chiaroscuro, which migrates into the dining and living rooms throughout the afternoon.
With its old master paintings and Baroque antiques, one might imagine that the house isn’t welcoming, but the design has the opposite effect: The deep armchairs and down-filled sofas, worn rugs and large fireplaces make the home an inviting place to return after a day on the slopes. The property even has a — a sort of mudroom — off the garage where skis and boots can be stored.
WHEN PEREGALLI, now 58, was a young man, he was told by a family friend, the legendary Italian architect Renzo Mongiardino, known for his richly decorated interiors and liberal use of trompe l’oeil, “If you like what I do, don’t go to architecture school.” Decoration was anathema to architects who were at the time enthralled with Modernism, and so Peregalli studied philosophy instead. While earning his degree, he worked for Mongiardino’s firm, where he met Sartori Rimini, now 54, who studied architecture. When they founded their own studio in the ’90s, they diverged from other designers and their more austerely contemporary leanings: Studio Peregalli introduced architecture and decoration to both hide a space’s flaws accentuate its attributes. For example, when they realized they couldn’t replace a pair of awkward columns in the main sitting room of the Swiss home, they moved one to create symmetry, then covered both with faux fluting. Vaulting, which they employ even in very small bathrooms, makes their spaces feel larger; their preferred coffered panels in pine and oak turn oppressively low European ceilings into an architectural feature.
Where other decorators might rely on whimsy or grand gesture (a statement pendant light, say, or a lacquered wall in a bold color) as a signature style, Studio Peregalli’s aesthetic is born from deep knowledge of places, buildings and the objects placed within them: They obsessively study the region and its local structures before beginning a project; every decorative detail down to the knobs and handles is based on a historical document. Given the current trend of blowing out walls to open up spaces, flooding them with light using plate-glass windows and integrating contemporary art or furniture for fear of seeming stodgy, the studio’s work is radical in its respect and reverence for the past.
In fact, the most striking aspect of any Studio Peregalli interior is its complete absence of present-day signifiers. In the kitchen of the Swiss house, even the light switches are painstakingly painted to match the patterned, 20th-century Tuscan tile beneath them. Contemporary objects “ruin the illusion,” Peregalli says, and it’s difficult to imagine a cellphone charger or a poorly placed vent in one of their interiors. Detractors of the studio’s work say it sometimes resembles a stage set, but for Peregalli and Sartori Rimini, the question of authenticity is more complex than that — and also entirely beside the point. What it’s like to be in the space, to experience it, is more important than conforming to an arbitrary notion of verisimilitude. “A house should re-create the signs of a world that is sometimes lost but which might return,” Peregalli and Sartori Rimini wrote in “Grand Tour.” “As in a recollection that gradually emerges in the light of memory.”
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