words Marcus Fairs
“Ever since i was a kid I hated the fact that someone kicked us out of paradise, you know? I wanted to go and squat in the forbidden tree. I wanted to live with the serpent and eat apples every day. Nobody can kick me out of paradise.”
Fabio Novembre is sitting cross-legged on a low chair in his almost-complete new studio-cum-house, which is plain and empty and damp from the incessant rain outside. It has the air of a chapel and the meeting feels like a private tutorial with some kind of paramilitary love priest. Novembre is wearing a guerrilla-chic jumper that resembles a bullet-proof vest, and an army cap with a red star. His discourse, which invokes Che Guevara, Jesus Christ, sex and transvestitism, is delivered with the fervent sensuality you’d expect of an Italian: “I really live through love,” he exclaims. ”It’s the only fuel in my engine.”
His rhetoric is intoxicating – it’s only weeks later, when transcribing the tape, that the monologue comes to seem faintly ridiculous. But such is the power of charisma.
Novembre, 37, is a Milan-based architect whose work – mostly interiors for hotels, bars and nightclubs – features rich materials, such as gold and faux crocodile skin, and highly sensual forms. His style has been described as “narcissistic neo-baroque”.
He has designed some singular pieces of furniture including the spectacular, coil-shaped “And” sofa for Cappellini and until recently he was creative director for mosaic company Bisazza; Novembre uses mosaics with a three-dimensional exuberance not seen since Gaudí.
He was brought up in Lecce in southern Italy and although, like any good nihilist, he despises labels, he admits that memories of his home town have pervaded his work. “Lecce is the capital of the baroque in Italy,” he says. “I don’t believe in architectonic DNA, but for sure I breathed that atmosphere for 17 years.”
The studio-house, his latest project, is comparatively restrained, except for the first-floor living quarters, which are supported by a broad tree trunk. At the top of this column, a vivid green mosaic dotted with apples flows out across the soffit and up the walls. A huge serpent snakes amid the foliage, its mouth poised to snap shut on a fat red apple: Novembre’s new house is the forbidden tree of his childhood fantasies.
The tranquility of the space will be shattered in a few weeks when Fabio and his retinue move in. “The place where I am now, there’s no walls. My bed is on wheels. Everybody has the keys so people can arrive any time of the day, so it’s more like a squat than a studio or a house. This is going to be the same, but even bigger. I really believe in space to be used as the factory of the world, to cross, to intersect, to put things together. That’s really the way I live. There’s no difference for me between life and work. I don’t make any division; it’s impossible.”
A visit to his website (www.novembre.it) confirms this: photographs of Novembre in a variety of guises – and states of undress – enjoy equal billing with the images of his work. One photo has him made up like Jesus, complete with fibre-optic crown of thorns, and is accompanied by the slogan “Be your own messiah”. What’s that all about?
“I wrote a little pamphlet called ‘Be your own messiah’,” he says, explaining that the project is a reaction against his staunchly Catholic upbringing. “The provocation was to pitch myself as Jesus Christ. I really like Jesus – I think he’s a good guy – but I hate all the bullshit around him. This is the big problem of our Judeo-Christian tradition: we’re all waiting for the fucking prophet! As a kid I hated the image of the sheep and the shepherd. In church everybody used to say, ‘Ah, you are the sheep, and the shepherd is going to save you’. Fuck! I hate being a sheep. There are no shepherds. Be your own messiah.”
Over the years Novembre has turned up for photo shoots looking like a deranged kung-fu fighter, a muscle-bound mystic, a louche rock star or, today, a Cuban revolutionary. This stream of alter egos is perhaps a way of voicing his anti-establishment instincts without alienating himself, or revealing his vulnerability, in a deeply conformist country. It’s not me criticising the church, he seems to be saying, that’s just a character I was playing.
“I like to think of heroes as the stars of our darkest nights,” he says. “There are moments when you feel so lonely and you have a lot of trouble, but when you think of people you adore like Federico Fellini, Carlo Moldino, Che Guevara, Jesus Christ as well; they had the same troubles, but look at them! They really did what they wanted to do.”
Novembre studied architecture because it offered him the broadest possible education: architecture schools in Italy teach students about philosophy, sociology, literature and art. “In Italy, you choose architecture just to open your mind, not to have a profession. It has never been oriented to how to build buildings. When I came out of there I couldn’t put one brick on top of another.”
Italian architects are uniquely disadvantaged since besides the peer pressure of working amid the world’s richest architectural heritage, it is difficult to build anything remotely adventurous in the country.
“Regulations here are so strict; they’re bullshit,” says Novembre. “The hotel [Vittoria in Florence, which opened late last year] I designed – I couldn’t touch the street frontage. I wanted to put something on the street to serve as a sign for the hotel. I fought and fought until the city architectural commission and I were almost kicking each other. But of course they cancelled it. In Italy, to build, is impossible. Im! Poss! I! Ble!”
As if to stick two fingers up to Italian conservatism, Novembre filled the hotel’s interior with sweeping brocade-patterned mosaics and spiralling leather, Corian and lamé surfaces. Many designers are using organic forms and floral patterns these days, but in Novembre’s hands, the specimens have been pumped with fertiliser and have taken over the greenhouse.
Novembre’s work is often unashamedly physiological – his L’Origine du Monde nightclub in Milan featured huge murals depicting naked women, a pair of legs straddles the entrance to his Anna Molinari store in London and the ceiling of his Shu Café in Milan is held up by a pair of oversized arms. “My main inspiration is the body of women. All my architecture is very organic not because I decided to be organic but because to me, probably I still refer to my mother’s belly. Our first house is always our mother’s belly. In a way I’m still there; I look for things that are soft and comfortable and curvy and sensual.”
Yet, unusually for an architect, he never draws: these voluptuous configurations are instead conveyed verbally. “I cannot draw at all; I am not gifted at all with my hands. I really am not able to transfer my vision in drawings. But I can talk about them and I can write; I am really gifted.”
For his early projects, he would submit proposals to clients as poetry and convey instructions to builders through gesticulation. “I used to call it action designing. I would be on site with the workers and I’d say, I want something like this over there, okay, and from there to there you go like this, drawing with my hands but without actually putting it on paper. Like an orchestra director.”
Novembre has now built up a team of architects and designers, so the production process has become a little more conventional. “My staff have become my hands,” he says. “But still when I work with craftsmen, I go to where they are working and try to make them enter in the mood of what I’m trying to achieve.”
Now, after around 15 years in practice, Novembre has his first new-build commission: a new headquarters for fashion house Meltin’ Pot in Apulia, southern Italy. Novembre will build a conference centre and hotel alongside an 18th-century villa owned by the company.
Many architects might see a project like this as their big break, but Novembre is surprisingly laid back about his career trajectory. “I don’t have ambitions,” he says languidly. “I don’t want to do too much. I just try to live the best way I can; try to make the best of each day. People always ask ‘what’s your dream project?’ and I say, ‘to get to the end of the day and to be proud!’ I don’t have these kinds of goals. I call it the Renzo Piano syndrome: when you start doing too many things. I’m very self-critical so I accept really few jobs. When I do a piece of design, it’s really a piece of my heart. It’s not just another chair. Otherwise I don’t do anything.”