A Lesson in Craft: queen of plaster Viola Lanari on the merits of listening to your materials
“Mistakes are your mother,” says Viola Lanari, the self-taught master of plaster known for her sculptural gypsum furniture and lights. As she launches two new products for Porta Romana, she talks to Inigo about how a dialogue with her medium has nurtured her making
Like so many of the best things in life, Viola Lanari discovered her métier by accident. “I had some lamps at home that were fixed into my cabinets. A friend of mine suggested I cover them up. I happened to have some plaster lying about, from a university project, and…” She trails off. Perhaps it’s because the next chapter in the story hardly needs explaining. Originally from Italy, Viola is London’s plaster master. Her lamp bases, chandeliers and offbeat furniture creations – all in gleaming white – are lusted over by magazine editors and designers across the world.
Her most recent endeavour, alongside the steady stream of commissions she undertakes, are two new designs for Porta Romana. Her ‘Liotard’ lamp and ‘Nugget’ mirror join a huddle of pieces made in collaboration with the Hampshire-based design firm. It’s a different way of working, she says, but one that means, firstly, that the pieces are reproducible, but also that they won’t break – a peril of pure plaster.
Her studio is one of many set around a cobbled yard in Stockwell, south London, which, serendipitously, was home to Porta Romana’s HQ in the 1980s. It feels deeply industrious here as well as wondrously wacky – and very, very white. Plaits of hemp jostle with paper maquettes, rolls of chicken wire and bags of powdered gypsum that threaten to spill onto the floor. Overhead hang experimental casts and works in progress. This is a place of exploration and artistry, of poetry in plaster. Inviting Inigo for a cup of coffee (Italian, naturally), Viola expands on the importance of listening to the ideas of others – and to the material itself.
“I don’t think it’s quite true to say I taught myself how to use plaster. Plaster taught me how to use plaster, as did the mistakes I made – and continue to make. When you’re an autodidact, mistakes are your mother. I have so much respect for plaster and I like that you have to work on time. After you mix it, you have il tempo di respiro, breathing time, which is about five minutes. Then, the plaster is perfect – not too runny, not too clunky. It’s got the consistency of the best mascarpone.
“You have to work quickly – respond to the material, let it solidify, observe the shape it takes. It reacts well to your gestures, but it pushes back too. There’s a dialogue in the process. One of the great things about plaster, however, is that if you don’t like it, you can just cut it off. I strangely quite enjoy the process of destroying it. With everything I make, I build it up first and then knock it back, just to get it right.
“Working with Porta Romana has been brilliant. It’s definitely made me think more broadly. That’s important as a maker – you need to challenge yourself with the ideas of others. The pieces I’ve made with them are quite different from my commissions. Not in style or shape, perhaps, but in the way they’re made. The company uses my plaster designs as prototypes and then makes a silicone mould from them, which they then use to cast jesmonite, which is more sustainable than resin. Jesmonite on its own is very smooth, which isn’t right for my pieces; that’s why they’re finished by hand with this sort of chalky, plaster-like texture, to return them to my design and allow the light and shadow to play on the form – it’s like the cocoa dusting on a chocolate truffle. Without it, it’s not a truffle.
“I launched with Porta Romana in 2019 and have been adding ever since. I don’t think of the things I’ve done for them as a collection. It was important that we launched with a strong group, but I like just adding one or two pieces a year. This isn’t fashion – people shouldn’t need to constantly buy the newest range. I don’t like interiors that are shopped; they should be designed around places. It’s why I often prefer older, lived-in interiors to newly designed ones. I’m really inspired by good rooms.
“The idea for the ‘Liotard’ light came from a pretty brass base I found at a car-boot sale. The name is inspired by the painter – its shape reminds me of one of his Turkish pictures. The ‘Nugget’ mirror has the same decorative motif as the ‘Selina’ tables (a previous design for Porta Romana), but it has a sort of cameo on the frame, which looks like a bit of broken plaster – it’s just a celebration of the medium that I love.
“I’m interested in the place that plaster occupies. It’s a traditional material, but I don’t think the things I make are traditional. It’s also a medium material, by which I mean it’s a bit of a halfway point. Plaster, historically, has been used to make architectural models or the moulds for ceramics or bronze, which then get chucked away. It’s not the final piece – for most people, anyway. I like that I’m elevating it to the main event. I also love that there are so many different uses for gypsum, depending on what you mix it with. It’s amazing how much you can experiment with its properties and strengths, even just by changing the amount of water that you use. I try to make time to play around with it – I love experimenting – but I do have rent to pay…”
‘Bohème’ collection, by Viola Lanari for Porta Romana
Viola Lanari on Instagram
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