Of Course, Donatella Versace’s House Is the Most Extra Thing We’ve Ever Seen
This article originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of ELLE DECOR. For more stories from our archive, subscribe to ELLE DECOR All Access.
Where does good taste begin and excess leave off? That’s one of the many questions that come to mind where perusing the grand Milan apartment of Donatella Versace, that ironic titaness of all that is blond. As the longtime eminence—first muse, then designer—for the house of Versace, she has done for fashion what Jayne Mansfield did for film: add equal parts peroxide, hot pink, and leopard, and then hit the frappe button. Oh, and leave the lid off.
However Ms. Versace might answer such a heady question herself, her apartment makes clear—as do her recent fashion collections, which prove that the onetime bad kid-sister of maestro Gianni has come into her own—that one of life’s great thrills is walking the fine line between the two.
Donatella Versace in the entrance hall of her Milan apartment, decorated by the firm of Renzo Mongiardino, which executed the plasterwork and stucco ornamentation throughout.
These days, guests awaiting an audience are able to wander the vast main floor in relative peace, since Donatella herself is now ensconced upstairs in a brand-new suite—an oasis of serenity created by annexing the apartment directly above. Downstairs, the rooms unfold like the passage of time, telescoping back to 1986, when Donatella and her then -husband, Paul Beck, bought a small space in the beautiful, old ivy-covered building as their first real home. “I still remember when I saw the building, it was really powerful,” she says. “And I love anything powerful. I loved the elevator—it reminds me of the one in Suddenly, Last Summer.”
“I’m not a minimalist. But still, my needs and desires have become more simple.”
The couple hired the office of famed decorator Renzo Mongiardino to remake the place—the dining room’s mural and blue-and-white tile work still shine, subtle yet showy, almost 20 years later. They called in the same team as their family matured (daughter Allegra is now 19, and Daniel is 15), and they expanded into the apartments next door. The arched and coffered ceilings and geometric floor tiles that are a Mongiardino trademark unify the space, linking both the designer’s and the decorator’s styles. But like Belle Poitrine, the heroine of Patrick Dennis’s brilliant satire Little Me, who one-ups the all-white decor that Syrie Maugham creates for her by having it sprayed pale pink, Versace has definitely gone where no Renzo man has gone before, and quite triumphantly. “I’m not a minimalist,” says Versace, who state the obvious with obvious glee. “But still, my needs and desires have become more simple.”
Tour Donatella Versace’s Milan Home
Simple is, of course, a relative term. For example, the pale pinks and purples of the small living room on the main floor, now used by her children, are a testament to the sophisticated palette that Versace is capable of—as is her latest collection, a desert-hued fantasy. Likewise, the printed velvets that grace the main living room’s Knole sofas bring opulence to a dazzlingly new height that nonetheless manages, even in their savage jungle-beat take on neoclassicism, a certain symmetry and poise.
But if downstairs is more in the style she embraced in the past, when she was in an aesthetic pas de deux with her brother, her new suite, which includes two bedrooms, a living room, a media salon, and a massive bath, is where the real Donatella can stand up.
In the dining room, the Venetian chandelier dates from the late 16th century, the chairs and table are early-19th-century French, and the tableware is by Versace for Rosenthal; a collection of Japanese and Chinese vases echoes the murals.
“You see my evolution more upstairs,” she says. “It’s eclectic. I like modern art and classic furniture.” Indeed, while her favorite colors of black and gold are much in evidence, the restraint downstairs seems to vanish into gestures of sheer girlish enthusiasm: leopard spots on blue velvet brocade! a bathroom as big as the Ritz! “I keep telling them it had to be bigger,” she recalls, laughing. “Most people would think it was huge, but for me it can’t be big enough.” Even after it was finished, she insisted that they make it bigger again, and then, on top of that, add a wall of mirror. “Finally, I’m satisfied.”
“I find that behind the modern facades, there are a lot of old-fashioned people out there.”
Just as Marie Antoinette rejoiced in the humble pleasures of Le Hameau, Versace can withdraw to her new haven. “I like having both lives. When I want to have people over and be glamorous, I go downstairs,” she says, “but now that the children are older, I wanted a place to have some intimacy, where I can entertain a few friends, or be by myself.”
A mirror-backed display case holds Versace’s extensive collection of fragrances; the pedestal is French Empire.
And a place where she can mix it up to her heart’s content. “I don’t think too many people would do an Oriental bathroom next to a modern bedroom,” she says. “People think it’s not correct. They want one style, so everything matches. But really, that’s the most old-fashioned thing you can do, even when it’s modern. I find that behind the modern facades, there are a lot of old-fashioned people out there.”
So does that mean that the history of excess is one of freedom? Probably not many intellectuals would put it that way, but if expressing yourself the way you (and you alone) want to is excessive, then the rule holds. So, Donatella Versace: radical taste activist? Perhaps. As she says when asked what she values most, “Freedom—I love freedom, especially in the mind.” Who knew a Versace throw pillow was stuffed with so much substance?