Rizzoli’s new Marella Agnelli: The Last Swan, written by Agnelli with her niece and namesake, the design journalist Marella Caracciolo Chia, offers a rare glimpse into the private realm of one of the world’s most legendary couples, Gianni and Marella Agnelli.
“Marella had an apartment,” says the photographer Priscilla Rattazzi, another of Agnelli’s nieces, “but my uncle decided that they needed an apartment that was even more glamorous.” Thus, in 1981, the Agnellis decamped from 720 Park Avenue to a larger pied-à-terre at 770 Park Avenue—both buildings by the elegant prewar architect Rosario Candela.
New York City in that era was an intoxicating mix of art, culture, and international society. “During the 1980s Gianni and I found ourselves spending more and more time in New York City,” Agnelli writes. “This was partly because of business and partly because Manhattan, in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, was far more cultivated than anywhere in Europe … If something interesting was going on in the world, it was in New York.”
Agnelli had worked with her good friend, decorator Françoise de la Renta, on the first apartment, but for the home at 770 Park Avenue she enlisted the Italian master Renzo Mongiardino and the then-rising-star Peter Marino. Mongiardino had worked on houses for the couple in Turin and St. Moritz, but hated to travel; Marino was hired as the on-site architect. “Although the situation was potentially explosive, as Marella herself later admitted,” Chia writes, “the reality of it was much simpler because the two architects she commissioned had distinct roles and met each other as few times as possible.” It was decided that Mongiardino would design the living and dining rooms, hall, and library; Marino was in charge of the private rooms, kitchen, and breakfast room.
This was the Reagan era—one of extravagance—and the apartment reflected its time, even as it stood apart from that milieu. “There was always a certain kind of sisal on the floor, and beautiful books everywhere, and the unmistakable Rigaud candle,” says Rattazzi. “What’s great about Marella’s taste is that it was always understated glamour.”
*This article appears in the Winter 2015 issue of New York Design Hunting.
The couple’s many Matisse paintings inspired the graphic mix of blue-and-white-striped walls and red-and-white-check curtains. The sofas were upholstered in red velvet. Balthus’s Le Chat de la Méditerranée hung on one wall.
The hand-painted wallpaper in the dining room, conceived by Renzo Mongiardino, featured a motif inspired by the collection of Imperial Russian plates displayed there.
Gianni Agnelli’s cork-lined study epitomized his rarefied taste. It featured an ormolu-mounted Louis XVI table with a painting by Alexandre Romain Honnet on the wall above and a sculpture of a torso by Aristide Maillol.
Marella Agnelli’s bedroom was covered in wall-to-wall sisal. A mix of different period furnishings balanced the room’s formal aspect. The cream-and-blue-painted Louis XVI bed was dressed in floral sheets by D. Porthault.
Marella Agnelli at home in Italy, 1967.