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Paola Navone, unbound

New book showcases the Italian designer’s eclectic work

“Because I’m a fish, I prefer to swim in water more than on earth,” declares Paola Navone, the Milan-based architect and designer known for exuberant and eclectic interiors that play with scale, materials, and add a heaping dose of color. This proclamation, in fact, dictates much of her work, and fish quite literally figure into most of her prolific output, whether in the homes, hotels, and restaurants she designs, or in small objects.

Not only that, “Paola Navone revels in roving,” begins Tham ma da, a new book by Surface magazine editor-in-chief Spencer Bailey. Navone is a self-described “treasure-hunter” who possesses an unquenchable thirst for travel in places like Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

It is in Thailand where Navone first encountered one of her favorite words, tham ma da. Thai for “everyday,” it embodies her ability to find beauty in ordinary, often unremarkable, things.

After studying architecture at Italy’s Polytechnic University of Turin, Navone went on to join the renowned Memphis group (a movement now experiencing a resurgence in popularity) in the 1980s, working alongside boundary-pushing designers like Ettore Sottsass, Alessandro Mendini, Martine Bedin, Andrea Branzi, Aldo Cibic, and Michele De Lucchi. Navone had this to say about her time with the Memphis designers:

The Memphis products were the result of our idea of breaking the rules. We were working with opposite colors, having them live together. We were doing everything asymmetrical, promoting the importance of the surface of the object as against the structure. The skin of the object became more important than the real structure.

This spirit of rebellion and opposition still courses through her work today, which is always playful and never serious: “Her design process is not perfectionist, nor is it hyper-intellectualized,” writes Bailey. “For her, there are endless possibilities and answers, not just one [...] She is both exacting and easygoing.”

Bailey also notes that she works like a found-object artist. Navone says of her process: “I’m collecting all the time. It’s not analytic or focused. It’s an exercise I do wherever I go, whatever I’m doing. It’s a kind of paranoia. I just select things.”

Showcasing a selection of Navone’s most recent interiors from all over the globe, Bailey’s book, out now from Pointed Leaf Press, offers a window into the designer’s dynamic, free-flowing, and often cheeky world. In her own Rooftop House, pebbles from Indonesia and Moroccan cement tiles line the same floor, and large, discarded ceramic pieces from Thailand create a bold, three-dimensional wall mosaic.

Other projects, like the all-white-and-grey House in Spello in Umbria, and the renovation of the historic Traymore building in Miami Beach done in a mint-green scheme, show restraint in the use of color. But it’s the Point Yamu hotel in Phuket, and the Ibaji restaurant in Paris, for example, that capture Navone’s penchant for large-scale whimsy balanced by an authentic appreciation—and understanding—of where her treasures come from:

The exercise of a designer is not only to draw the size of a chair, but also to select and choose from what’s around. Twenty-four hours a day, my brain selects things that pass under my nose. Every time I see something, I capture it, and that goes into my big basket. Selecting and putting all these elements in dialogue is important. It’s not considered ‘work,’ normally. Designers often want to design everything, but what they want exists already.