Irish artist Sean Shanahan and furniture designer Dalila Formentini live in an imposing villa near Lake Como. The house is a tribute to their joint love of colour, a testing ground for their art, and the fulcrum of family life, as Deirdre McQuillan discovered …
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MONICA SPEZIA
WORDS BY DEIRDRE MCQUILLAN
An imposing Italian villa in the Lombardy city of Lecco, on the south-eastern shore of Lake Como and 20 kilometres north of Milan, has been home to Irish artist Sean Shanahan and his wife, Italian furniture designer Dalila Formentini, for the past nine years. An early 17th-century building remade in early 19th-century style, the large five-bedroom villa with an old silk mill in the courtyard had been abandoned for nearly five years when the couple bought it.
It took them nearly two years to make the place habitable. “The restoration was a much bigger job than we had anticipated. We had to put in new windows, new walls and new floors,” Sean recalls. For Dalila, the challenge of the interior “was orchestrating different styles together in harmonious unity”, she says.
Lecco was badly affected by the pandemic, being close to its epicentre in Bergamo, “so we were in serious lockdown for three months and going to a supermarket was like going to outer space,” says Sean. Restrictions have since eased and his exhibition, a major one, “Sean Shanahan at Villa Panza & the Panza Collection”, at the Villa Panza in Varese, a cultural destination home to the most important collections of contemporary Italian art, ran until last October.
“Count Panza was an obsessed collector, a man thinking in art. He bought 30-odd works of mine and didn’t only help me, but he became part of my life and a friend,” Sean remembers. His new series of paintings called “Sudden Time”, inspired by the English composer George Benjamin, one of the world’s foremost musicians, consists of four large paintings and one large wall painting. “These are somewhat different to my usual (work) and a big step forward for me,” he comments.
But back to the house in Lecco and its wildly colourful, exuberant interior, a mix of his work and Dalila’s aesthetic style. “When it comes to colour in our home, I was only following orders,” Sean laughs. “As a painter, when you paint onto your living space, you live with your work. It’s like an architect being stuck with his house. But very little went wrong – it was all done with a certain lightness. For Dalila, colour is much more about emotion and she has better taste when it comes to colour and what goes with what than me. So I don’t step on that because it is like stepping on a hedgehog. We have different goals. I am monomaniacal in that I do one thing and change it bit by bit.”
The drawing room with its arresting violet and green chequerboard floor sets off the light, brightly coloured iron furniture which Dalila designs. “It began as a large floor painting and you get immersed in it. I like the idea of allowing it to age, so it is not pristine. A year after I painted it, the blue painting was installed. It is hard to say when things start exactly. Change comes as you live in a space,” he explains.
The pink floor at the entrance to the house was deliberately chosen to be warm and welcoming. “The wallpaper was made by me years ago and was extremely adaptable to the staircase. It is a natural paper which has become creamier with the years while the black has become blacker.” The bathroom is wallpapered with a green foliage print. The wallpaper is made by a small company in Milan, a real design city. “There are so many small family businesses here in Italy and specialty cottage industries. Behind ordinary doors extraordinary things are happening.”
Dalila’s tables are designed both to host formal lunches as well as simple ones for friends and relatives. “They are timeless and placeless for indoors or outdoors and coloured with non-toxic paints that can resist cold or hot weathers without undergoing changes. Each colour has its own life and personality, its strength and meaning and should trigger an emotion, that’s what I want my tables to do,” she says. “All colours to me are wonderful but it is much more about where you put them and what you put them next to than what they are,” she explains.
Sean Shanahan and Dalila Formentini.
The rooms are changed regularly, according to Sean. “It’s an ongoing palimpsest. My paintings go up if and when the time is right. We also hang the work of friends. It is all extremely easygoing. Colour has always been confounding in that it is like a wild card. It is what you put it next to that matters and I am tired of people simply giving colour just one address.” I ask Sean about fellow Irish artist Brian O’Doherty (Patrick Ireland) who famously colour-bombed his house in Umbria. He makes this distinction: “He made artwork on his walls so his are wall paintings. Mine are coloured environments.”
The gregarious couple live alone now that their two daughters, aged 27 and 30, have fled the nest. They share their environment with two Jack Russells, one called Taddeo “a little bully fond of biting builders”, and the other Luisa. “We have not seen friends for ages, so we have been condemned to introspection and I think everyone is sick of introspection – people like us tend to be thoughtful.” Living in Italy since the 1980s, this is the first house that is not a studio that Sean has lived in. “I have moved around, to Holland, Germany and the US, always working and exhibiting but you tend to live inside your head as an artist,” he says. “Here, there is so much beauty in this landscape and we live in an extremely protected area with a national park and nature reserve.”
The light in Italy has been a huge influence on Sean’s work. “I am completely and totally affected by it here and the more you see it the greater its subtleties. It is a caressing light and very forgiving. We live both inside and outside the house. Things are moved around a lot and are in a constant state of flux.” Among Dalila’s treasured finds is a collection of 17th-century ceramic, plates and candelabras. “They are everywhere,” she says.
The house has its own individuality and serenity and reflects the sociable and warm personalities of its owners who are looking forward to welcoming friends and family back. “Winter is pretty grim here, but from March to November we would normally have lots of people staying. We are really looking forward to that now”.
In the sitting room, two 1950s Italian velvet sofas, coffee tables by Dalila, and a large painting by Sean.
The drawing room with large chequerboard floor and wall installations, red velvet armchairs and a cut stone fireplace typical of the region. The painting over the mantelpiece is by the famous Chilean artist Carmengloria Morales, who now lives in Italy. The red tables are by Dalila.
The pink on the hall floor was deliberately chosen as a warm and welcoming shade for visitors. The wallpaper was made by Sean. Four small paintings jut out from the wall.
In the dining room, a 17th-century French table with steel and velvet chairs by Italian architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni and candlesticks from Dalila’s collection. On the green wall is Sean’s dramatic painting “Taddeo”.
A collection of 17th-century Chinese ceramics decorates the top of a kitchen cupboard and Dalila’s jade-green table and a green velvet pouf contrast with the handpainted check wallpaper which surrounds the fireplace.
A guest bedroom with two paintings by Sean on the room’s white walls.