Lisa Corti greets us in her apartment in the bustling neighborhood of Porta Venezia, in Milan, with a contagious smile and a cup of ginger tea. She moved here almost three years ago, at the age of 78, after the owners of her previous flat announced that they needed it back. “It was an unexpected surprise,” Corti recalls. Undaunted, she embraced the change with the same driven curiosity that propelled her from the village in Eritrea where she grew up all the way to Milan, where she established herself as one of Italy’s most iconic designers of textiles and home accessories.
She was born in Keren, northwest of Asmara, to Italian parents who had immigrated to Eastern Africa to open an emporium. “Imagine a village immersed in citrus groves and mango fields on the pristine shores of the Anseba River, surrounded by granite mountains on all sides,” she recalls. “It felt like living in an enchanted garden.” It was in the market stalls of her hometown that Corti’s mother introduced her as a child to the alchemy of transforming cottons and silks into ravishing clothes.
At 16, she met Neno Corti di Santo Stefano Belbo, a dashing Milanese aristocrat 13 years her senior. Having disembarked from a cargo ship that had traveled along the shores of China and India before circumnavigating the African continent, the Italian marquis fell in love with Keren. He bought a hill in the village with a tukul (a typical Eritrean round home) on top, which he filled with treasures from East Asia: jade objects, fine ceramics, precious textiles. The two waited nearly three years before declaring their love for each other, and once they did, off they went on a trip in his Land Rover all the way to Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, and back. It was 1959. Lisa was 18, Neno 31.
The couple married soon after that and moved to Milan, where she gave birth to their only child, Ida, who is now the chief executive officer of the Lisa Corti company. “It took forever to get used to the long Milanese winters and to the aristocratic formality of my husband’s family,” Corti says.
Her instinct for color rescued her when, during a trip to Eritrea, she came across some rolls of organza. “Those clouds of color were my epiphany,” she says. Out of them came her first collection of exquisitely crafted caftans. Serendipity ensued: Elio Fiorucci, the visionary designer-entrepreneur, snatched up 50 for his shop in Milan. Michelangelo Antonioni, the film director, bought 30 of them for his girlfriends. Following a brief but successful career as an international model—Diana Vreeland sent her a telegram stating “a star is born”—Corti went on to consult for textile companies. “Compromising my vision for a corporate taste was frustrating,” she says. “So I moved on.”
During a trip to India in the 1970s, she discovered the rich and varied world of Indian fabrics. “There, I found my calling: to create a very personal line of textiles that combined my African sensibility, my European culture, and my understanding of Indian techniques,” Corti says. Back in Milan, she opened a showroom where she sold bedspreads, cushions, caftans, and other accessories.
An article in the Herald Tribune hailed her as “a trailblazer” who was leading the way to a new “stylistic independence” from conventions. By then, her marriage had amicably ended, and she was living with the artist Angelo Barcella, whose graceful paintings and sensuous sculptures complemented her penchant for harmonious interiors.
“Perfection is not interesting to me,” Corti explains. “A lightness of touch is.” On the top floor of an early-20th-century building, her apartment bears testimony to this. It is a vibrant world marked by bold colors and a free-spirited eclecticism. The wooden floors, inspired by a rug Corti saw in a palace in India, were painted by Ida in black and cream stripes. Another Indian touch is the elaborate wall decorations framing the doors in the living room. This hands-on approach extends to the furniture, such as the four-poster bed she designed. Ultimately, her home is all about her textiles. “It’s not just that I see color combinations, I actually feel them,” she explains. Every morning, the designer retreats to the studio in her apartment to create new patterns for her next collection. “Time flies when I work. It gives me such joy,” she says. With three shops in Italy and online sales that have grown by 300 percent in the last year alone, the joy she creates in her petite Milan home is finding its way around the globe, spreading the Lisa Corti magic.
This story originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of ELLE Decor. SUBSCRIBE
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