A Family Palazzo in Genoa

Photographs by Bernard Touillon

Illustration by Jason Lee

The structure: A pied-à-terre over a design store in a 500-year-old palace.
The (occasional) occupants: Brothers Lorenzo, 36, and Giorgio Bagnara, 35.

Walk through a heavy, studded iron door of the Palazzo Campanella in the center of Genoa and climb the wide marble staircase to the piano nobile, and you step into an eclectic wonderland of modern design displayed in airy antique quarters. Gravity-defying chairs, paper-light glasses, and ornate rarities share quarters beneath ­sixteenth-century frescoes, rococo gilt-framed mirrors, coffered ceilings, and marble columns. In here, taste knows no era or ism.

Named for the Renaissance palazzo’s distinguished address, the design store Via Garibaldi 12 belongs not to aesthetically refined blue bloods but to a family of small-town shopkeepers. In 2000, Renzo and Graziella Bagnara, who ran a housewares store about fifteen miles from Genoa, took a chance and, with their two sons, Lorenzo and Giorgio, staked their claim to the glittering big city—well, okay, to the medium-size industrial city that foreigners sometimes confuse with Geneva, Switzerland, but still. The family business that began with a hardware store and later expanded to include a wedding registry had discovered a new niche: a sophisticated and distinctively Italian blend of tradition and freshness.

“The building changed owners every hundred years. Five families lived here, and each one left its mark. So it’s like a lesson on the history of living,” says Lorenzo, who is now 36 and runs the store with his parents. “People come in and they see something they’ve had in their home for years sitting among super-modern objects.”

Maybe every home-décor store should come with a pied-à-terre across the landing, so that the owners can actually live with the merchandise. The Bagnaras eat lunch at the family pad together most days, occasionally stay over, and sometimes rent it out. It merges the minute with the palatial: Seen from the loggia of City Hall next door, the balustrade and grand French doors would suggest an immense ballroom. Instead, it’s a wry fun-house sequence of small, efficient spaces energized by bold décor. The kitchen would be diminutive even by New York standards. A miniature sleeping loft hangs above a dining room so narrow and high that it seems like an image seen through a distorting lens.

The Bagnaras have kept the furnishings minimal but assertive. The dining-room table, a fuchsia pane of Plexiglas by Matt Sindall, flanked by Sawaya & Moroni chairs that undulate like sea anemones, animates the tight rectangular room. Lorenzo’s younger brother, Giorgio, who runs a separate custom-design company called B•Home Interiors, upholstered the dining-room walls in hand-stitched chartreuse leather—then went a little crazy, covering the banister and kick boards on the stairs up to the loft in orange cowhide. On one un-leathered living-room wall is an eighteenth-century painted panel from a series of illustrations of the months: The Roman god of war, Mars, presides over this playful slice of real estate in its venerable frame.

The symbiosis between business and crash pad helps the family stay connected, both to one another and to the objects in the store. (Lorenzo lives in a separate apartment in the same building, Giorgio nearby in central Genoa.) “Research is the essence of our store, and in that spirit, we chose design items [for the apartment] that aren’t especially famous,” Lorenzo says. “The hardest part is to keep educating ourselves and still be present. Customers have to know that the person who’s selling them something is the same person who bought it.”

A Family Palazzo in Genoa