In Renaissance Florence, patrons knew that a Ghirlandaio altarpiece was really the product of Domenico Ghirlandaio Ltd, a thriving firm that employed several specialists – some family, some not – under the watchful eye of il maestro. If you were successful you were not so much an artist as a company director.
Riccardo Barthel keeps that tradition alive. It feels reductive to call his base, in Florence’s stylishly bohemian Oltrarno district, a “shop”. The evangelist of a particularly elegant brand of shabby-chic interior design that is molto molto Firenze, Barthel operates out of a warren of buildings around a large cobbled courtyard, his base since 1994, although his business has been going since 1976.
More than 20 staff, from carpenters to upholsterers, bronzers and restorers, share space with storerooms of antiques, architectural salvage (some restored or adapted) and new items. Even inside the shop proper, kitchen tables are pressed into service as desks, illuminated perhaps by an ancient Anglepoise that may or may not have a price tag, depending on whether it’s become an old friend.
With Riccardo dedicating most of his time to interior-design projects – which have included Chianti boutique hotel Villa Bordoni and an apartment for Zubin Mehta, chief conductor of Florence’s Maggio Musicale orchestra – it’s his son Francesco who increasingly handles the day-to-day business. “My father and I are interchangeable on any job,” he says, with a hint of a smile, “though we’ve learnt that it’s best if we don’t work on the same one at the same time.”
Francesco sees the company’s loyalty to Florence’s still-vibrant crafts tradition as one of the keys to its success. Bringing craftsmen who had previously worked on commission into the fold was a logical move, he says, “as it means you can be more reactive, and also have the creative space to develop new projects” – such as the recently launched Merenda a Casa Barthel kitchen.
Though design projects are the company’s core business, Riccardo Barthel is also a browser’s paradise. It may seem odd to take back to London or Paris something that may well have originated there, but what you’re paying for is Riccardo and Francesco’s unfailing eye. Whether it’s an old cinematic spotlight-turned-standard lamp (€800), a lived-in leather armchair (€2,600) or door handles (from €120), it’s hard to keep the “I want that” impulse at bay.
“My father started out when minimalism was all the rage,” muses Francesco, as he surveys the clutter of a workshop that is also a defiant style statement. “But he always knew the tide would turn.”