Inside Designer J.J. Martin’s Exuberant Milan Apartment

Last year, I found myself newly divorced, without much money and needing a new home. As I desperately scoured Milan’s rigid, ancient real-estate scene, the agents all insisted I would never find what I wanted for my budget. Finally I abandoned logic and put my energy practice to use. I drove over to my favorite street and began walking door to door, cheerfully interviewing every doorman personally, telling them how much I loved their building and wished to live there. “No, no, signora,” they all said, laughing at my American wackiness. Then the last one jumped up and down. His friend had just SMS’d an apartment available on the most beautiful street in all of Milan. “Vai! Vai!” Go now!

Two days later, an apartment on the third floor of a 1910 building with beautiful bones, a magnificent frescoed entryway, original marble intarsia floors, 4.5-meter-tall molded ceilings, and an extra-large balcony was mine. What to do? I couldn’t afford a decorator; I didn’t have a lot of money for expensive furnishings. My move-in date, March 1, 2020, was one week prior to Milan’s full lockdown, in which we were prevented from even leaving our homes.

Inside Designer J.J. Martin’s Exuberant Milan Apartment

You know what I did? I surrendered to faith and fate. I gave the house over to my higher self, my creative self, and the part of me that believes intrinsically that all will be well and that I am capable of anything when I follow my heart. Guess what? The house danced to life in a way I could never have imagined. I have my friend Raimondo Garau, a vintage-store owner with the best taste in town, to thank for helping me channel my creative geyser into practicality. Yes, there wouldn’t be a single white wall in the place; no, we would not paint every room a different color. Yes, I would make a few splurges on new purchases—like the Arflex sofa in peacock-blue velvet—but, no, the house would not be precious. Raimondo dug up astonishing 1910s sconces and a 1990s vintage Poliform kitchen from an old signora’s home in Milan, which cost me less than a fully applianced cheapo. I also harnessed the power of IKEA for closets that have La DoubleJ printed-fabric curtain covers and a shoe closet made from an IKEA lacquered kitchen topped with rose-colored mirror, Raimondo’s genius invention that now displays my Murano-glass collection.

All of the seeds were dropped while I sat alone in a dark apartment during quarantine trying to manage my beloved, shell-shocked, independent fashion company La DoubleJ over Zoom calls. I had a mattress on the floor of my bedroom, two vintage lamps, books stacked in the hallways, and had to learn to finally live with and allow myself to gestate in emptiness— no small feat for a verbal and visual maximalist. I completed the meditation room first, illegally inviting my friend artist Jay Lohmann over to paint the ceiling to replicate the mosaics of Ravenna’s famous Byzantine basilicas and piecing together a vintage Tibetan altar with my 1940s Italian console and Balinese ceremonial ornaments. This room became my grounding cord to a spiritual practice that blossomed during lockdown with my teacher in Mount Shasta: keeping my light on as everything seemed gloomy outside myself.

More Inside Designer J.J. Martin’s Exuberant Milan Apartment

Essential to this was a daily hookup with my life force and what I truly love, which is vibration-raising color, pattern, and creative discourse with friends. I surrounded myself with clippings, artwork, prints, and swatches of fabric I loved. I gave a vintage Balinese collage to the artist Kirsten Synge, who created a Tree of Life illustration that I printed and papered the dining-room walls with. Fashion designer Francesco Risso came over and helped me decide how to place all of my vintage necklaces on the guest-bath wall. Emiliano Salci dropped in to advise me on the perfect shade of dark green for my guest room. Owners of vintage store Zucca in Pesaro dug up 1960s lacquered B&B Italia bookcases. Design PR maven Martina Gamboni introduced me to the magic of hidden vintage shops for discarded Italian household goods, such as an excellent pair of bamboo beds for the guest room and mismatched bamboo chairs for the dining room, paired with two Molteni tables I nabbed from my office. My handyman, Juan, and my assistant, Luca, helped make all of this happen, while vibrant color shot up on the balcony thanks to my Japanese florist, Sachiko Ito. By summer, an entire new world began to bloom in my home. And what I realized as I saw the whole thing rise like a radiant rose garden is that nothing happens without community, without creative collaboration, and without pure joy and resolute faith. It just requires the spark within us to light up the night like dynamite.

JJ Martin Design Notes

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest