Touring the downstairs gallery at SoHo’s Poltrona Frau last weekend, you’d notice two common themes: every piece of furniture is constructed from the slats of wine barrels, and each is accompanied by a photo of what looks like adult summer camp. Those adults, at work and at play, are patients at the San Patrignano rehab facility outside of Milan.
Barrique: The Third Life of Wood is the brainchild of Letizia Moratti, the former Mayor of Milan and Italian Minister for Education. The concept: recruit top international designers to create furniture from wine barrels. Send those designs to San Patrignano, where patients build the products. Sell those products for a cool $1,000-25,000. Return the profits to the rehab facility.
With top designers like Mario Botta and Marc Sadler at the helm, Barrique’s furniture has the elegance that most recycled design lacks. The curves of the casks seem perfectly suited for the contours of the human body in a swinging loveseat or a leather-lined chaise longue. And the wood’s second life as a vessel for wine has stained it a lovely burgundy, an element most designers chose to keep (though some sanded it clean).
“There’s a difference between doing something different for attention and exploiting the intellectual possibility” of the material, said designer Karim Rashid at a party thrown for Moratti by her old friend Mayor Michael Bloomberg during her visit to New York. His piece is part-stool, part-table, created by simply turning the slats inside out. (“It was my third idea,” he said.)
So perfectly adaptable are these vessels for alcohol, one nearly misses the irony of their use—after all, their benefactors are addicts.
San Patrignano is no ordinary rehab: patients stay there for three to four years, learning skills while undergoing therapy and bonding with a community of 1,300, a small city unto itself. What’s more, it’s completely free.
One satisfied customer at Bloomberg’s townhouse was Mike McKeaig, a Las Vegas native who’s spent three and a half years at San Patrignano. Before his move to Milan, he’d tried several month-long programs that cost his family enormous amounts of money and never worked. “The difference at San Patrignano,” he says, “is that it feels like a family.”
Learning a skill like carpentry is an important therapeutic element, according to Moratti. These tactile projects make them “feel they can start and finish something,” she said. “They need to have the chance to express themselves and their potential, so art is something that is very good for them.”
The sustainable virtues of repurposing the barrels carries both symbolic and practical relevance for the rehab. “The respect of nature is considered to be very important,” said Moratti. “In 30 years more than 100,000 plants have been planted at San Patrignano,” which encompasses over 250 acres.
Moratti’s many friends in high places have helped spread the word for Barrique and should help push sales for the furniture, which is available to purchase on eBay. With top-name designers and only five to 20 pieces of each design, expect the work to fly off the digital shelves.
“The charm of the Barrique Project,” writes Italian Ambassador to the U.S. Claudio Bisogniero in the catalogue, “lies in its capacity to bring together and represent a number of different essences: beauty, know-how, taste, regard for local communities and for the environment, and also solidarity.”