Oberto Gili

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Photographer Oberto Gili is a charming, if restless, man. During our interview at his wonderfully quirky West Village brownstone he smoked incessantly, picked at a loaf of crusty Italian bread and hopped around as we bantered about everything from the importance of curiosity to his Italian mother. His current project, “Home Sweet Home” (Rizzoli, Oct. 2011) is a gorgeous collection of interiors that have stuck in his mind over the years. They aren’t particularly trendy or stuffy but they are, much like Gili himself, loaded with personal character and memories.

Home Sweet Home, by Oberto Gili. Click to order.

Well I just wanted to tell you that I think this book is extraordinary. I wanted to start out by discussing what “the home” means to you. 

In general the home becomes like a model of your life—you keep adding and changing and you think you’ve finished but actually it’s never finished.

Why is it never finished? 

Because when it’s finished, it becomes like a museum—it’s dead. Your mind keeps evolving no matter how old you are—you need to add something or to take something away …

So you think your home is really a reflection of what your internal feelings are at the moment. 

In my case … and in most of the cases of the houses I chose for the book, it is. When you go to see [hire] a decorator, the home is a showcase.

Some people are born with a good eye, but even if you’re born with a good eye, you have to train your eye. It’s about looking. 

You have to train it. If you are born with a good eye, you are better off but you can be trained [without a good eye]. You can develop it. It’s like music. Take a very simple song like “Yellow Submarine” – if you are told to sing it, you are tone deaf, you feel scared but if you listen and learn it, you can sing it decently.

A view of out the front door of Oberto’s West Village brownstone.
An intriguing painting of a Mexican woman stands atop a table in the foyer.

The downstairs living/dining room retains the original wide plank pine floor boards.

Looking into a corner of the living room, a scarlet colored bedspread covers a chaise.
Italian carving of Madonna and child leans against the fireplace.
An eclectic mix of vintage wooden chairs surrounds the dining table.

L. to r.: A pair of bronze Ostrich stand atop living room side table.; A delicate starfish is placed next to a carved wooden urn lamp.
An anonymous painting of a woman hangs in a niche next to the fireplace. Above the fireplace is a 1193 painting of Red Zinias by artist Alida Morgan.
The first floor of Oberto’s brownstone apartment has two original working fireplaces.
Light from the rear garden spills into the first floor of Oberto’s brownstone apartment.
A velvet covered ottoman is covered with art books,
Oberto’s living room is a carefully edited, if eclectic mix of furniture and objects collected over the years. “ Nothing stays if it doesn’t please my eye.” He says.
A set of classical urn prints covers the west wall of the living room.
A bare-bones wing chair is now a place to display books.
More books are neatly stacked atop a drop leaf table in a living room corner. The paintings came from a dealer on Sixth Avenue.

The other working fireplace.

It seems like your mother had a big influence on you, on developing your curiosity.

She did in a way, especially when I was a kid. Even unconsciously she always pushed me to go out and explore. There was a deeper part to her that was kind of proud of pushing me, saying “go, go, go”.

You have a restlessness about you.

Yes, I am restless but that doesn’t come from my mother. I am restless because I always have ideas and I’m very impatient. I don’t know where it comes from. I’m curious.

A vintage Suzani found in Tangiers covers a brick wall.
Looking into the kitchen.
A pair of Tolomeo desk lamps illuminate the marble kitchen table.
Quirky combinations of objects are carefully arranged atop the marble kitchen table.

Three daily necessities: Crusty baguettes, coffee and a pack of Marlboros.
The kitchen counter top stores essential items for cooking, and drinking.

The rear garden.

Well, curiosity is the key to becoming a smart person. If you’re not curious then your life is very restricted.

But you can live a very successful life too, no?

You can actually, that’s interesting. You also said your house in Italy has nothing to do with your house here?

No, they’re very similar actually. Years ago I was spending most of the time here and going back and forwards, so you become a bit schizophrenic. So what I did was to make it so that [this apartment] it reminded me of being there and to make the [Italian house] so that it reminded me of being here. So the exact copy of this table, I have it in Italy.

So it gives you a sense of continuity. Do you have two different lives?

No, it’s the same life. Part of me is the photographer, living in New York City and it looks glamorous. The house in Italy is in a small town and I’m up in the hills, very isolated and there I do the vegetable gardens, I milk the cows and I do the cheese, the butter, the bread – a very peasant life. But it’s the same life. I do bread once a week and I put it in the freezer and when I do my loaf I feel very satisfied. And [I feel] the same when I [take] my pictures.

Let’s talk a little bit about interiors. I know when I walk into someone’s home, I can tell a lot about that person. Do you feel that way?

Yes. If you walk into a real home, that you have designed. If you call Denning and Foucade, it cannot really tell anything.

So you can’t read those people—the ones who have had their homes designed?

They’re much more predictable. They’re much more average.

So that was really your goal in this book, is to show people who have an internal richness that is evident in their homes. How did you pick the homes for the book?

I picked out of my own taste, with a little bit of diplomacy – overall it’s really my choice.

Oberto caught the Marlin at an “antiques store in the West Village.”
Peeking into the hall bath from upstairs landing.
A coat rack provides essential hanging space for Oberto’s shirts and jackets.
A pair of book cabinets from the Sixth Avenue flea market flanks the fireplace in the master bedroom.
An oversized American flag hangs behind a steel four-poster bed by artist John Ryman.
Family photos and a vintage mirror hang next to the four poster bed in the master bedroom.
Steel shelves were a gift from friend, Hamish Bowles.

The master bedroom, originally the brownstone’s front parlour, has the airy feel of a room with high ceilings and oversized windows.
A bold mix of patterns delights the eye.

From looking at the book you get a feeling how different European interiors are from the way people live in New York. People live very differently in Italy, for example.

Life is different there but it is becoming more and more similar. Are you talking about their lifestyle or are you talking about their décor?

I think that their décor reflects their lifestyle.

One of my friends, a landscape architect, made a really interesting comment: “Unless a home becomes a love affair, it is not a success.” You have to love every single little thing—if it doesn’t have a memory, a story, it doesn’t count.

Oberto’s photos fill the walls of his office/guest room.

Oberto’s desktop. A crystal obelisk is used as a paperweight.
More views of the office.
More views of the office.
Boxes of prints are neatly stacked below a wall of Oberto’s photos.

We were talking earlier about the hurricane and it seemed to me that New Yorkers were panicking at the thoughts of having to stay indoors, inside their own homes. New Yorkers need to go out and don’t like to stay home!

I’ve been here a long time and I’m very proud to be an American but since 9/11 Americans have changed a lot. There is a sense of paranoia all the time, constant paranoia.

There is, and it’s sad.

My main feeling about the culture of the US is that there is no acceptance of death. You are born and you’re going to die—life and death are the same thing. Instead here, people do not accept death and do not accept suffering. I mean I don’t want to die and I don’t want to suffer, but I’m not running away. Why not accept it?

Office shelves overflow with boxes of Oberto’s photo projects.
Office shelves overflow with boxes of Oberto’s photo projects.

A work by Alexander Vethers hangs above a daybed purchased in Italy.
A view across the office to a wall of closets.
Printout of a recent work by Oberto.

More stacks of prints are piled under a large pine table overlooking the rear garden.
Oberto’s briefcase.

Do you think that means you enjoy your life more?

I don’t expect to be happy all the time. I don’t expect to be healthy all the time. I don’t expect that. I mean I prefer to be happy …

What types of things do you do that make you happy? Do you like to cook?

For myself, no, but I like to cook for other people.

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