Villa + Villa: Maria Villa & Francesco Cordua on the death of the ‘Heroic Building’ and people-centric placemaking

When Sydney-based interior designer Maria Villa and New York-based brand manager Francesco Cordua started “having a thousand conversations” in 2015 they discussed many things. But their conversations kept coming back to the same topic - what could they do together in Australia to give placemaking a new flavour?

“[The heroic building] was not what people wanted,” Francesco explains to Art Pharmacy Consulting, whilst on a recent Sydney visit. “They wanted something that was both beautiful and built for them.” Maria and Francesco aim was to create places “where there was a role of not only art, but beauty ... not being a pretentious thing, but an everyday thing that could be everywhere.”

Arguably, this was a vision that was ambitiously (and deceptively) simplistic sounding. But it was something that Maria’s architect husband, Eduardo Villa, was already achieving.

Eduardo had a specific brand of design thinking that he used to create incredible, site-specific designs that catered to the local community - something that immediately drew Francesco's attention.

Francesco Cordua (L) and Maria Villa (R) at the  Inside Outside  exhibition opening at  Vandal Gallery

Francesco Cordua (L) and Maria Villa (R) at the Inside Outside exhibition opening at Vandal Gallery

“Eduardo and I had worked together a few times in our history, but we didn't meet till very late,” explains Francesco. “Eduardo, Didn't really promote himself very well - modest and lovely and everyone's best friend. His thinking was about what customers would like to experience. [It] was how he generated the design as opposed to following a brief, or anything like that.”

“When he and I started speaking, I became the advocate for global design.”

Maria was also impressed with what she was hearing from Francesco, about what was happening on the American placemaking scene.

“I saw what he was doing in New York” says Maria. “and I said: wow, there must be a away to start to do this kind of placemaking in Australia. What Francesco was talking about was more like  “placemaking on steroids.” We need, we must implement something like this in Australia.

It was in 2016 when Eduardo & Maria - as the creative directors of multi-disciplinary design studio Villa + Villa - invited Francesco to form a partnership, and bring their unique vision for places onto the Australia scene. Six months later they were invited to work on a major project together.

Maria Villa and Francesco Cordua (centre) on a  Culture Scouts tour at Dark Mofo 2017

Maria Villa and Francesco Cordua (centre) on a Culture Scouts tour at Dark Mofo 2017

“It’s brilliant,” says Maria, smiling. “Because if you really want something with all your heart and you work hard, at the end of the day the universe arrange for that to happen.”

At the moment they’re focus is on moving past the old view of ‘safe-bet’ retail design, and moving towards a more “experience driven focus”. Luxury no longer being merely the “expensive thing” but about personal indulgence - whether that be the perfect coffee, or a piece of art. It’s what Villa + Villa & Francesco have termed “Affordable Luxury”.

“To create a place that is neutral and say other people are going to give it character is  no longer what people want,” points out Francesco. Instead of trying to appease all, and ending up with a bland and meaningless design result, the team now uses a ‘matrix’ that Francesco uses to continuously align design and design processes with stakeholder concerns.

“The least offensive art in the world is probably wallpaper - do you know what I mean? You can have art that is not about offending but no piece of  art can be for all people.”

“You say curated and some people we know that they are very afraid of the word curated in a retail environment,” explains Maria. “But the word curated has changed so dramatically that today you curate your Instagram, you curate your feed - you know what I mean? Everything is curated.”

And how is that working for the team? “It’s exciting to look at somebody and have the discussion change from how will we invest money productively to how are we actually making this a true,” says Francesco. “It's not a big ‘let's make the new Champs-Élysées or whatever’, it’s about authentically saying this is worth putting money, time, effort into, and then seeing how much all of our potential partners respond to just the idea being outlined in a very clear and evocative way.”

“It’s not all altruistic, this is what it is and if we’re connected to a lot of people both in retail and in the art world and in the community, why wouldn't we incorporate them?”

Both Maria & Eduardo Villa, founders of Villa+Villa together with their New York partner, Francesco Cordua - Exultant; are currently working on the new positioning of World Square.