The body of white

Pamela Albanese - TosiLab

When strolling through the central shopping streets in the world’s major trend-setting cities or visiting interior design shows or art exhibitions, we often come across white surfaces that use layers of material to create an almost sculptural three-dimensional effect. Examples include the windows of leading fashion brand stores, the interior décor of bars and restaurants and designer homes.

The concept is taken to the extreme in a space created by Luca Monterastrelli in the Codice Italia section of the Venice Art Biennale. The young artist from Italy’s Romagna region exhibited a niche constructed with three walls entirely covered with thick white layers of material consisting of irregular, lumpy drops which served as a backdrop to his contemporary totems.

The repeated use of superimposed white material is referred to as “the body of white”. This expression applies to any distinctive white surface used as a wall covering element in an interior or exterior.

Although white is an emblem of essentiality, this trend is a far cry from the world of minimalism. And while the whiteness of the materials fits perfectly with the aesthetics of Canova and Palladio, neither does it derive from classicism. The full-body white has distant echoes in time as well as an immediate reference to the lively, spontaneous culture of Mediterranean peoples, such as the Moroccan Tadelakt (lime plaster coating of houses) and the houses of Greece, southern Italy and Andalusia. It is reminiscent of holiday homes by the sea or in the countryside, both of which are antidotes to urban life and symbols of the slow living trend currently much in vogue. Having quality time for oneself, taking a break from our daily routines to clear our minds is – and will continue to be – the real privilege of our age. For this reason, we are seeing many references to these geographical areas where pale stone is used in alternation with lime plaster to protect houses from the scorching heat of the summer months.

In the aesthetic scenarios analysed, a passion for white surfaces is manifested in many different ways, the most common being the whitewashed brick wall where the form of the underlying rectangular composition remains clearly visible. Many different brick patterns are used to form walls that are entirely covered by white plaster, creating a modern chic, metropolitan atmosphere.

This concept gives a nod to the trend known as authentic living, an invitation to leave houses intact with all their previous history and to emphasise the existing elements. In these cases, Carlo Scarpa argued, we tend to accept and appreciate the present situation without attempting to change it. The preference here is for an authentic, used look in which the physical impact is produced by layers of material, whether gypsum, plaster or some other kind of colour. The important thing is that the layers lend mass to the whiteness. This results in residues of decorative stucco partially worn away by the elements, or walls that look unfinished as though they had been painted by the most inexpert of decorators. All that matters is that the relief should be clearly evident. This kind of work never displays clearly delineated lines or clean shapes, opting instead for undefined, random aesthetics, barely outlined geometries, hints of floral motifs and references to stuccoes and friezes. In some cases the result is based on a melding of different elements, the fabrics, threads, nets and residues of sawdust that are incorporated into the pure whiteness of the substrate material. These hybridisations give rise to the most diverse forms: everything that belongs to the realm of imperfection created by man.

The chosen white point varies according to the context. An infinite range of shades can be produced depending on saturation and the dominant colour (yellow, red or blue), making it the most varied of all colour bases. Sometimes it is closer to ivory, others nearer to flax, yet others ice. But that matters little, the most important thing is the physical impact of the material. It is hardly a surprise that in all cases there is a single element capable of giving meaning to these surfaces: light. One person who has no need of convincing is Richard Meier, the architect whose geometric designs make prominent use of the colour white: “Absolute white highlights the differences between elements, between openings and closures, solidity and transparency, envelope and structure… White is the most wonderful colour because within it you can see all the colours of the rainbow. The whiteness of white is never just white; it is almost always transformed by light and that which is changing; the sky, the clouds, the sun and the moon.” It’s impossible not to agree with him.