HOW IT’S MADE CLAY FINISHES
5. Handmade by expert woodworkers, customized
wooden molds are used to create unique pieces in
terra cotta. Those shaped like solid parallelograms
are used to mold raw earth.
6. No dyes needed: Natural clay finishes offer a broad
color palette beyond typical earth tones for both
residential and industrial applications.
By the time Matteo’s father, Fausto, inherited the kiln in 1973, it was solely
making bricks for the construction industry. In the 1980s, the company revived
its tradition of making bricks by hand, and then shifted to producing handmade
terra cotta tiles in the 1990s. In early 2000, Matteo and his younger brothers,
Alessio and Alberto, began working for the family firm, Fornace Brioni. Ten years
later, Matteo branched off with his line of raw earth products while his brothers
continued to produce handmade terra cotta tiles. Today, the two entities share
facilities in Gonzaga and have partnered on some projects.
Trained as an architect at the University of Florence (where he obtained his
degree in 2000), Matteo Brioni draws inspiration from the theorist Adolf Loos,
who wrote that “cladding is older than structure,” and for whom architecture
was synonymous with the use of space to create mood-stimulating effects.
Referring to Spoken Into the Void, a collection of essays by Loos, Brioni notes,
“You know when you read a book when you’re young, but at the time you don’t
feel as though you’ve really understood it or that it was even anything special,
but then you re-read it as an adult and it seems to be a manifesto of your own
thoughts and convictions? That’s the effect that book had on me.”
But Brioni’s head isn’t stuck in theoretical clouds. Fashioning
clay surfaces is a hands-on endeavor that entails person-
ally scouting high-quality materials from pits in hilly regions
throughout Italy to provide clients with a broad natural palette.
Cacao-colored clay comes from Calabria; a grape-colored clay
from Sardinia is named vinaccia (“It’s the trendy color of the
year,” says Brioni). A mustard-yellow variety is from Piedmont;
a superfine red clay, from Puglia. The only clay currently sourced
outside Italy is white. It comes from Germany, though Brioni—
ever cognizant of his firm’s environmental footprint—says he’s
still looking for a supply closer to home.
“We collect the clay from the quarries in the summer; we buy a 30-ton truck
of each color,” says Brioni. At the Brioni facility in Gonzaga, five production
workers remove impurities, set the clay to dry in the sun, and then hammer
mill it to a fine powder. But not every type of clay can be used to make plaster.
It has to be tested in a clay-sand mix, where the clay acts as the binder and the
sand is inert. Five types of sand are used to enhance the color and texture of
the various mixtures, including volcanic soil from Sicily, with the ratio of sand
to clay dependent on what the final product will be. For minimal environmental impact, the mixtures are stored in kraft paper sacks that Brioni’s 72-year-old
father seals by hand.
For a typical project, Brioni consults with Linda Antonietti, who heads
research and sample development for the firm. Together they develop mood
boards to evoke a project’s concept. If the client is happy with them, they explain
the concept to the designated installer, who then creates a sample in his or her
own hand that, upon approval, will guide the application process. The craftsper-son chosen will depend on the complexity of the project and location. “A smooth
finish requires three coats, so two to three days’ time; more highly decorated
finishes could take seven to eight steps, so four to five days,” explains Brioni.
“I take pride in having had a hand in realizing an architect’s vision,” says
Brioni. “We have the know-how of almost 100 years of working in clay. But we’re
not just a supplier of a product; we’re a supplier of design. A wall made for you
in a unique way is a luxury. It’s like a custom-made suit.”
Spoken like a true Brioni.
Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco is an award-winning journalist specializing in Italian
culture. Her work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, including
The New York Times, the New York Daily News, House Beautiful, and Metropolitan Home.
Currently, she is a contributor to New Jersey Monthly and editor-in-chief of Global
Business & Organizational Excellence, a bimonthly published by John Wiley & Sons.
Her website is www.macfusco.com.
Five types of
sand are used to
enhance the color
and texture of the
soil from Sicily.