Carlo F. Fiammenghi calls himself a kid - a kid who weaves long piles of wool yarn through the seat of an antique chair; who delights in his prized colorful chandelier adorned with Slinkys; who designs a fake fireplace with a crossword puzzle facade. He is also the kind of guy who leaves his clothes behind in San Miguel, Mexico, so he can fill his suitcases with artifacts.
After all, you can always get new shoes.
An architectural designer with Terra Studio in Philadelphia, this Italian transplant finds beauty everywhere. He creates interiors for a diverse clientele - law firms on Walnut Street, homeowners on Greene Street, Rittenhouse Square, and in the Murano. But his personal design style is not the stuff of rules or rhyme; rather it is a cacophony of cultures, color, and whimsy in a space where clients, friends, and artists come to experience its pleasures over dinner. Part contemporary art gallery, part playhouse, his apartment in the Art Museum area invites visitors to please touch.
"If I see something I love, it is like a toy; I have to have it," said Fiammenghi, 33. "I love when my dinner guests want to touch and play with my things. I love seeing that."
He also loves sharing the story behind each purchase or trash find, a quality that adds to the work's beauty.
His story began in southern Italy, where he grew up. He studied and practiced architecture there and in Milan, came to Philadelphia to visit, and found himself in 2006 studying for another master's degree at Temple University, this one in urban planning. While working for the firm Wallace, Roberts & Todd, he had second thoughts about this new career path.
"I worked on large projects, but over time I really began to miss the details - picking out furniture, materials, shapes, and colors," he said.
When he found a job with Terra Studio and began working on interiors, he met a mentor in designer Pat Crane, who had her own business here since 1959. Crane's work has been featured in House Beautiful and HG, and she has called many of Philadelphia's sports elite - including Mike Lieberthal and Doug Glanville of the Phillies and Charles Barkley of the 76ers - her clients. Crane introduced Carlo to the Art Museum neighborhood where she lived with her husband, Ed Guy, and to San Miguel, where she often shopped for art and pottery. After several years of the two collaborating on design projects and an art installation, Crane succumbed to cancer Jan. 18 at 83.
"I learned so much from her," said Fiammenghi, who said he knew the Englishwoman would hate to see him cry over her.
One thing they had in common was knowing how to mix cultures and styles. Take a look at Fiammenghi's living room, and you'll see a turquoise bench from Vietnam, a colorful abstract oil, a small antique desk from Japan, lanterns from Anthropologie, and a contemporary hanging sculpture of red, gray, and black clay by Philadelphia artist Michael Biello. (His work can be seen all over the apartment, injecting the architect's favorite color, red, throughout.) Next to it is a modern red sofa.
"Carlo walked into my studio and just got my work and that was a gift to me," said Biello, who has since become a friend. "There is nothing trendy about him. He doesn't choose colors that might be popular in design. That is style to me."
The work of Carol Moore, another Philadelphia artist, is in the dining room. Fiammenghi looks at her oversize charcoal called Spin each morning when having coffee. He invited both Moore and Biello to his home before buying their work and loved hearing about the pieces' origins.
"He welcomes you into his world and makes you feel like family," said Biello. "He is very childlike in his wonder of beautiful things. We all have that in us and I think he likes to bring that out."
Fiammenghi said of Moore's Spin: The piece "reminds me of Italy because everyone starts their day in a coffee shop, cups spinning."
On the adjacent wall is a giant Coca-Cola sign he found hanging outside a beverage store on Fairmount Avenue. The owners were turning the place into a restaurant and the piece, now trash, became his. "What is more American than Coca-Cola?" he said.
Some objects he created on his own - like the red "hair" chair, which to him is evocative of an old queen with beautiful red locks.
"When I was growing up in southern Italy, women would weave tablecloths out on the street, and so it inspired me to weave the hair on this chair," he said.
His pieces also reflect his collaborations with other artists, as when he and a woodworker created the console table in the dining room. Or the time when he and his cousin, a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, were bored one night and made a fake fireplace in the guest bedroom with a facade plastered with New Yorker pages and crosswords from an Italian magazine.
Whether it's an artist he's working with or a client he's working for, Fiammenghi does what Italians do when they want to know someone better: He has them to dinner. With artists, he likes them to see his apartment, "and then they can decide where the piece should go," he explained. With clients, he cooks. Then over dinner and wine, he discovers their design style.
"Part of this job is like being a psychologist," he said. "You have to get inside their heads to see how they would like to live."
John D'Orazio worked with the designer on his apartment in the Murano. "Our home is very contemporary and many of the pieces are from Italy. He designed everything so we preserved the views of the city."
At his own home, guests are delighted by the Slinky chandelier or the clay monkeys (also from Biello) that get moved from room to room, depending on the day or the occasion.
"Whenever a guest comes over and falls in love with a monkey, I give it away," Fiammenghi said. "I used to have nine and now I have four.