The oral surgeon Paolo Castellarin is perched on a worn leather sofa in the apartment he shares with his husband, French luxury executive Didier Bonnin, discussing the dual nature of his identity. “In my job, I have to maintain a sense of formality, but when I take my lab coat off I don’t want to be thought of as such a conventional person.”
By day, Castellarin can be found treating patients at a hospital in southern Milan, but in his spare time he has cultivated a flourishing second career as an interior designer. His client list thus far comprises a small cohort of trusted friends, but design is more than just a hobby for the doctor. In 2019, he took a year off from medicine to complete a master’s degree in design at Milan’s Politecnico University, allowing him to formally realize his longtime passion.
His latest project, his and Bonnin’s own apartment in Milan’s well-heeled Arco della Pace neighborhood, is anything but conventional. Set in an imposing 19th-century palazzo, the space is a riotous mix of vivid colors, eye-catching art, and playful design objects, a stark contrast to the staid gentility of its surroundings. “We needed to use a lot of colors because the features are very tough,” he says of the building’s heavy northern Italian architecture.
To wit, the couple painted the ornately carved coffered ceiling a striking petrol blue. They doused every wall in a luminous cherry red, a shade cleverly plucked from the robes of a 16th-century pope depicted in an oil painting that hangs above a pair of leather-and-chrome Marcel Breuer Wassily chairs in the living room. The painting, originally displayed above an altar in a Catholic church, once belonged to Castellarin’s grandparents, as did many of the ancient artworks that crowd the walls.
Castellarin brought levity to the apartment through furniture and art: an Ingo Maurer lamp fashioned with an illuminated dragonfly; a Moooi chandelier above the dining table that resembles a descending spider wrought in desk lamps; resin vessels by Gaetano Pesce; a Gufram cactus sculpture from the 1970s. But the most amusing accent has to be a larger-than-life abacus in swirling cartoon colors by the artist Luigi Belli, commissioned for one of Bonnin’s birthdays. “We saw it in a gallery and fell in love,” Castellarin reminisces, “so I asked the artist to make one for Didier.”
A series of grand carved doorways separates the living room, dining room, and kitchen, exhumed during the construction process when the couple opened up the dividing walls between what had been a succession of small rooms. Two stacked “portholes” were then cut into the wall between the living and dining rooms to create a sense of balance and pay homage to Piero Portaluppi, the prolific Milanese architect responsible for countless homes throughout the city, most famously the Rationalist-style Villa Necchi Campiglio.
Other spaces in the apartment feel more explicitly in dialogue with the contemporary Milanese design scene: There is a historic reverence befitting the classical-minded Studio Peregalli evidenced in the preservation of salvaged Liberty stained-glass doors, while the bedroom’s duotone brown-and-yellow color scheme wouldn’t be out of place in a project by Dimorestudio.
Design was always my passion, but going into medicine felt like a more practical choice.
While there’s evidently something in the water, Castellarin notably comes from a family of artisans whose skills have made a lasting mark on Milan; his great-grandfather was a celebrated mosaic artist. When the medium fell out of fashion after World War II, his son, Castellarin’s grandfather, applied the craft to Palladiana marble floorings, a type of Venetian terrazzo. The family made a living by fashioning the intricate stone entranceways in bourgeois apartment buildings found throughout the city, the very same documented in the book Entryways of Milan, prominently displayed on the couple’s coffee table. “Design was always my passion,” Castellarin says, “but going into medicine felt like a more practical choice.”
The tradition lives on through Castellarin’s uncle, who runs the family marble business, Del Savio 1910, from their hometown of Pordenone. That fruitful relationship yielded bathroom floors inlaid with a deeply veined yellow marble from Tuscany, while the kitchen counter and island are made of a custom-designed, matte-brushed Verde Guatemala.
And while some things are indeed set in stone, the apartment remains, Castellarin notes, a work in progress—an unfolding mix of his and Bonnin’s common interests and passions. Outside of work, that is.
This story originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE