The pressure we all feel to buy new stuff is relentless. The consumer society we live in has conditioned us to believe that nothing lasts, nothing old is any good, and that happiness lies in the shiny new object.
One of the key values we cherish here at The Department is the idea that good things are worth hanging on to for a long time. When they wear out, it’s often best to rehabilitate them rather than replace. Nothing embodies that more than our vehicle, the 1941 Ford pickup.
So when we heard about Matteo Agresti and his business of restoring vintage steamer trunks, suitcases and furniture in a unique way, we had to find out more.
Matteo is 27 years old and lives in Florence. Last year he started AM Florence, a small company dedicated to finding these old objects and giving them a new life. In some cases, he even takes copies of ancient Florentine manuscripts and wraps the items in it.
We spoke to him by email and he sent along some photos of his work. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
How do you find the vintage items?
You’ll never know where you will find the next treasure. Sometimes I buy them from private individuals so these objects are really covered by tons of dust, hidden in an attic or in a basement mixed with a lot of useless stuff. But most of the time I buy them at flea markets or from restorers, antique dealers. There are a lot of those people in Florence. There is also the very rare chance to find steamer trunks or furnitures from beautiful mansions in the Chianti Area, where my parents live.
Is there a particular style you like best?
I love the elegance that people had in the past. I mean, in my opinion, till the 50’s there was a particular attention to detail. Every man was wearing a hat, most of the time suits were made by tailors. In my work I try to bring that elegance and attention to detail that I’ve seen and loved watching movies and listening to music of that age. Mannequins are maybe the best way to describe what I like about fashion. I love military uniforms and gala dresses from the nineteenth century.
How did you learn the art and craft of restoration?
I’ve worked for a while side by side with a restorer of antiques in Florence. He gave me the instruments and some great advice. He’s also the one who gave me the ancient manuscript I’m using to make my work.
I have a bachelor degree in architecture and I’ve studied the restoration of buildings. The main thing that I’ve learned is that when you have to do a conversion of a building you have to focus on particular points. It could be a medieval arch, the stones of the facade or an ancient well, and it’s actually the same with the objects I am dealing with. For example when I work on suitcases or steamer trunks, it’s important to preserve locks, wooden/metal stripes. Those things tell you about the age of the item, they show you they’ve been worn out by life and time. If you cover or remove them it’s like killing the object.
How long has AM Florence been around?
I started in December 2012. I was doing a Masters in Architecture at the Bauhaus in Germany when I realized architecture wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I gave up everything, packed my bags and came back home. I wanted to do something more creative and do it with my bare hands. So I started this new project. Every day is a new idea, a new project and a new challenge to face. I’m constantly improving my skills and adding more details to my works.
You say that vintage objects have lives and inner stories. Can you give us an example of that?
I’m always fashinated when I find a new object to work with. What amazes me the most is that you don’t actually know its story and you would probably never know it because it’s so old. I guess it’s the unknown behind the objects that makes them beautiful. It’s up to you. You can imagine and make up stories about them, you can guess at least.
Sometimes people give you a tip about the age, the manufacturing and the history and on a couple of occasions I’ve even had the privilege to meet the last owners in person. For example, I bought two suitcases from an old couple in Florence and they told me that those suitcases were a wedding present. They used them to travel from the south of Italy to Florence. It was a long journey in those days and they weren’t rich. So those suitcases travelled on a cheap train full of people, containing their new life together, their hopes and plans for the future. I was honoured to work on those pieces, on their romantic story of a lifetime.
Tell me about the ancient Florentine manuscripts.
The manuscript is a book of about a hundred pages, some in really bad condition. It’s written in ancient Florentine/Italian, not in Latin. I’ve tried to read some pages but it’s not easy even for me because of the handwriting and the ancient Italian. It’s divided in chapters and paragraphs and titles such as Aqua, Amor Effectio, Arbiter, Assecuratio. I was working with my friend Marco, searching for something to cover a steamer trunk when he showed me this ancient manuscript.
What’s the importance of re-using old objects and giving them new life?
The world is going really fast and we forget what was behind in a moment. But this is not always right. There are some pieces that deserves to keep on living. They were made with care and precision, and they remain strong and good as new, so I believe it’s worth giving them another chance. Some old suitcases were made with wood. It’s rather unbelievable they could still be so strong and perfectly functional. Would you bet on your new suitcase or bag to last for decades?
Of course times have changed, so it’s not always good to preserve items just as they were. Steamer trunks were used for travelling. Now I am selling them as coffee tables. I’ve also created coffee tables with ancient frames. And I am restoring old tailor’s mannequins, making them statues, home decor. Suitcases are still good for storage or travelling but they can also be unique pieces of furniture, bedside tables. That’s why I believe that it’s important to focus my attention on sustainability. Recycle and reuse whenever possible.
I have one other story. I was working with a client in the countryside near Florence. I made a huge frame with a vintage mirror and some suitcases for her. Then one day she told me about an old steamer trunk that she was going to throw away. It was in good condition, abandoned in her basement with a lot of other stuff. She didn’t know what to do with it. Her home had modern furniture so she thought it wasn’t her style. I showed her a different use of that piece and explained to her how the contrasts could work. She liked it. We made it for her and now she has that trunk in the living room, right next to the fireplace and the television.
Are you originally from Florence? The city has such a rich history of art, architecture, fashion, style. How does the city influence you in your work?
I was born in Florence then I’ve spent almost my entire life in the Chianti Area. If you grow up in a place, no matter how beautiful it is, you’re not really able to appreciate it. Still I am aware of what is around me. Every step you take is a different view on something important. A statue, a medieval building, a tower, the dome. This city is also full of artisans, antique shops, and of course fashion, every kind of leather product, shoes, boutiques. Most of it is handmade, something that you can’t find online. I have the unique chance to see and learn how to make things in the right way, thanks to restorers and artisans.
You can find Matteo and his work at amflorence.com