Ever since Miuccia Prada famously designed a black military grade–nylon backpack in 1979, Prada the brand has been a leader in avant-garde fashion. But it’s never been content to limit its vision to clothing and accessories—architecture is crucial to the expression of the brand’s creative voice. The names who have designed its epicenters include Pritzker Prize winners Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron, who dreamed up Prada’s statement-making New York City and Tokyo flagships, respectively. And the forward-thinking Italian fashion powerhouse is equally taken with respecting and lovingly rehabilitating past gems.
In 2011, it oversaw the restoration of a 300-year-old palazzo on the Grand Canal, which now functions as Ca’ Corner della Regina, the Venetian arm of its arts-minded Fondazione Prada. Three years later, it cosponsored a 13-month preservation and revitalization of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, a 150-year-old shopping center that was the site of its first boutique in 1913.
This fall, Prada unveiled what is arguably its most ambitious such project to date: Rong Zhai, an early-20th-century Western-style garden villa in the heart of Shanghai that it spent six years restoring, transforming it into a cultural hub for exhibitions and performances, now open to the public. Originally built between 1899 and 1910 for a German expatriate, Rong Zhai was purchased and expanded in 1918 by Yung Tsoong-King, a flour-and-cotton tycoon from Wuxi.
Under his ownership, the house became a harmonious melding of revivalism, ancient Greek motifs, Chinese aesthetics, and Art Deco details. Yung, his wife, and his seven children turned their home into a socially vibrant center, throwing 48-hour-long parties in the stained glass–ceilinged ballroom with rotating bands (so the festivities never stopped) and even erecting a stage for performances by Beijing opera star Mei Lanfang. In 1938, the Yung family fled to Hong Kong to escape the Second Sino-Japanese War. Rong Zhai then cycled from a government building for the Communist Party after the 1949 revolution into, more recently, offices for Rupert Murdoch.
Prada bought Rong Zhai and, in 2011, enlisted famed Italian architect and longtime collaborator Roberto Baciocchi to oversee its restoration. He worked painstakingly with local Chinese artisans and historians to ensure that the many surfaces and materials were all brought back to life using historically accurate techniques.
“The Chinese artisans did magnificent work on the wooden parts. The patina was then patiently refined in collaboration with Italian craftsmen,” explains Baciocchi of the restoration’s cross-cultural exchange. “At a certain point, we realized we no longer needed interpreters for communication between the two groups.”
Stained-glass windows, many depicting mercantile scenes (a nod to the riverside mills that helped make Yung’s fortune), were fixed using 1940s glass sourced from a factory in Germany. Damaged and missing lotus-flower tiles on the walls of one stunning bedroom were mended and replaced using the exact process of the originals, cloisonné enamel.
Intricately carved teak boiserie panels in the smoking room required treating new wood to meld perfectly with the older pieces. This same sentiment of respectful presentation underscored the unveiling of the finished Prada Rong Zhai. Instead of filling its now-pristine interiors with Prada-approved furniture and decor, the brand had Michael Rock, creative director and cofounder of the design studio 2x4, treat the house like an exhibition, leaving the spaces empty—save for a few models of past Prada architectural projects for context—and adding plaques of information about each room’s previous incarnation during the Yung family’s residence.
“It was a way to do something carefully that was not just a backdrop for Instagram. It was really a dialogue between Shanghai and Milan,” says Rock of Prada’s considered, restrained approach. “When you’re designing a collection, you’re thinking historically, where the silhouettes and gestures are coming from, but you’re also trying to make something contemporary. That’s the same case with this house.” It is a home ready for its new family.
This story was originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of Siweb.