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by Marella Caracciolo Chia

“Imagine a village immersed in citrus groves and mango fields on the pristine shores of the Anseba river surrounded by granite mountains on all sides.”

Lisa Corti’s journey from a simple childhood in Keren, a tiny African village northwest of Asmara, in Eritrea, to being hailed as one of Italy’s iconic designers of fabric, fashion ware and home accessories, is the stuff epic novels and movies are made of. Her parents, both Italian, had moved there in the Thirties when Eritrea was an Italian colony. Growing up in Eastern Africa, she says, left a lasting imprint that forged her aesthetic sensibility and her love of craftmanship and fabric. There, around the age of sixteen, she met Neno Corti di Santo Stefano Balbo, a dashing aristocrat from Milan who was thirteen years her senior.

“He was an adventurer,” she remembers fondly, “a hippy well ahead of his times.” Having just disembarked from a cargo ship that had traveled along the shores of China and India before circumnavigating the African continent, the Italian Marquis fell in love with Keren where he bought a hill with a tukul on top which he filled with the treasures he had found in the Far East: jade objects, fine ceramics, precious fabric.

It was 1959; Lisa was eighteen and Neno thirty-one. They married soon after and moved to Milan where Lisa gave birth to the couple’s only child, Ida, now the CEO of ‘Lisa Corti’, the company she founded in 1963. “I missed Africa terribly and it took me forever to get used to the long winters and to the formality of my husband’s family.”

Working as a model for some of Italy’s great photographers, most famously Ugo Mulas, who were struck by this long-limbed green-eyed beauty who moved with the gracefulness of a gazelle, did not assuage her restlessness.

Her instinct for color rescued her when, during a trip to Africa, she came across some rolls of organza in a market stall. “Those clouds of color were my epiphany.” Out of them came her first collection of exquisitely crafted caftans. Serendipity ensued: Elio Fiorucci, the visionary designer-entrepreneur, snatched up fifty of them for his shop in Milan.

Following a brief but successful stunt as an international model for Vogue – Diana Vreeland sent her a telegram stating ‘a star is born’. During a trip to India, in the Seventies, Lisa immersed herself in the rich and varied world of Indian textiles.

“It was then that I found my calling: to create a line of textiles that combined my African sensibility, my European culture and my experience of Indian techniques.”

Back in Milan, she opened a show room where she sold bedspreads, cushions, caftans and other artifacts she designed. An article in the Herald Tribune hailed her as “a trailblazer” who was leading the way to a new “stylistic independence” liberated from conventions.

Lisa Corti - ©Oberto Gili

By then Lisa was living with artist Angelo Barcella, whose graceful paintings and sensuous sculptures matched her quest for harmonious interiors. “Perfection is not interesting to me,” Lisa Corti explains, “a lightness of touch is.”

“My aim was to create a free-spirited style that would appeal to people of my generation, people who came of age in the swinging Sixties.” What would her approach be if she were starting today? “Not very different. Times change, of course, yet my designs continue to appeal to the younger generations.” If her legacy continues to evolve and to thrive it is also thanks to her daughter Ida Corti, the company’s CEO, to her fabulous all-women team and, last but not least, to the company’s extensive archive of drawings: a deep well of ideas and inspirations at the core of the company’s aesthetic ethos.

In 2023 the company will celebrate its 60th anniversary. “It’s been a fun and exciting journey,” Lisa concludes. “Knowing that my designs will continue to bring lightness and joy into many homes fills me with happiness.”

“Matisse has always been a huge inspiration for me. His use of large blocks of vibrant colours and the unique juxtaposition of floral and geometric patterns have always moved me. There is a Classical poetic in his work that resonates in me. His work is all about the light. I have strived to bring that same Mediterranean sense of light and joy into people’s lives through my fabric.”

Colour is at the core of Lisa Corti’s sensibility.

When as a young girl she first laid eyes on those rolls of brightly colored organza fabric in the Islamic market stalls of Keren, she felt as if she had been stricken by lightning: “I was thrilled! I had found what I was looking for!” She went on to transform some of those textiles in a line of multicolored kaftans before moving onto bedcovers. “Applying my imagination and passion for color to useful, everyday objects appealed to me.” Her bedcovers were double-face: on one side she created bold geometric patterns inspired by Indian Mandalas and the other she covered with floral textiles by the Bilen tribe, a Cushitic ethnic group that lived in and around the village of Keren. “Mixing and matching boldly colored floral and geometric patterns,” says Lisa, “has defined my designs ever since.”


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