Pieces of me: Elizabeth Francis, architect and curator

The Irish architect, who has worked in Paris, now operates out of her own office in Bologna, Italy

Elizabeth Francis grew up in Co Donegal and studied architecture at UCD. After graduation she went to work in Paris. There she met Mario Cucinella, an Italian architect. They married, worked together at Mario Cucinella Architects in Paris, and she helped set up the company's Bologna office.

The couple separated and Francis stayed in Bologna with her two children and set up on her own. In 2012 Francis was appointed Ireland's commissioner at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Last year she was technical supervisor of the Ireland pavilion at Expo Milan 2015 and curated eight events for Irish Design 2015 throughout Italy including an exhibition at the Milan Furniture Fair.

Describe your style

While I like to use colour, I like to keep things simple. Mostly my style is a mix of old and new, and most things I own have a personal connection. I have several items that I bought the first time I went to India in the 1990s when my brother, who is a diplomat with the Irish Government, was first posted to Delhi. The whole family went out to spend that first Christmas with him. I have hand-carved wooden fabric stamps and a beautiful wall hanging I got in Jaipur that tells the story of its Palace of the Winds.

Where do you live?

I live in an apartment in a 1950s building in the centre of Bologna. I’m on the third floor, which is very bright, something that is fundamental to me and from it you can see the surrounding hills and the medieval city. I painted a feature wall a teal blue of the Donegal ocean, a colour I picked out of a painting by my mother, Ebie Francis, that hangs on the wall.


Other items dear to me are my Oscar floor lamp by Irish designer Shane Holland, a wedding present from him and his wife Carol, and a table lamp that I bought in La Case de Cousin Paul in Lyon. I also have loads of books. I grew up in a house filled with books and get a sense of comfort by being surrounded by them.

Which room in your home do you most enjoy?

The kitchen. I designed it myself. It is simple and all white, and has very large, deep drawers and white stone countertops. It doesn’t touch the walls. It was designed for another house but not as a built-in unit so that I was able to bring it with me.

It is home to my Bialetti Moka coffee pot, which I use religiously every day and my Moulinex juicer, which lets me sneak a courgette or a stick of celery into the kids diet by serving it up to them in freshly squeezed juice.

Which items do you love most?

I love the oval shape of my white dining table by Kartell. It’s a very democratic way to bring a group of people together. Homework, artwork and dinner parties all happen around it. I have a mid-century sideboard that has a glass top, brass piano hinges and a fold-down centre that reveals a glass-lined cocktail cabinet that I use a room divider.

I’m on the lookout for a side table and have my eye on one that I saw at last month’s antiques market on the Piazza Santo Stefano. When my son and I visited every stand at last year’s Expo Milan we bought two painted and enamelled bowls made from coconut husks that have taken pride of decorative place.

Who is your favourite designer, and do you own any of their work?

A lot of the things I own are by anonymous designers. I bought them because I loved them not because of who made them.

That said, Le Corbusier would be influential. When in Paris I worked in one of his buildings, Maison Planeix in the 13th arrondissement in Paris. It has two artists’ ateliers on the ground floor and was still occupied by the Planeix family. Mario Cucinella started his practice there in 1992 and I joined him in 1994 and we had the office there until 2003. Having lived and worked in a building designed by him you can experience the courage he had to innovate and to take risks.

Which artists do you admire?

I love the ephemeral quality of the Impressionists, not just the works themselves, but the idea that these pieces were hanging at a time when they were considered avant garde when all these creative people had gathered in Paris and rebelled against the norm. For me, Monet’s water lilies, painted in his gardens at Giverny, stand out.

What is your biggest interior turn-off?

Pastiche styles of architecture – a modern building that has been built and designed today pretending to be something that it is not, be it Georgian, Victorian or classical. It doesn’t work in fashion and it doesn’t work in buildings either.

Which travel destination stands out for you?

Work has taken me to India and China. Both are exciting destinations but India is really special. It is so sensual and at times completely overwhelming. It is also a place where the craft of making something by hand isn’t yet lost. It possesses an absolute level of beauty and sophistication.

If you had €100,000 to spend on anything for the home, what would you buy? 

In an ideal world I’d like to be able to buy a design piece that would have a connection with every place I’ve ever lived so a Charles Rennie Mackintosh chair from Glasgow, an old leather club chair picked up in London’s Camden market and, to remind me of Paris, an Eileen Gray chair that showed her beauty and skill.

See atelierfrancis.it