“I love to travel slowly, taking my time to drive through different regions of different countries, seeing not only the beautiful places but also the places that one might say are not so ‘obviously’ beautiful. This is important to me; to see the world as it is, not just the most beautiful parts.”
Judging by Derek’s instagram profile, you would think this tanned and rugged Milanese is equal part model and landscape aficionado. His beautiful photos depict a life spent under perpetual sun surrounded by lemon trees and architecturally impressive greenhouses, with intermittent breaks spent in secret Milanese gardens accompanied by a newspaper and a caffe. Clearly the man thrives in a raw and aromatic environment.
We meet for an espresso at Fioraio Bianchi Caffe, a fond neighborhood favorite for both of us, and naturally so for Derek with its mix of fashionable floral arrangements and bohemian chic vibes. It is a late May Saturday in Milan and the summer has arrived in full swing. We both feign the strength to sit outside under the sweltering sun but alas give up for the much-welcomed shade inside, surrounded by the florist’s unique bouquets.
Derek is gentle, self-effacing, and easy-going. One might think that someone who spends so much time with plants, which lack the ability to converse, might become socially clumsy. Quite the contrary, Derek is a doll and a joy to chat with. His zest and enthusiasm for his craft is palpable; and I am reminded of how extraordinary it is to find and create and foster a career that brings such joy. It is undeniably far more challenging to carve something out for oneself, especially something less common such as landscape design in Italy; a career which sounds very familiar to Americans or Brits, but which remains extremely niche on Italian soil.
He has managed to create quite a name for himself already, with a resume that includes the rising shoe princess Paula Cademartori as well as Stella McCartney, Davide Campari, Art Basel, and more. His experience and refreshing perspective have introduced him to many interesting talents, both in fashion and design, whom view Derek as an unafraid, forward-thinker, one of the talents pushing Milan to become more international and experimental, while other Italian cities remain quite stagnant.
Derek was raised in a family of greenery; his parents own Vivai Mandelli, a Milanese landscape design firm where he cultivated his beginnings. Studying architecture in college seemed a natural decision, but his inclination for fusing design with nature could not be denied. Milan offers a great deal of green spaces, most of them hidden behind enormous ‘porte’ (doors) and elegant palazzi. He suggests that I study Google earth to discover just how green Milan really is. Leave it to Derek to uncover the city’s greenest caffes and restaurants, charming addresses, and secrets to a super chic terrace. With such a verdant thumb, you may be surprised to hear which international destinations inspire him the most.
Where can we find you on Saturday morning?
I love to go early to the Orto Botanico di Brera, one of my favorite places in the world. I go with a double espresso and newspaper and enjoy the early morning surrounded by nature and the sound of the birds. It’s my ideal way to start the weekend; early in the morning there is no one there. I go and find peace.
Your go-to caffes in Milano?
My favorites are Riad Food Garden, where the ambience is very relaxed and the food and cakes are all very good, or Panificio Davide Longoni with its charming outside garden. Bar Luce is always great fun, as is Radetzky Caffe.
And for a stylish aperitivo?
I have a few classics. N’ombra de Vin in Brera. It’s cozy in the winter and in the summer the sidewalk is full and people are spilling into the street. Bar Basso, especially during fashion and design weeks, but any day of the year is great with its historical negroni. Above any of them is Fioraio Bianchi; where you will always find a friend or two and a fashionable local crowd. It feels like home to me.
Your favorite restaurant for a quick solo lunch or dinner?
For lunch, I like Un Posto a Milano, a summertime lunch outside at Radetzsky Caffe, or Macinata for a quick hamburger. For dinner, I tend to go to Il Carminio, Zaza Ramen, or Dry for an aperitivo and dinner.
Your favorite restaurants with friends?
With friends I love to go to Mandarin 2, Erba Brusca, U Barba, La Torre di Pisa, Santa Lucia, Drogherie Milanesi, and Langosteria Bistrot. Each have their own unique vibe and ambience and each are that much more fun with friends.
Your favorite rooftop in Milano for a summer night?
The rooftop with the best view, in my opinion, is at Triennale where you can have an aperitivo. Radio Rooftop is also nice, and, although perhaps a bit touristy but nevertheless one of my favorites, the terrazzo at La Rinascente.
What’s growing on your terrace right now?
Hotensis Paniculata (panicled hydrangea) and Quercifolia (oakleaf hydrangea), Gardenia, Aralia (spikenard), Papyrus (just for summer, because it’s an indoor plant), Jasmine, Eryobotrya Japonica (loquat), Rhus Thypina, Dasylirion (just for summer, because it’s an indoor plant), edgeworthia, and aspidistria. That’s as much as I have the space for!
Your flower of choice for the home?
I love peonies, poppies, ranuncoli, and all of those flowers that grow in vast fields. For plants I like Ficus Lyrata (fiddle-leaf fig), Papyrus, and different species of cactus, as well as Aloe Dochotoma, Kenthia, Philodendren Xanadu, Philodendron Sellum, and Dasyllrion.
Your favorite floral scents?
It’s not a floral scent but I love the fragrance of freshly cut grass. For strictly florals, I love Jasmine, Viburnum, Tiglio, and Fig.
What recent trip has given you much inspiration and energy?
Mexico City was incredible. I also love Bangkok; I love its chaos and its confusion. I spent some time in Sidney during university and I find it one of the most beautiful places in the world with its green bays. The place where I think you can find a ‘best of both worlds’ in terms of urban and green space is New York. I love to travel slowly, taking my time to drive through different regions of different countries, seeing not only the beautiful places but also the places that one might say are not so ‘obviously’ beautiful. This is important to me; to see the world as it is, not just the most beautiful parts.
Your favorite hotels in the world:
Bisma Resort Ubud, Metropole Hanoi, Le Sirenuse Positano, Soho House Barcelona, The Greenwich Hotel New York, Kasbah Bab Hourika Marrakech, and Hotel Locarno Roma. Each is individualistic and unique to their location.
Are there any particular streets in Milan that you find visually stunning?
Via Ancona, especially for its sudden sense of quiet. You are in the middle of Brera, but it is this little pocket of calm where you can breathe and suddenly hear the birds again. There is a condominium building there completely covered in green, with growth falling from its façade. Via Fiori Chiari is beautiful for its typical Brera architecture. It’s a bit touristic but I like the mix between the ‘movimento’ and the students from the nearby pinacoteca. I especially love Via 20 Settembre, one of the few places in the center of Milan where you can live in a beautiful villa with a garden. I love it.
Where do you go when you want to escape for the weekend?
If I could I would probably go to Mexico City, but unfortunately it’s too far. So I like to go to Marrakech, with its green spaces mixed with the red color of the desert. I also like St. Tropez, where I will always make time for brunch at Club 55. When I have less time I go with my baby, my old vespa, to Lake Maggiore. I spent a lot of time there when I was younger, so it feels very familiar and I have many friends there.
Your style as described by you:
My style is very simple and practical. I like to mix t-shirts with smart pants and sneakers. You might say my uniform is a white t-shirt, navy pants, and white sneakers. I love the confusion and naturalness of nature, so I contrast this with my clean style. Contrast is important to me; in every situation in my life you will find a healthy mix- both in my work and in my personal life. I find linearity a bit boring.
If you could import one international ‘cultural practice’ to Italy, what would it be?
I wish that we could work together more. I think it’s important to collaborate, also between different types of work; it is important for our growth and to create more meaningful and interesting results. I see this more often in northern Europe, however I do think Milan is changing- it’s becoming a more international city for sure, and especially with a new generation, the wind seems to be picking up and heading in the right direction. Or should I say, dispersing.
Fioraio Bianchi Via Montebello 7. Orto Botanico di Brera Via Brera 28. Riad Food Garden Viale Piave 17. Panificio Davide Longoni Via Gerolamo Tiraboschi 19. Bar Luce Largo Isarco 2. Radetzky Caffe Corso Garibaldi 105. N’ombra da Vin Via San Marco 2. Bar Basso Via Plinio 39. Un Posto a Milano Via Privata Cuccagna 2. Macinata Via Goito 3. Il Carminio Via del Carmine 3 Zaza Ramen Via Solferino 48. DRY Via Solferino 33. Mandarin 2 Via Garofalo 22a. Erba Brusca Alzaia Naviglio Pavese 286. U Barba Via Pier Candido Decembrio 33. La Torre di Pisa Via Fiori Chiari 21 Santa Lucia Via S. Pietro All’orto 3. Drogherie Milanesi Via San Marco 39. Langosteria Bistrot Via Privata Bobbio 2. Triennale. La Rinascente Rooftop. Radio Rooftop. Via Ancona. Via Fiori Chiari. Via 20 Settembre.
Around the verdant (or desert) globe:
Bisma Resort Ubud. Metropole Hanoi. Le Sirenuse Positano. Soho House Barcelona. The Greenwich Hotel New York. Kasbah Bab Hourika Marrakech. Hotel Locarno Roma.