The Bright Side
The Bright Side
You could nearly furnish a home – a very diminutive one, that is – with Danielle Gori-Montanelli’s wildly inventive felt pins and necklaces: multicolored licorice allsorts in the kitchen, a rainbow of pencils for the office, tiny modernist furniture in the living room, and a different species of succulent for every room in the house.
“Things somehow taken out of context have this real meaning for me,” says Gori-Montanelli, who lives in Middlebury, Vermont. “Ordinary objects, so iconic and simple, become fun. I love when you wear an avocado brooch or a pencil or a matchbox, and it changes your day because everybody smiles. I think that’s probably the real basis for my work. It’s about being fun and happy.”
Gori-Montanelli, 49, started her artistic quest as a painter, a talent she discovered as a child in Potomac, Maryland. While studying for her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts at Sarah Lawrence College, she took a metalsmithing workshop at Brookfield Craft Center in Connecticut, followed by summer classes at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, initially to satisfy her own urge to adorn.
“I figured if I could learn to make jewelry, I could make whatever I wanted to wear,” says Gori-Montanelli. Going by her maiden name of Danielle Berlin, she became a regular on the high-end craft-fair circuit. Even in muted tones of silver and bronze, her figurative pins brought smiles to buyers.
“I might have sumo wrestlers, dog walkers, or a giraffe wearing boots. All my work has been in the same vein,” she says.
During this time, she met and married photographer (and now business partner) Lorenzo Gori-Montanelli, who had moved from Milan to the US at age 11. In 2002, with their Brooklyn rent skyrocketing, they decided to spend “a year or two” in Florence, where they could live in an apartment his family owned.
“It was a hard choice,” she recalls. “We had a little baby – he’s 15 now. I’d spent a junior year abroad there and really, really loved Italian. Later, our daughter was born there, and then one year became 10.”
Gori-Montanelli continued to sell at craft shows stateside, buying herself something by another artist at the end of each show as a sort of reward.
“It was usually a felt hat, especially the ones by Jean Hicks,” says Gori-Montanelli, who is often seen wearing striking millinery. Her penchant for felt hats inspired a bit of dabbling in black and gray felt, the only type she’d seen until a chance peek into the Munich specialty shop Johanna Daimer Deeply Felt, which left Gori-Montanelli feeling like Dorothy waking up in Technicolor Oz.
“When I went in there, I literally was hyperventilating,” she says. “I just thought of everything I could do with all those colors. I bought so much I could hardly make it onto the train.”
Her initial work was organic and floral, using only a needle, thread, and a pair of scissors. And while the materials were different, the process was similar – constructing images out of sheets of felt, as she’d done with silver and bronze – but this time without hazardous chemicals or flame, a bonus with children in the picture. She continues to cut and carve much by hand, but she’s added custom-made dies to perfectly press the geometric shapes.
An early customer mentioned that Gori-Montanelli’s multipiece necklaces reminded her of licorice allsorts, an array of brightly colored candy squares and rounds.
“Not only did I know the candy, I loved them because my grandmother always had them,” she says. “So then I tried to make what looked like allsorts. They’ve become my signature piece.”
In 2012, the family decided to try American small-town life.
“It was a crazy idea for us, but we thought it would be fun to live in Vermont,” she says. “We had friends in Middlebury, which we think is magical. Because of the college, there’s so much happening.”
Since the move, Gori-Montanelli feels her work has grown.
“It’s gotten kind of bigger, or maybe serious, or seriously funny,” she says.
While many of her pieces are small – a 1½-by-2½-inch midcentury-modern couch, say, or a 4½-inch felt pencil, – Gori-Montanelli also combines objects to create masterworks, such as a collar necklace sprouting some 3,000 pencils.
For the 2½-square-inch succulent brooches, Gori-Montanelli not only cuts and carves the leaves, she dabs on paint to bring the head-turning pieces further to life and adds petite felt planters to display each plant when it’s not being worn.
“Most people at first think I’m selling succulents, then they’re baffled when they get closer. And then they get excited.”
Most recently, Gori-Montanelli, inspired by an Italian floor pattern, pieced together a brooch using shades of gray diamond shapes for a trompe l’oeil 3D effect.
She’s already begun making similar pieces in color. “So that’s going in another interesting direction. My mind is kind of racing with what I can do with those, like make giant necklaces with layers.”
However sophisticated her work grows, she plans to keep it accessible to a wide range of customers, which is why she sells hair clips at shows – her latest was a line of emojis, partly aimed at young girls “spending allowance money.”
“You can buy a clip for $15 or a pencil necklace for $2,800,” she says. “Some friends have suggested I shouldn’t do any of the small stuff, but that’s not who I am. It’s something I’m proud of, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”