The man in style's inner circle: Behind the scenes at Milan’s 10 Corso Como boutique

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Kris Ruhs is the creative force behind the loops and swirls that make the boutique an eternally fashionable destination.

The Italian fashion crowd's favourite boutique, 10 Corso Como, is tucked away from the main drag of what is now a pedestrianised street in a former industrial quarter of Milan. Founded in 1990, the concept store takes up a lot previously occupied by a car workshop, and comprises a courtyard café, bar and restaurant, the boutique itself, an arts-focused bookshop, the initial gallery space from which everything else grew, and a collection of three luxury suites that can be rented as hotel rooms or pieds-à-terre.

"I didn't need to do much," says artist Kris Ruhs, who worked alongside Corso Como's founder, the former Vogue Italia journalist Carla Sozzani, to create the space. "The place looked great anyway. They were changing parts on cars in here when we first arrived, and I left a lot of the old structure here."

I meet him in a semi-covered terrace space littered with tables and chairs ("People love to be outdoors, because people love to smoke," he muses) before he takes me on a tour of the site's constituent parts. "There was nothing round here," he explains. "When we first opened people said it was crazy, but people come to something interesting. People are curious."

In the middle of the shop floor is Sozzani, sister to Vogue Italia's current editor, Franca, and herself the editor to launch Elle in that country. She is overhauling the boutique's interiorsf for the new season. "It's a big job," she smiles, "because we empty everything out. But it's good, it's important – the walls need to be free."

Ruhs' art is the linking feature between each facet of Corso Como – from frescoes to furniture and fixtures – and it is present in the very characterisation of the 10 Corso Como business. His graphic designs make up the logo, too: swirling, concentric loops that echo the rounded-ness of the address itself, and spread to a multitude of dots and splodges across the walls of the boutique, providing a perfectly pretty backdrop to garments from conceptual labels such as Azzedine Alaïa, Comme des Garçons and Gareth Pugh. "There are a lot of circles in 10 Corso Como," Ruhs observes.

"I like interiors," he continues. "I like to make functional things, and having the shop – where you really have to be practical – is good for me."

Born in New York in 1952 to parents of German extraction, Ruhs, aged 60, began working as an artist in the Seventies, having studied at Manhattan's School of Visual Arts. "It was totally open and fun," he says. "That kind of school doesn't exist any more – you could sleep there.

"I did a lot of trouble-shooting for designers in New York," he says. "They'd built places and they weren't happy with them. So I had a group of kids and this truck, and we'd do anything: torch things, change things. In 24 hours, we could change a whole apartment, so I learnt a lot from other people's mistakes. And you can't lose. It was great."

Since then, he has worked as a painter, sculptor and a jewellery designer, after becoming friends with Artwear's Robert Lee Morris in the late Seventies. The collective's idea was to encourage sculptors to create wearable pieces of art, after which Morris went on to design jewellery for Calvin Klein and Donna Karan.

"I actually designed his logo for him," says Ruhs. I didn't know how to solder at the time. I wasn't good with metal, so my early collection was actually ebony and wood."

From these beginnings, Ruhs' aesthetic has evolved into something fluid and functional, naturalistic in blob-like shapes but elegant: perfectly calibrated for life, with regards to his furniture, and for living in, when it comes to his interiors. "This is my table, this is one of my chandeliers, these are all mine." He gestures to almost everything on the shop floor. Here a necklace he has created, there a cascade of shells made from shining enamel. "It's nice to see them used. It's a different approach – I'm really tired of the gallery scene.

"When I first started doing this place, everyone said, 'Oh my God, don't put your art in a department store', but why not? It's much more personal. Anything looks good in a gallery – if you live with something, it's a different story. It's a more human approach."

Ruhs' work is immersive and immediate, there is a sense of fun throughout. An installation he is currently creating for a shopping mall in Shanghai will feature two huge papier-mâché minotaurs flopped over a pair of benches, inviting shoppers to join them and rest awhile, while an art café in Seoul (where Sozzani has opened a second branch of 10 Corso Como) is decorated with giant grinning rats.

In Seoul, Ruhs has used the lift as a gallery space in its own right – named Siu Giu, the Italian for 'up and down'. He painted smiley faces all over its inside to encourage those riding in it to stop looking at their feet.

Ruhs' latest project, an installation for London's Wapping Project, which will take over the Docklands space during London Design Festival, is just as interactive. He intends to build a light fixture based around the idea of a ceramic forest. Standing in his studio in the south-west of Milan later that afternoon, we are surrounded by burnt and skeletal-looking glazed clay tubing, fired at around 1,000 degrees and then quickly shocked in sand to give them a distinct decayed look. At another end of the studio, his team are assembling an 11-metre-long aluminium bas-relief, which will also be lit from within. Visitors will be encouraged to sit in this ceramic forest, and to wander through a labyrinth constructed from sheets of wadded rubber, collected from old tyre tubes.

"I have a lot of stuff," he smiles, standing in the middle of it all. The area has come up since Ruhs started working there: there are some Calvin Klein offices down the road, and Jil Sander is based around the corner. The night before I meet Ruhs, there was a fire on the premises. "If this place goes up, the whole neighbourhood goes up," Ruhs says, eyeing the remains of a friend's motorbike, which bore most of the brunt. "I have enough problems with my neighbours."

"I have a lot of junk," he adds, looking around, "but if Carla sees something that she wants for the shop, I throw it to her. It's never really planned. Corso Como is a very personal thing – just myself and Carla. It's like a journal that you can just have a walk through."

Kris Ruhs: Landing on Earth is open at The Wapping Project until the 21st October: www.thewappingproject.com / 10corsocomo.com

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