Laura and Raffaele Chiusano like to describe events in their lives as “destino!” The two have a zest for life and passion for their work which is bringing hand-painted ceramics from Italian artisans to their store in La Conner. Sempre Italiano opened in 2006, but Laura had the idea a couple of years earlier. Originally from Long Island, N.Y., Laura had worked in ceramics wholesaling in the Seattle area when she decided “It would be much more fun to have my own place and bring in pieces I really loved.”
Armed with a few Italian phrases, Laura visited Florence in 2004 in search of artisans. She met Raffaele a few months later during a sourcing trip to Capri and the two married a year later. Once back in Washington the couple visited La Conner on a whim and stumbled upon a retail space whose owner was planning to move out. They jumped on the opportunity, opened Sempre Italiano on May 1, 2006, and never looked back. They have a short commute to the store, and Raffaele enjoys the quiet waterfront town, explaining how it reminds him of home.
Sempre Italiano specializes in hand-painted ceramics. The Chiusanos work with small family artisans, many of whom have been creating ceramics for generations. They worked hard to build relationships with artisans from various regions so Sempre Italiano’s inventory highlights Italy’s ceramic styles. Pieces are representative of regions, with the artisan’s interpretation. For example, one Tuscan artist uses warm orange and yellow hues while another’s platters pop with cherry red. Raffaele pulled out a platter made in Sicily with scalloped edging and intricate handles. He pointed out the gold, blue, and green hues that are synonymous with Sicilian style ceramics, due to Islamic influence over the region in the 900s.
Other regions represented in the shop are Umbria, Vietri, and Murano glass plates. You’ll find hand-painted ceramic platters, a tile-covered table, salt and pepper shakers, oil vessels, ceramic limoncello glasses, and Raffaele’s own creations: Italian scenes hand-painted onto wood. He also paints “attenti al cane” (Beware of dog) signs that are too darling to be deterred by.
The shop also sells French linens in a range of sizes, which began by accident. Laura brought in a few samples of linens to display the ceramics, but there was such an overwhelming response that she decided to begin stocking a selection of linens. Today they sell Jacquard 100% cotton Teflon treated linens as well as acrylic coated tablecloths from Provence. Not only are the linens beautiful, but they’re practical: water resistant, machine washable, and the tablecloths hang nicely, not like stiff, cheap vinyl tablecloths. All standard table shapes and sizes are accounted for with matching napkins and runners, but if a customer can’t find the right fit, Laura can order a desired size. In fact, customers can shop in store or online on their website, and Sempre Italiano will ship all over the world. Their goal is to help everyone bring a piece of Italy home.
Of course the best way to bring Italy home is through first hand travel. The couple takes annual trips to Italy for 2–3 weeks at a time. They meet with their artisans and visit new ones. In recent years they’ve collaborated tour groups with their Italian wine distributor, who also runs a boutique travel agency. Each year a group of 12–15 people embark on the trip. It’s a hodgepodge of guests, usually comprised of people that shopped in Sempre Italiano while on vacation. For example during the last trip there was a couple from Australia and a couple from Florida. The travelers appear to become fast friends in the snapshots hung behind the store’s cash register.
When asked to choose a favorite Italian city or region Laura was stumped, “It’s like asking to choose your favorite child! I love each area for different reasons.” She did manage to narrow down to Florence and the Alma coast. Raffaele quickly named his home of Capri and brought out a book filled with Capri’s beaches, narrow streets, and blue-green waters. He turned the pages while telling stories of the scenery, clearly passionate about his home and sharing everything he knows about Italian history, art, and its culture.