Contemporary Japan at IYO Aalto Restaurant in Milan

In Milan, Maurizio Lai designs a restaurant where Japan finds an original, nonconventional interpretation, between noble materials, light cuts and bespoke design.

There is a contemporary idea of Japan in the project that the Italian architect Maurizio Lai has developed for IYO Aalto, the second restaurant of the group after IYO Taste Experience, the only Japanese restaurant in Italy awarded a Michelin star. Subtle references to tradition give way to a contemporary and pure design language, conceiving a place where essential materials and light merge into a different narrative.

Maurizio Lai evokes the suggestions of the Rising Sun through a decisive sensibility, far from prevailing stereotypes and clichés. IYO Aalto appears like a preciously balanced stratification of details, characterized by the discreet and constant presence of design elements that enrich and define the personality of each environment and surface. Furniture is made exclusively on design in collaboration with Poliform Contract: a vibrant example of the peculiar relationship between architects and Italian brands; a collaboration able to give shape to ideas, turning them into unique products thanks to bespoke process and artisanal know-how.

Maurizio Lai defines a restaurant where the founding values of IYO are transferred to the space. IYO Aalto offers a dual experience, in environments designed right down to the smallest detail: Tokyo’s Edomae zushi culture, in a traditional “Sushi Banco”, and a boundless and contemporary cuisine in the elegant “Gourmet Restaurant”.

The space of 320 square meters embraces the spacious open kitchen, the wine cellar, the exclusive “Sushi Banco” (an intimate room dedicated to Edomae zushi tradition) and the “Gourmet Restaurant”. Natural materials – walnut, porphyry, brass, leather – are combined with sophisticated and more technological elements.

The interior project
The entrance introduces a timeless and dreamlike dimension: a compass with float glass plates and smoked mirrors expands the space, in a game of transparency and infinite reflections. On the inside, guests are welcomed by a light installation and a desk, made of flamed gray-green porphyry and brass, which introduces a dialogue between form and material that will continue throughout the restaurant

IYO Aalto is defined by the discreet and constant presence of signs that distinguish all surfaces: small brass inlays drowned in the wooden slats of the floors; swallow-tails – also in brass – that recall the culture of high carpentry, up to the furniture screws.

Canaletto walnut and porphyry are the dominant materials in all spaces. The walls, never continuous, define and delimit spaces without ever completely isolating them: like the imposing central partition in slabs of split porphyry, flanked by brushed surfaces and void parts. Furniture and fittings, entirely custom-made, are produced in collaboration with Poliform Contract.

The Sushi Banco

An intimate room proposes for 8 guests the Japanese edomae zushi: a set of rituals that has its roots in the Bunsei era (1818-1830), where the nigiri are prepared in front of the guest. The entrance wall is made with Brise Soleil in Canaletto walnut and allows a glimpse of both the internal environment and the lofty window.

The counter is in Canaletto walnut, with worktop and plates in smooth gray-green porphyry, characterized by thin brass inlays. The leather seats, with a black elm structure and a leather-coloured custom-made cladding, also used for the upholstered furniture in the main dining, are produced by Poliform Contract. The Italian brand was in charge of the realization of the whole custom-made furnishing, joinery, glassware and stone works.

Between the Sushi Banco and the Gourmet Restaurant, a modular glass shelving holding ancient Sake barrels contributes handsomely to the permeability of the spaces.

The Gourmet Restaurant

The extraordinary heritage of Japanese cuisine is filtered by contemporary knowledge to offer an authentic and ambitious experience, in a room designed to accommodate a maximum of 38 seats. The Canaletto walnut covers all the surfaces of the space, and the ceiling is embellished with lacunar sheets of float glass: a touch of lightness to rediscover the classic codes of coffered ceilings reinterpreted by Maurizio Lai according to a contemporary aesthetic.

The lighting of the tables is entrusted to spotlights that return the light where it is needed without altering the overall lighting of the room. Three wooden wall cabinets mark the space; custom-designed, they represent some of the recurring details of the project: brass screws, wood, leather, glass. As if suspended, they are surrounded by a perimeter escape that becomes a design element, an interpretation of Japanese poetry that considers emptiness as adding to the perfect balance. Matter and surfaces come together without ever touching, in a game of poetic absences.

Cleanliness and formal precision define a language that refers to Japanese tradition without flaunting or reproducing stylistic features. The wooden tables have brass swallow-tail inlays and, in the center, a gray-green porphyry swivel plate.

On the walls, there are movable sliding walls in Canaletto walnut, which act as Brise Soleil and allow external light to be filtered according to the time and needs.

The wine cellar

The wall-mounted wine cellar is one of the largest ever made: 3.5 m x 10 m, with six different temperature zones, to accommodate up to 1600 bottles. Consisting of a polished stainless core, it has reflective smoked glass doors (also used for ceiling cladding) and interior lighting.

The kitchen

The kitchen, at the forefront of technology and the beating heart of the restaurant, was conceived with the same principles of excellence of the rooms. Enclosed in a glass case, it is designed in every detail, with an important custom module that dominates the spaces. The transparency of the rooms makes them permeable to the eye not only from the inside but also from Piazza Alvar Aalto, consolidating the relationship between the restaurant and the city. All doors are automatic, with photocell opening to allow chefs and staff to move freely in complete safety.

The restrooms

In the restrooms, luminous vertical and horizontal lines play with dark vertical surfaces, mirrored at full height, alternating with sheets of back-lacquered glass and round mirrors with LED backlights. Polished floors and ceilings made with recycled glass grit slabs get reflected, thus multiplying the space, causing an unexpected effect and adding a level of experience to the project.


IYO Aalto Piazza Alvar Aalto, 20124, Milan

Client: Claudio Liu Project start: September 2018 Completion and delivery: September 2019 Total area: 320 square meters


Project Design and Direction: Arch. Maurizio Lai Design Development: Arch. Matteo Guidetti, Arch. Giulia Vago Construction management: Arch. Francesco Dolce


Taps / bathroom accessories CEADESIGN S.R.L. Fire alarm DIESSE ELECTRA S.P.A. Lighting Fixtures HIPROJECT S.R.L. Kitchen, sushi counter, wine cellar MARRONE S.R.L. Seats POLIFORM S.P.A. Fitout POLIFORM CONTRACT & PROJECTS Sanitary RAPSEL S.R.L. Bathroom floors / wall tiles TREND GROUP S.P.A. Audio system VIVALDI S.R.L.


IYO Aalto is Claudio Liu’s second restaurant, the former patron of IYO Taste Experience, a Michelin star. Designed in the Porta Nuova district, a symbol of Milan’s rebirth, IYO Aalto takes an important step in the direction of the most authentic Japanese cuisine. The sushi counter, reproduces the magic and rigor of the edomae zushi of Tokyo for a few close friends, while the gastronomic restaurant filters with contemporary knowledge and creative ambition the boundless heritage of the Japanese traditions.


Architect, set designer and designer, Maurizio Lai was born in Padua and studied at the Faculty of Architecture in Venice and at the Polytechnic of Milan, where he graduated. He began his career designing for television, entertainment and fashion, to quickly extend the activity to the residential and commercial sectors both in Italy and abroad. In 1998 he founded and directed LAI STUDIO, as a multidisciplinary body that develops constant synergies between architecture and design, determining the intense emotional impact of the works. Recognized as an interpreter of an original contemporary aesthetic, his style has been defined as one of the most interesting in the present Italian scene.

Maurizio Lai was awarded the Restaurant & Bar Design Award for Best Lighting Design Uk & International and nominated for the WIN Awards 2018 as Best Interior Practice of the Year. He collaborates with prestigious institutions in the training and promotion of the culture of excellence in design. His works are published in the most authoritative publications on Architecture and Design