Decorating Greek Shabby-Chic
To live in an old house is to live with an old house. It requires a degree of unrequited love, a romantic disposition, and a distracted and remote state of mind. Kevin McCloud
The house before and after
At this stage of the project I was a devote collector of ‘Mediterranean-style’ pictures which I pasted in a book under various headings, ‘kitchen’, ‘bedrooms’, ‘sittingroom’, etc. Of course I had to wait for the big projects (roof, floors, windows) to be finished before putting any of these ideas into practice but this didn’t deterred me, for my scrapbooks of ideas could always do with a little more fine tuning.
I took this aspect of the job very seriously, especially when in Melbourne. I’d consult magazines and decorating books, and check out armfuls from our local library. I’d cut out pictures from old house and garden magazines, then sorted them into categories and even had pages for small details like ways to hang pictures that I thought suited the Greek country style that I was after. I liked, and so these too were added to the scrapbook. And I was not just considering furniture I was carefully thinking about colour schemes as I collected pictures of Mediterranean houses and gardens.
When it came to style I tended to agree with the art historian Kenneth Clarke who once wrote that ‘a certain sense of limitation seems to be a condition of what we call good taste’, so it didn’t worry me that all the furniture would be second hand, a mix of what was already in the house and what we were able to collect in Melbourne auction houses.
It all began with a watermelon
‘In January the auction rooms in Melbourne open after the Christmas break, so as soon as our grandchildren returned to school and we weren’t needed to assist with baby-sitting, we began haunting our favourite auction house in a nearby suburb. Although we’d begun to think about comfort, I considered it too early to buy specific ‘hotel’ furnishings, for as yet we hadn’t decided how many rooms and ensuites we might install. However, I thought we could at least find something that would be suitable for a traditional Greek house, to give it the right ambience. I’d sadly but sensibly put aside my earlier ideas about French chateau or Italian farmhouse styles, for I’d now seen pictures of Greek houses in the northern parts of the country. These were rugged stone farmhouses and the furniture in them was solid but with a simple elegance. And this style was also more suited to our island home than that featured in magazines of house renovations on popular southern islands such as Santorini.
Soon we were bidding for garden seats, oak tables, chiming clocks, oil paintings, oval mirrors, bookcases, desks, beds, candlesticks, chests of drawers, lounge chairs and bedroom chairs, more tables, lamps, carpets and copper pots. All these were to be packed up and placed in the container, along with an IKEA kitchen and that icon of Australia, a rotary laundry hoist that we’d bought at a local hardware store.
At one auction, tired of waiting for our lot to come up, Takis took a rest on one of the sofas yet to be sold. He should have known better as once before, when buying a sofa for his bachelor flat, he’d tried out a leather lounge and had fallen asleep on it in the showroom. He’d woken to see the sales person bending over him and in his embarrassment bought two sofas. We still have both and they’re a very good buy, though they do rather overfill our small city unit. Predicably, the same thing happened this time. He sat down on the sofa and fell asleep. When he awoke with a start, he began bidding immediately, only to find it was not the items he’d planned to get. Still, like the leather sofas, the marble-topped outdoor table and iron and cane chairs were a very good buy.’
The marble-topped table in use
After buying all these things we had to get them to the island. Takis also wanted to buy and take a lot of building materials so in the end we bought a whole container and sent them off. It took a lone while for them to arrive but eventually they did.
The container arrives
‘On arrival, the truck carrying our huge metal container had to manoeuvre its way through miniscule local streets, around sharp narrow corners between houses, and then, when it got to our street, the container had to be lifted by crane up over the stone wall and into the garden. The neighbours gathered to watch this procedure and three customs officials arrived to be present when it was opened. In their hands were forms to check off what was unloaded. No cannabis, only second hand garden seats, oak tables, chiming clocks, oil paintings, oval mirrors, copper pots, bookcases, desks and beds, along with candlesticks, chests of drawers, lounge and bedroom chairs, and then more tables, lamps and carpets. But that wasn’t all. After Anestis and Marcos had helped us drag out Takis’ carpentry bench and stacks of wood, we finally came to the piece de resistance: the rotary clothes hoist.
Handling all these things again, it occurred to me that, as most of the furniture and furnishings had previously adorned someone else’s house, and many of those houses would have belonged to Europeans settling in Australia, these items had probably crossed the world twice. Take the oak table. Everyone who saw it said it must originally have come from England. And I wondered if it would look more comfortable in a European house than in an Australian house, but we wouldn’t know this until the rooms were ready to be furnished. Meanwhile most of these goods would have to join the other useful objects stored on the top floor.
In many ways, with its three floors and high ceilings in the upper floors, the house is a typical Mediterranean neo-classical building in a style found throughout Greece. As I’d been told previously, such houses are known locally as ‘Venetian Houses’, indicating an Italian influence and a Venetian style. On the island these mansions appeared towards the end of the Ottoman Empire, when locals were allowed to travel and trde outside the Turkish Empire, and newly wealthy merchants returned to their islands to build their grand homes.
Although at first glance these square two or three storey stone buildings do look alike, I had noticed differences. Ours, for instance, had simple shutters, not the louvered shutters found in nearby houses, and its windows were less symmetrical, giving the house a slightly more rustic look than some of our neighbours’. Its asymmetry caused me to think it was built in stages, and the unusual interior windows, looking down into the front hallway, added an Ottoman influence. However, it was its rustic look that influenced me when I was deciding how to decorate it. I didn’t want to turn the house into something grander than it was, an Arhondiko (mansion), or to make it into some kind of architectural-digest modern-Greek renovation. The interiors could reflect a little past wealth, but it had to be a wealth that had passed. Therefore it seemed right to me to include some local peasant touches – a pitothiki (wall rack for plates), or an old nissiotiko (wooden bench with pillows). Could this style perhaps be called ‘Greek chic gone shabby’?
The kitchen before and after
Colour had always been an important issue. Early on I’d decided the colour of the shutters would be the baseline from which other colour decisions would be made. Consequently, first and foremost, we had to decide whether we we’d keep the shutters the traditional maroon, the colour they were when we arrived, or paint them green like some of our neighbours, or use the clichéd bright Greek blue, or even try for a French light blue. Ourania had insisted we stay with the island’s traditional maroon, and that’s what we finally did.
But what did fascinate me in pictures of old Greek houses was the way that the wooden ceilings and cornices were often highly decorated. They were amazing. Painted scenes and patterns imitated the grandeur found in the plasterwork of much grander houses. The wooden boards of the floor above, which created the ceiling below, were often held in place with decorative wooden slates, which were brightly painted, while frescoes were often used around the cornices. As a result, when painting our house I decided to paint walls, doors and windows a plain light cream and let the ceilings have the colour. Thus, though I didn’t make them as bright or decorative as ceilings were in the past, it was our ceilings that made a statement in colour.
The lounge as a bedroom before
With walls taken down and the rediscovered fireplace
Grandfather George had had grown up under the Ottoman rule and had later travelled abroad. He was no doubt influenced by this past as well as by what he’d seen on his travels in Europe. Hence, if you looked hard at our house, it was not hard to identify some of these influences. We knew that there had once been a lot of beautiful furniture, crafted in the style of Louis 14th and brought here from Alexandria; this baroque style of furniture was facetiously known among the Alexandrians as Abou Quatorzieme (Abou being a common Egyptian name). Unfortunately, most of those pieces had long since been sold.
Some old restored ‘Abou Quatorxieme’ furniture
Cousins who visited told stories about a table with legs carved with the feet of lions, and the huge old-fashioned bed that had once been on the top floor. And gradually some family members gave us a few hints about the objects we found in the house. A few of the simplest of the early pieces remained and we’d integrated them with the furniture we’d brought in the container from Australia. We still had a carved frame and picture of Papous Mavrellis which was hung with other family photos over an old bedroom chest of drawers that now served as a sideboard. There was also an old marble-topped kitchen cabinet, which we’d placed in our library/computer room. It now displayed a selection of magazines instead of pots and pans.
While I was sure that, on the whole, Grandfather would have been pleased to see what Takis had accomplished, I did wonder what his wife, Ephterpi, would have thought about my contributions. For while the Lemnos house had been Takis’ project with me tagging along, on the whole he’d let me have my way when it came
house decoration and garden development. Nevertheless, I was very aware that when it came to decorating I’d probably not divorced myself from my Englishness, for obviously these biases were deeply embedded in my aesthetic. So I admit that any attempt on my part to do ‘Greek decorating’ has probably ended up something of an ‘Anglo-Aussie-Greek’ mix.
The middle floor before and after
Some Books on Decorating Greek Style
Dimitris Philippides,Greek Design and Decoration: Three Centuries of Architectural Style (Melissa Publishing House, 1999). The author writes with great authority about Greek design in this book. It was one I could use with confidence when planning the interior decoration of our house.
Suzanne Slesin, Stafford Cliff and Daniel Rozensztroch, photography by Gilles de Chabaneix, Greek Style (Thames and Hudson, 1988). This book is one of a series dealing with the unique decorating style of particular countries. In this book they show the range of styles found in Greece, from that of the northern mainland with its mountain and oriental influence, to that found in the Cyclades, Ionian and Dodecanese islands, with their white-washed fishing villages.
Julia Klimi, At Home in Greece (Thames and Hudson,) Julia Klimi gained access to thirty-five private homes and has captured the very Greek essence of each, though each is very different.
Barbara and Rene Stoeltie, Living in Greece (Taschen Germany, 2002) The two photographers have photographed twenty two different houses, illustrating the way in which detail supplies atmosphere.