The Italian ambassador to New Zealand and his interior decorator husband have brought their international collection of furniture, objects and art to Wellington
Meet the creative force behind this globally inspired home
The biggest benefit for those living a peripatetic lifestyle has to be their access to unique pieces and exotic finds, each imbued with its own colourful story. Just ask His Excellency Carmelo Barbarello, Italian ambassador to New Zealand from 2014 to 2016, and his Spanish husband Javier Barca.
Before meeting Barca in Athens in 2002, when he was Italian ambassador to Greece, Barbarello was posted in Ethiopia. Together, they’ve spent the two-to-four year stretches expected of these diplomatic missions in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and New Delhi in India.
It goes without saying that prior to arriving in Wellington, the ambassador and the interior decorator were well-versed in the art of collecting special pieces. Over the years, they have also become experts at editing their belongings before shipping them across the ocean to furnish – and often refurbish – their temporary new home.
“Each residence is completely different and often comes with its own furniture,” says Barca. “We never know what we’ll find and we’ve had to fit our belongings into spaces that are drastically different in size.”
Barca wouldn’t have it any other way. Ever since he can remember, he has been fascinated by interior spaces. After relocating to Rome, he began working at Belgian interiors store Flamant. There, he says, he learned first-hand how to work with textiles, curtains and wallpapers.
He showed such natural flair that his employers soon gave him free rein to create a department dedicated to residential refurbishments.
In 2012, while based in Buenos Aires, the couple married at the Spanish consulate. Home in the Argentine capital was in the Recoleta district, where their enormous 500sqm apartment in a 1927 French-style building recalled an era when Argentina was the fourth-richest country in the world.
“Our flat was a dream,” says Barca. “The building’s facade had been brought over in pieces from France and we had an entire floor to ourselves. It had Slovenian oak floors, French marble fireplaces and multiple balconies with French bronze handles.”
New Delhi was the opposite. After viewing 80 accommodation options, the pair decided on a tiny 1950s house in the diplomatic area of Chanakyapuri and Barca went to work creating an oasis among the heat and chaos. “I renovated the bathrooms, terrace, dining and living rooms and then compressed our furniture into less than half the space we’d had in Buenos Aires, but we’re very flexible like that,” he laughs.
In Wellington the house that was bought by the Italian government in 1961 for its ambassadors comes with its own interesting history. It was originally architect Thomas Turnbull’s home and was built by him in 1877.
Turnbull also designed several heritage sites in Wellington including the Willis Street churches of St Peter and St John, the former National Mutual Life Association building, the General Assembly Library, and the former Bank of New Zealand head office.
The two-storey villa boasts first-floor Italianate balconies that sit over double-bay windows on the ground floor and a large veranda. A faux terracotta floor and carpets were raised during renovations in 2003 and 2007 to reveal original matai and kauri floors in the downstairs reception rooms.
The parquet floor in the living room is a magnificent mosaic of alternating dark matai and light kauri wood, separated at their ends by diamonds of Australian wood. Upstairs is a master bedroom, two guest bedrooms and a studio.
Arriving in August 2014 with a mission to promote Italian culture, trade, language and scientific endeavour and to increase Italy’s $1.3 billion in annual trade with New Zealand, Barbarello says he was enthralled by the architecture but unimpressed with the quality of the furniture.
“The interior decoration was so poor,” he says. “A radical intervention was absolutely necessary.” Barca immediately began creating a home that was liveable, intimate and warm, reflected an Italian sensibility, and that would also meet the demands of diplomatic life.
The interior decoration was so poor ...radical intervention was absolutely necessary
After refreshing the walls of the reception rooms using a palette of light and dark grey, he concentrated on replacing the drapes. “Textiles are very important to create a welcoming space that also has an element of theatricality about it,” he says.
To create a cohesive framework for the reception rooms on the ground floor and render the space modern and light while enhancing the original wooden window frames, Barca worked with C&C Milano to create bespoke ‘relaxed’ Roman blinds in cream linen with a black grosgrain trim.
Barca, who claims he doesn’t have a single identifiable style, mixed the couple’s furniture from different eras with some of the existing furniture and added iconic Italian Artemide and Flos chandeliers and lamps.
Favouring a palette of greys, greens, blacks and petroleum blues, his signature touches include placing mid-century furniture in pale wood in front of dark walls. “Many museums in the world use dark walls as this adds a sense of the value of the objects and art on display,” he says.
Next, he decided on an attractive focal point for important pieces, whether art, antique furniture or contemporary design. “I can’t buy pieces for specific spaces as we move around the world. But I believe it is the objects themselves that find their own place within an interior,” he says. “The secret lies in selecting pieces full of character over banal, anonymous pieces.”
A sculpture by Argentine artist Enio Iommi has pride of place in the living room and a magnificent 1960s Joe Colombo Elda chair, which they bought at auction in Auckland, sits in front of a collection of Venetian Venini glass.
Barca has a penchant for heavy velvets and jacquard but in a diplomatic home, all textiles must be functional and, in the case of the lemon yellow Art Deco armchairs, removable so they can be cleaned. “Diplomatic residences are not normal homes,” explains Barca. “There is a lot of entertaining, from more intimate breakfasts and lunches to formal dinners and elaborate events. These transit spaces require a practical attitude.”
Barca arranged the interiors in the downstairs rooms in a manner that allowed people to move easily within them. “I had to ensure we could accommodate up to 70 people and that there were plenty of tables or surfaces to place glasses and plates,” he says.
Furniture was often moved when larger groups were entertained and sometimes this meant sacrificing their own preferences for the comfort of their guests. “There is nothing more embarrassing, for example, then to see a woman in a skirt and high heels struggling to get up from a very low, modern sofa,” explains Barca.
Lighting, he adds, is another of his secret weapons. “Dimmers are essential and I might change the lamp shades to freshen things up,” he says. “Small things like candles, fresh flowers and plants can also really change how a space feels.”
To add a personal touch to their collection, the duo always buy an artwork by an artist from the country they are living in. But while they almost always agree on interiors, their taste in art often differs. “Art is more personal, more introspective.
The perception and meaning of colours and forms changes from one person to another,” says Barca. “We don’t buy art as an investment, we choose art we want to live with.” To memorialise their time in New Zealand, a Dick Frizzell lithograph called Red Haring was, for them, an ingenious combination of Maori and contemporary art language.
When his two-year term as ambassador came to an end in September, Barbarello returned to Rome with Barca and their containers of incredible art and furniture.
So what will he miss most about their Wellington home? “Javier managed to combine our personal pictures, sculptures and other pieces of art in a wonderful way,” says Barbarello. “The residence contained the essence of Italy and became a place that we loved to spend time alone or surrounded by friends and official guests.”
Words by: Nadine Rubin Nathan. Photography by: Simon Devitt.