HOUSE TOUR: An eclectic home on the Adriatic coast
The region of Puglia, the block heel of the great peninsular thigh boot that is Italy, has served as a meeting point of cultures for millennia. Successive waves of Greeks, Carthaginians, Lombards, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, Ottomans, and Venetians have, at various points and with varying degrees of success, attempted to invade, annex, or colonize this sleepy province. And to that great influx of foreign visitors we can now add the considerably more benign—if no less energetic—figures of London-based fashion designer Liza Bruce and her husband, artist Nicholas Alvis Vega.
Moroccan wood screens surround a veranda; the pillows are covered in ikats from Uzbekistan.
LIZA BRUCE AND NICHOLAS ALVIS VEGA
“It helps to get away from the fashion world from time to time,” says Bruce, a fast-talking Manhattanite known for her exuberant beachwear designs. And the southern reaches of Puglia, around the city of Lecce, certainly fits the bill—it’s a three-hour flight from London but centuries away from the corporate bustle of the north or the legions of British expats who have colonized Tuscany. When the couple first came here, about 15 years ago, it felt even more like a neglected spot, a place of pastoral simplicity and crumbling baroque grandeur. “Lecce was like a bizarre Fellini set, with wild dogs and unrestored, decaying palazzos,” recalls Alvis Vega. (His curious surname is not so much double-barreled as twin-cylinder—tired of being incorrectly addressed as Mr. Bruce, years ago he forged a new identity by combining two vintage car models. “I thought I’d give myself a name they’re not likely to forget,” he explains.)
Liza Bruce and her husband, Nicholas Alvis Vega, on their property on the Adriatic coast in Puglia, Italy.
Local real estate agents tried to persuade the couple to buy a masseria, one of Puglia’s fortified farmhouses, but they’d set their sights on a more esoteric choice: a dilapidated concrete bungalow that very probably breached local building codes but, more important, was situated right on the balmy Adriatic coast. Significant restorations ensued, and the site is now a tranquil beach house to which the couple tries to escape at least once a month. The dominant mood is one of purity and whiteness, a type of minimalism that evokes both the plain plaster-walled dwellings of north Africa and the spare modernist architecture of Luis Barragán, whose work Bruce first encountered while attending school in Mexico.
In the living room, a painting by Alvis Vega hangs above a Moroccan straw sofa; the wood screen doors, hexagonal table, and straw rug are Moroccan, and the chair is Ethiopian.
Everything has been deliberately kept simple and light, with as little furniture as possible—the seating, the shelves, and even the bed have been built in. Naturally, this makes cleaning much easier, which is always a consideration with so much white about the place. The rooms purposefully echo one another, each having an identical Moroccan pierced-metal lampshade and the intention of creating an effect similar to a hall of mirrors.
An Ethiopian bed under an awning made with Kenyan fabrics on the roof terrace; the cushions are by Bruce.
The space is brightened by a couple of Alvis Vega’s colorful abstract paintings, but it is only when one arrives at the guest bedroom that the calming white gives way to a sudden burst of color—a great wall of imperial purple, chosen to echo the kente-cloth covering on the bed.
In the kitchen and dining area, a Moroccan folding table is topped with a tin tray, the stool is African, an Italian baroque-style lampshade is made with an African fabric, and the straw mat is Moroccan.
Fittingly, given the region’s history, the decoration is a mélange of influences from around the Mediterranean and beyond. It also reflects the couple’s globe-trotting lifestyle—in addition to their London home, they also maintain houses in Morocco and India—and their particular interest in textiles. “We find we collect things without even intending to,” explains Bruce, whose swimwear designs and caftans are inspired by the fabrics she discovers on her travels.
A woven screen from Burundi serves as a headboard in a guest room; the bedcover is of West African kente cloth, the wall was painted a custom color to match, and the floor mat is Indonesian.
The house is strewn with cushions with sequined borders that are made using traditional textiles picked up in North Africa, India, Uzbekistan, you name it. In what the couple calls the “fire room,” they are sewn with mottoes in Swahili—”something really profound,” deadpans Alvis Vega. He was born and raised in colonial Kenya, and traces of his African upbringing are also pervasive, from carved tribal furniture to more fabrics; on the roof terrace, for example, shade is provided by 20 or 30 Masai sarongs sewn into a sort of tarpaulin. The master bedroom, meanwhile, features an intriguing bedcover made from a dozen Fante flags from colonial Ghana—each one combining a folk-art martial scene with a skewed version of a Union Jack canton, in emulation of British regimental banners.
In a sitting room, both the table and hand-carved wood chair are Ethiopian, the shell chandelier is from Bali, and the straw rug is Moroccan.
More Kenyan sarongs have been deployed for the shades for a series of table lamps that represent the couple’s reinterpretation of time-honored Puglian craftsmanship. “They have a tradition in Italy of making these baroque lampshades; we commissioned the last guy in Lecce that makes them,” says Alvis Vega. “When we showed him the fabric we wanted him to use, he tried to sell us some damask instead.” Even more shockingly for traditionalists, the lamp bases are made from driftwood found on the beach. “In a more sophisticated area, the driftwood wouldn’t even be there,” says Bruce approvingly.
In the master bedroom, the bedcover is made from African textiles, and a remnant of a shield from Papua New Guinea was painted by Alvis Vega.
But perhaps it doesn’t do to overemphasize Puglia’s rustic lack of sophistication; witness the photographs displayed on Bruce’s website that show her new collection modeled by a local girl on the beach nearby. “She’s not a model, though,” clarifies the designer. “She’s a law student.”
On a veranda, Moroccan woven-reed cushions, topped with pillows covered in raffia-trimmed silk by Liza Bruce, line a banquette; the table has an African stool for a base topped with a tin tray, and the brass lantern is Moroccan, as are the straw mats on the floor and wall.