In Italy, Giving a Long Unoccupied Farmhouse a Loving Restoration


Andrew Trotter’s love for Puglia in southern Italy is a slow burning passion. The British-born designer, now based in Barcelona, first visited the region – which is the heel of Italy’s geographical boot – about a decade before. Carlo Lanzini, a close friend of his, planned to build a boutique-hotel to cater to travelers attracted by the charming medieval villages of Puglia, its sun-bleached land dotted with ancient Olive Groves, and its 500 miles of coastline with its picturesque coves, limestone cliffs, and lovely sand beach. Lanzini asked for his help to find and renovate a masseria. This is the name given to the whitewashed farmhouses that are found throughout the Pugliese countryside. “We went twice in winter and I didn’t like it at all,” said Mr. Trotter. It’s not a place I fell in love with immediately. “It is a place that has grown on me, rather than an instant love.”

At the time, Mr. Trotter had just left his career as a fashion designer, opened a design boutique and gallery in Barcelona, and founded Openhouse, which evolved into a semi-annual lifestyle and interiors magazine, along with Mari Luz Vidal. After studying interior design in London and spending a year there, Mr. Trotter returned to his roots. When Mr. Lanzini decided to build a masseria-inspired hotel near the town Ostuni, he asked Mr. Trotter to supervise its design. After some convincing, he got the gig, and the resulting six-guestroom Masseria Moroseta “very quickly became a little bit famous,” as Mr. Trotter put it, leading to other commissions designing and renovating vacation homes in Puglia, including for Mr. Lanzini as well as new clients who admired Mr. Trotter’s minimalist yet warm aesthetic.

While Studio Andrew Trotter soon had projects in locations around the world, Mr. Trotter and his domestic partner — the firm’s business manager, Marcelo Martinez, 31, who is Spanish — continued to travel to Puglia regularly. The couple decided to find a home in the area that would serve as both their home and a rental property for when they were not using it. They found a house in a narrow cobbled street, nestled into the southern Pugliese village of Soleto. The town is sleepy and that’s what I like about the south of Puglia which is not very touristic. The smaller villages make you feel like you are in a movie like “Cinema Paradiso,” Mr. Trotter added, adding that, “We are the youngest people in Soleto.” The two-story house was entered through an open courtyard behind the stone archway and large wooden doors. The house was built in phases over the years, and included two vaulted churches, one of which is estimated to be 400-years-old. Other parts of the upper level were added in the 1920s. The house was filled with clothes, furniture, art, and photos of the previous owners. “But nobody has been to the house for around 20 years.” Nothing worked. The water and electricity were out. The sewage was discharged into a hole at the back of the garden. “That quirkiness gives the house charm,” said Mr. Martinez. The 15-foot-high vaulted ceiling on the ground floor gave the interior character and mood, which were not apparent from a simple glance at the plans or snapshots. After the first offer failed, Mr. Trotter explained that they “just went with it”. (He declined to divulge how much the couple paid for the property.)

Mr. Trotter and Mr. Martinez, who discussed the project over Zoom from Barcelona,

set about updating the house for contemporary living, making it comfortable and simply stylish, while retaining as many elements as possible to preserve the home’s distinctiveness and historic feeling. Casa Soleto was the name they gave it. Lighting was kept to a minimum, but new electrical systems were installed. The roof and walls of the house were also repaired. Many antique doors, terrazzo tiles, or polished concrete floors, were kept. The walls of the house have been refinished with earthy colors ranging from dusty beige, to chocolate brown and pale green. The Domingue Architectural Finishes company, which was one of the few firms that the couple worked with, provided the clean-lined wooden tables, chairs, and stools to complement the antiques and neutral linens upholstered in simple, padded seating. Armadillo, an Australian carpet manufacturer, provided the jute rug that is found in many rooms. (In exchange for their contributions, the companies can use Casa Soleto’s images and story in their marketing.)

Mr. Trotter and Mr. Martinez, who spoke by phone and over Zoom, kept some of the furniture left by the previous owners, including large wooden gun cases they repurposed as coffee tables, a few beds with distinctive headboards and, in the largest bedroom, a glass-front cabinet filled with old books accumulated by the doctor who once owned the house.

Resisting the urge to contemporize the kitchen, they instead worked with local craftsmen to restore the wood cabinets, replicating them for additional storage, and to create fronts for a built-in refrigerator and dishwasher. Martinez said that they installed an ILVE stove, which is “quite old-school”. The couple decided to use a lot of the art that was left on the wall, including a mixture of landscapes, portraits and still-lifes. Eleanor Herbosch is an Antwerp based artist. She created three abstract paintings using soil from under the house and the garden. Herbosch’s works are prominently displayed in the dining room which is located in the second chapel, in front of the home, as well as a cozy lounge, in the older chapel, in the rear, where they chose a darker and moodier palette. The garden was completely reimagined with a new plunge pool, and plants selected by London landscape designer Luciano Giubbilei. The terrace off the bedroom with the biggest view overlooks the garden. A smaller balcony in the bedroom facing the front offers views of a nearby Gothic bell tower that was commissioned by medieval nobleman Raimondo orsini del Balzo. Mr. Trotter stated that the bells ring at 6:30 am every day, and Sundays are not just bong-bongs. “It keeps going, every 20 minutes.”

Completed in July, the renovation of Casa Soleto took two years, and there’s nothing else like it in town. “The priest and the mayor came to see the home,” Mr. Trotter stated. He said, “Italians are always looking for new things and perfection, but we have done it so that it feels old. I don’t think they get it.” For him and Mr. Martinez however, “true luxurious living is not about having everything perfect and brand-new.”