House tour: a renovation dream come to life in Puglia, Italy
After a decade of living in Italy, a couple ventures to the country’s south to create a modern retreat among ancient olive groves. Photographed by Helenio Barbetta.
In the outdoor living area of this home in Puglia, Italy, Butterfly armchairs by Jorge Ferrari Hardoy for Knoll, enquiries to Dedece.
Thomas Siffer and his wife Els Lybeer live very full lives. The couple have travelled extensively, including a stint spent sailing around the world on an adventure that spanned three years. After very successful careers — Siffer in television, media and advertising and Lybeer as an art teacher — they decided to move permanently to Italy. The pair found a property, which was both exquisite and isolated, and proceeded to build what would be their twelfth home.
Just five minutes’ drive from the small rural town of San Michele Salentino in Puglia, southern Italy, Siffer and Lybeer have created the perfect contemporary oasis for soaking up the Mediterranean sunshine. “We’ve been living in Italy for the last 10 years and began building this house about five years ago,” says Siffer. “It took a year to get all the permits and permissions and then a year to build, which is great. I love my Italian builders. There was the original farmhouse and a stable, which we wanted to keep, but on the other side of a big courtyard we built a completely new structure, using Belgian architect Armand Eeckels of NU Architectuuratelier.”
In the kitchen designed by Els Lybeer, brass splashback; vintage bar stools; white bowl by John Pawson; ceramics from a local vintage market; farming tools and rice cutters (on wall) found in Cambodia; pendant lights by Nud.
The masseria (traditional farmhouse), which in its entirety is now made up of five bedrooms, four bathrooms, one outdoor bathroom, two kitchens and an outdoor kitchen sits on around six hectares of ancient olive groves. Some of the trees here are more than 200 years old and the couple harvest the fruit to make and sell their own brand of extra virgin olive oil.
What drew Siffer and Lybeer to the property wasn’t the potential for a new business venture though. “When we bought this place it wasn’t for the existing buildings or really the olive groves but because in the middle of the courtyard is a great big mulberry tree, around which everything gravitates,” says Siffer. “It is the centre of everything.”
In the dining area with a view into the kitchen beyond, bespoke table designed by Els Lybeer; reupholstered dining chairs from a secondhand shop in Belgium. In the living area, Butterfly armchair by Jorge Ferrari Hardoy for Knoll, enquiries to Dedece. Télépherique artwork by Thomas Bogaert.
The couple’s new home may be awash in the brilliant white of the region’s traditional structures but that is where the similarities end. The exterior is contemporary and rigorous, all straight lines and expansive openings. The interior spaces — a collaborative effort between Siffer and Lybeer — connect to the outside at every turn via sliding walls, which can transform the house into any number of configurations.
“While we were busy with construction Els would need to see the interior volumes, to work on spaces like the bathroom, the sitting area or the kitchen with its bespoke cabinetry made by a local cabinetmaker,” says Siffer.
“The concrete elements, such as the dining table in the kitchen designed by NU Architectuuratelier, were all her initial ideas. The screen-like feature wall behind the swimming pool took her over a year to decide. It was nerve-racking because the builders were pushing for a decision but she took her time to work out how we would see through that wall. She needed to stand in the space, see the light and take in the surroundings to make the final call.”
In the guest bedroom, bed linen from H&M Home; floor lamp and chair from a local vintage market; Hounddog artwork by Johan De Wit.
In the end the resulting concrete wall is a statement feature for the main living area and a functional and decorative backing screen to the pool. The overall effect, when the sliding glass door of the lounge area is open, is a seamless indoor-outdoor experience that feels like having a pool slice through your living area. This is not only a dream home for Siffer and Lybeer but, thanks to considered planning, also a source of income.
The two original buildings have been refurbished and are available as rental properties that sleep six while the main house, during the summer, is also open as holiday accommodation for up to four people. “The two older buildings are completely private and walled off from the main house but they have full views of all the property,” says Siffer. “In high summer, we rent out the entire masseria and they can be opened onto an inner courtyard to connect with the newer building.”
In another view of the living area, concrete window seat designed by Els Lybeer; restored vintage armchair and glass coffee table; Arco floor lamp by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni for Flos.
Between the holiday rentals and the olive oil production, Siffer and Lybeer dedicate themselves to passions such as travel and collecting — pastimes that are reflected throughout their new home. “Wherever you look there are things that we have collected on our travels,” says Siffer. “There are old ceramic bowls which we found in a chicken coop in Sudan, farm implements and knives used to cut rice from Cambodia, which we’ve hung on the walls. We have reupholstered and refurbished much of the furniture here, which Els finds and sends off to restore, saying that I must trust her. When they come back they’re always wonderful.”
With its clever moveable walls that can transform interior living spaces according to the position of the sun or the direction of the wind each day, the entire home is designed to make the most of the amazing Southern Italian climate. “You can sunbathe naked and not be seen, swim and walk out into the property and have complete privacy,” says Siffer. “As a writer, I like the fact I can sit anywhere according to my mood. I can travel to all the best possible writing spaces in my own home.”