Here’s the first in a series of “Before and After” stories.
For weeks, I’ve struggled with how to continue sharing this renovation story. How easy it would be to let the before-and-after photos speak for themselves – and, I think these images communicate volumes, at least I hope so – but, my heart says that would be taking the easy way out. This story has become about so much more than the transformation of spaces. It’s become a story of friendship, despair, renewal, and loss. It’s become a story about how we choose to fill those spaces we inhabit: in our homes, our minds, and our hearts.
Of course, if you aren’t up for that deep dive – and, truly, I wouldn’t blame you – feel free to skip ahead to the photos. That’s one of the brilliant aspects of getting older: our skin thickens up. I no longer worry about writing to please or inform; to be useful or convey “tips.” The stories that interest me most now, to write as well as to read, are the stories that document, simply document, our lives and those spaces we inhabit.
It’s in this spirit, that I dedicate this next series of “renovation” stories to a prince of transformations and artistic endeavors of every sort, our brilliant friend Christophe Nicolet. Without his guidance and creativity, we would never have dreamed of tackling this project.
Lighting expert, builder, scientist, artist, magician, Christophe has long been renowned for his uncanny ability to create anything, out of any material at hand, and to make it unique, beautiful, and in most cases, functional. He trained as an engineer, worked for universities and executed projects for NASA. He even designed a component (that my little mind has no grasp of whatsoever) that launched into orbit aboard a space shuttle. Eventually, and thankfully, Christophe soon decided to send his life into orbit, walking away from a scientific career and fully embracing his artistic and creative sensibilities. He pursued his passion for travel, circling around the world many times over, seeing and experiencing more than most people will ever dream. Along the way, he built a new career path that jived with his free-flowing lifestyle by working as a handyman, contractor, and lighting designer and helping friends and family – from Birmingham and Miami to Sofia and all the way to us in Lucca – bring dream spaces to fruition.
Our paths converged many years ago while working together to create an art festival and it was instant friend-love! If ever there was a “brother from another mother” connection, this was it. He and Matt were slower to bond, each calling the other “aloof.” But, what’s still so remarkable to me, is once they got to know each other, they became as close as brothers. They adored each other, yet bickered like little old men, especially when working on a project.
We became a little tribe, meeting up in far-flung destinations such as Morocco and Bulgaria and exploring more of Europe with travels through Scotland, France, Croatia, and Italy. Over the last decade, we also frequently catapulted ourselves into home renovation projects. As soon as one would finish, we’d start another. A fast-flowing stream of chaos, creativity, and fun! Together, we’ve plotted, dreamed, and schemed four full-scale reno projects in two countries, including our last apartment in Lucca.
So, naturally, when Matt and I began the search for a new home here in Lucca last August, our first call was to Christophe, persuading him to come visit – that never took much arm-twisting – and view properties with us. A few months later, when we found the one that became our “one,” we flooded him with images and videos and anxiously awaited his feedback. There was something about the place that spoke to us, but it was daunting. We weren’t sure we could handle a project of this magnitude. “Are we being crazy?” we asked him. “Well, you’re always crazy, that’s a given,” he deadpanned. But, he loved the project and saw huge potential for transforming the spaces, from dark and dingy to light and inspiring.
His ideas and enthusiasm gave us confidence to say “Hell yes!” and go for it, even if we were intimidated. We committed to tackling the demanding renovation project, our largest endeavor to date, knowing we had an ace in pocket. Christophe was always our ace. We began designing spaces and researching materials together, virtually, and set the closing to coincide with his availability. He would spend the month of April with us in Lucca to bring these dreams to life.
BATHROOM 1: AKA YELLOW-AINT-MELLOW
In January, while Christophe was visiting his family home in Nice, we met “halfway” in Genoa to enjoy a day together by the sea and dream up plans. Over lunch he complained of headaches he had been experiencing, intense and unrelenting. We couldn’t have guessed then, but this was only the beginning. As spring approached, the headaches grew in intensity and other troubling symptoms began to manifest. He became less committal on a timeline – very uncharacteristic of this steadfast friend. We knew something was wrong, but he kept saying, “I’ll be there in April, don’t worry!”
We sprinted forward with the closing, staying hopeful that he would find answers to his questions about the headaches, perhaps get some medication, and join us as soon as he could. Meanwhile, we brought in workers to tackle the projects he would have done alone or with our help. It took a team of people to equal one Christophe. And, believe me, that’s no slight on the team – which is stellar, in every way – it’s to underline our friend’s singular capacity for design and execution.
“I’m just a call away,” he said the night before our closing when we shared our plan to start demolition of the apartment’s two ensuite bathrooms immediately after the ceremony. “Send me video of you breaking tiles and drinking Prosecco!” he said, laughing and showing how well he understands our usual ways.
And, we felt we were going to need a barrel of prosecco to tackle those rooms. One was the most offensive shade of puke-pink, while the other was screaming neon yellow. They were both dirty, dark, and dreadful. United in ugliness, yet divided by a sheetrock (cartongesso) wall, they cried out for a designer’s eye. Christophe studied the apartment’s floor plan and briefly considered removing the wall to create one extra-large master bathroom. In the end, we decided it was smarter to keep the floor plan and boast two reasonably-sized ensuites, instead of one extravagantly-large bathroom. With the decision made to maintain the floor plan, the work seemed manageable for us to tackle. We would remove the wall tiles, replace and modernize toilets, bidets, and sinks. One room would feature a bathtub, the other a shower, and we would install parquet for both, going on top of existing tiles to minimize demo and keep costs down. Simple, clean, and straightforward, right?
“Holy shit! You’re not going to believe this!” we screamed into the phone and into our friend’s ear – which in hindsight, I’m sure didn’t help his headaches one bit. One of the most endearing qualities of Christophe always was his child-like sense of wonder and curiosity. He was interested in everything and loved learning and experiencing new things so it’s absolutely no exaggeration to tell you that he became giddy upon hearing about the colorful and elaborate frescos we found hiding underneath the hideous tiles and century-after-century layers of paint.
We told him all about Elisa, the fresco preservation expert who came over to see the works and how she estimated that they were likely painted in the 1600’s. We shared her theory, based on the pattern of the paintings, that these two rooms were originally one long, narrow space. It would make sense as this was the piano nobile of a prominent home and this space faces directly onto an important church and square. Perhaps this was a grand sitting room. Given the delicate, feminine nature of the design, who knows, perhaps it was reserved as a ladies’ salon. That’s what I like to imagine, anyway. I can see the ladies in their fine gowns and jewels gathering by the tall windows to gaze out onto the town square, aware of the comings and goings of everyone below, filling the space with chatter, gossip, and laughter. What an atmosphere it must have been!
Over these phone conversations, we shared the techniques Elisa taught us for carefully chipping away the paint and uncovering the images. “What does this do to your timeline?” he asked. “We haven’t a clue,” we replied, honestly. “Hurry up and get here. We need you!” we pleaded and teased. We told him about our contractor Andrea and how impressive and fast his team were at tackling everything we threw their way. “I’m glad you’re in good hands,” he said, with a hint of sadness in his voice. We knew he would like nothing more than to be hanging off a ladder in one of those bathrooms, discovering his own path to uncover and illuminate the frescos.
Matt and I set our minds to the task ahead and began methodically clearing away the layers. With every tap of the tiny hammer, more colors, images, and patterns emerged. It was remarkable, though exhausting work. For 8-10 hours a day, we were either crouching to reach the lower bits or stretching atop ladders to reach the higher portions. We took videos almost every day to share with Christophe, yet about the same time, we began to notice his responses were growing uncharacteristically thin. Then, one day, he asked if he could call us in the evening. He had news, he said.
He told us he had gone to the emergency room and was admitted to the hospital a few days earlier. He hadn’t wanted to talk until he had test results and some clarity. Now, he had it. Pancreatic cancer, the doctor said to him. It was advanced.
The next day, and the day after that, and day after that, Matt and I went back to work in the bathrooms. Chip, chip, chipping away at those layers. We began to talk about the continuum of time and how we were now playing a bit part in the long story of this space. The more we worked, the more we came to realize that we were tapping into not only layers of paint, but also of the hopes and lives of everyone who had inhabited the space before us. There was something incredibly cathartic in that notion as well as in the monotony of work itself. With every tap, our friend and the struggle he faced pinged in our heads. A year earlier, we had lost a dear friend in Lucca from that same horrible cancer. Rouella had been so brave and fought so hard during her battle, which lasted over a year and a half. We deeply understood the devastation of the diagnosis.
I don’t know what I would have done during this time had it not been for renovation of these bathrooms and this apartment. To work on something that’s existed for hundreds of years and to play a part in bringing aspects of it back to life is so beautiful and emotional. Matt and I poured every ounce of energy we had into the endeavor. Our hearts needed it to be so. There were so many tears – some out of sheer exhaustion, others from devastation – but, as with any good renovation project – there were also moments of intense joy. Every evening when we took off the goggles and masks – wooee, because it’s not easy to breath in all that rubble – we would step back and stare at these works of art. What a privilege to be in their presence. The beauty of it still makes me ache.
There were also plenty of moments of levity, thankfully. The demolition crew, aka muratori in Italian, are not only professional, but also sincere and dear. And, between our geometra Matteo, contractor Andrea, fresco expert Elisa, and realtor Lorrain, well…we have Italy’s most impressive team! (There’s much more coming about this team in future updates, because they deserve the brightest possible spotlight)! And, how we quickly became another little tribe working, side-by-side, every day and falling into each other’s rhythms. Then, there are “our” plumbers. Everyone knows how much I adore this dynamic duo who we worked with for the last renovation as well.
During the last renovation, Christophe had handled the sourcing of most components. Growing up in Nice and speaking French, German, and a sprinkling of Italian, he understood where and how to get things in ways I may never fully grasp. This time, by default, I became our sourcing pivot person, while Matt oversaw works in the apartment and chipped away at frescos. “What do I know about picking out shower basins?” I whined to Matt. “And, what about toilets, sinks, and for the love of god, bidets?”
To understand the challenge of this, you must understand that with rare exception, purchasing these types of materials in Italy isn’t handled through a website or via email. To get quality goods at good prices – and, in this climate – within a reasonable timeline, involves direct person-to-person contact in a store. From floor tiles and facets to lighting and vanities, you must get off your butt, out of your house, and into the shop. Not the easiest feat, especially when you don’t have a car and most of these types of stores are located far from the city walls. And, you must speak a level of Italian that goes beyond ordering spritz at your favorite watering hole. Plumbing Italian. Electrical Italian. Kitchen Italian. Flooring Italian. I can’t tell you how much my vocabulary has expanded during this process. Just wait for the “zocalo” stories to come!
BATHROOM II: AKA PEPTO-PINK
One day as I was fretting to our plumbers about the challenge of it all – yep, I have somewhat learned how to whine in Italian, too! – they offered to go shopping with me. “When?” I asked. “Subito! (Right now),” the plumber we call Pops commanded. And, five minutes later, there I was climbing into the middle of the bench seat in a plumbing van, sandwiched between two men with possibly less than 10 words of English between them. I attempted to tell them all about the lessons we were learning in Italian class and they at least pretended to understand. One of them asked if I knew how to drive. My knowledge of the language is enough to convey what a truly terrible driver I am and how Matt says he never wants to be a passenger again in a car with me behind the wheel. They laughed and talked about the joke they will have on Matt when they tell him I drove the plumbing van. Yeah, right!
It’s amazing to me how simple the task I had been dreading became with these two by my side. Once we arrived into the store, I whizzed through picking out materials and making sure they met with their approval. “What about this facet?” I’d ask and with a head nod it went into the cart. “And this vanity with that sink?” I asked, hopeful. This time I got a head shake. “Not with those walls. A suspended unit won’t work. We need a cabinet with feet.” Ah, the things I didn’t know that I didn’t know. Christophe would love this, I couldn’t help but to think.
A few days later, Matt and I decided our work in the bathroom could wait. Seeing our friend was more important than any renovation timeline. We hopped the train to France and spent four days with him and his family. Every moment of which was intense and important. He was already in terrible pain and it was excruciating to witness. Yet, we went for long drives, picnicked in the mountains, laughed a whole lot, and even danced. We also talked in depth about this diagnosis and treatment plan. He asked us to tell him again about our friend Rouella and how her time and story unfolded. We discussed his wishes and made lists of things to put his affairs in order. And, anytime we needed a dose of lightness and beauty, we turned to the project, plotting, dreaming, and scheming about the renovation.
We walked him through the bathroom dilemma. The frescos were in superb condition but only in spots. Perhaps because of previous water leaks or holes made into the walls, there were big patches with damage or where a layer of paint was too stubborn to remove. Repainting the scenes to look “new” was an option that had been discussed by our team. It could be beautiful and perfect, like in a church or museum. But there, sitting around the dining room table of his family’s centuries old farmhouse, with all its beautiful layers surrounding us, we all agreed the right choice – the only choice – was to honor and illuminate the works as we had uncovered them:
Imperfect, complex, exquisite.
We told him that we would have the walls and ceilings sealed in a coat of transparent resin to protect the works. “Ooh, how light will bounce off the resin,” he said, clearly delighted at the thought. “And, by the way, I would have found a way to give you that suspended vanity if that’s what you wanted,” he couldn’t help but add. And, I believed him.
He also promised that he would come to Lucca in a few weeks, after his first round of chemotherapy.
My head knew better, but my heart believed this, too.
We finished each bathroom in true Christophe fashion by installing the sleek, sexy binario lights that had somewhat become his renovation trademarks. Though he never stepped foot in these spaces, his style and artistry live in every room. And, how grateful we are for it all.
UP NEXT…this story continues with kitchen before-and-after images coming soon, and of course, more about the life and genius of our beloved friend.