In an interview with Iggy Fenech, interior designer Pippa Toledo reveals the tricks behind redesigning the presidential home and how she wanted this project to be a contribution to her country.
They say that every man’s home is his castle and, for the President of Malta, that saying is to be taken literally. San Anton Palace after all is the permanent home of our Head of State, which, every year, sees diplomats, politicians, other heads of state, royalty, celebrities and thousands of other visitors walk down its corridors and into its stately rooms.
What most of us don’t take into consideration, however, is that San Anton is also a home: it’s the place where the president and his or her family get to spend their downtime, where they entertain their friends, and where they get a chance to think and to behave like every other normal, average family.
“Naturally, we had to keep this in mind at all times,” says Pippa Toledo, who, in 2012, redesigned and redecorated the grandmaster’s suite, the drawing room, the president’s study, the smaller dining room and the corridors that lead up to these four rooms.
“To make sure we struck the right balance, Dr George Abela, who was president at the time, and I, constantly discussed what was needed, what was wanted and what was possible within the confinements of the project,” she adds. “Nevertheless, he seemed to trust my judgment and he gave me somewhat of a free reign during the project.”
Of course, this comes as no surprise. Pippa is one of Malta’s most renowned interior designers and her reputation has taken her all the way to the cover of the New York-based, iPad magazine Hyland.
“I had worked on various stately homes here in Malta before I took up the work at San Anton,” she says. “Undoubtedly, that proved to be vital to know where to start and what needed to be done.
“Funnily enough, I didn’t do much research about the place beforehand, and I trusted my judgment first and foremost – after all, the plan was to take the Palace into a new era and not to go back in time.
“Even so, we kept the design elements that make San Anton what it is at the forefront of our work. In fact, one of my biggest challenges was to constantly keep in mind that it’s owned by the State and that it’s meant to showcase our country and our idea of aesthetics. It has to look good and function well at all times, particularly because it hosts a lot of important people, so I really wanted to make Malta proud of it.
One of my biggest challenges was to constantly keep in mind that it’s owned by the State and that it’s meant to showcase our country and our idea of aesthetics
“To get it completely right, we knew we had to get the place down to shell, and start from the very basics,” Pippa says. “This meant that everything from the colours of the walls and ceilings to the fabrics of the chairs had to be scrutinised and up-cycled.”
This shellform of the rooms proved to be the perfect canvas for Pippa and her team, particularly when working on the drawing room and the grandmaster’s suite, which were the two rooms that required the most work.
“In the drawing room, for example, our biggest challenge was the colour the ceiling had been painted in,” says Pippa. “The ceiling was embossed with a beautiful design, but the white paint made it almost impossible to see. So we introduced terracotta as the base colour and then added a gilded finish to the embossed design.
“We then added mirrors at the top perimeter so that the ceiling’s majestic beauty could be reflected in them. Also, in order to make the room feel even more luxurious, our next job was padding and cladding the walls in a rich, satin brocade, and to reupholster the chairs in three different shades of beautiful, crushed velvet.
“On the other hand, the grandmaster’s suite’s walls were lined with wallpaper, in colours and designs that augmented its baroque nature. We also introduced coffered ceilings and we had a group of Italians create a Veneziano effect [a marbling effect created through paint] on the bottom part of the walls as well as on the two large columns in the room.”
Incredibly, this marbling effect was one of the few things not created in-house. In fact, the multi-talented, in-house artisans were responsible for much of the handiwork needed, including all the gilding work, carpentry, upholstering and the sewing of the curtains and fabric wall coverings, which were made according to old, traditional methods.
What’s most interesting is how Pippa used the curtains to accentuate the height of the ceiling. “Whereas before the curtains were hanging from just over the doorways and windows, I decided to take the pelmets right up to the cove, and this made the ceilings look and feel like they’re higher,” says Pippa.
The next big step in the project was to source the items that would help give the rooms a more luxurious look, “and, as one may suspect, it’s great when you have good things to work with,” she jokes. “It was great fun hunting for antiques and silverware from all over the Palace and relocating the antique furniture.
“Some items obviously needed a bit of a spruce up, like the lovely lamps which were given a new lease of life by dressing them up in black velvet shades with a golden interior,” she adds. As Pippa later explained, the black velvet adds a sense of opulence, while the gold on the inside helps reflect the light better.
Overall, it took Pippa six months to complete the project, and thus far, she still considers it one of the most important she’s ever undertaken. “When a task is this prestigious, if you don’t get it right, you’ve had it,” she says.
“This project was very close to Dr Abela’s heart and he made it a priority to give the palace the sense of grandeur it deserves. I am very grateful to him for giving me this opportunity to be a part of it,” she continues. “In fact – and not many people know this – I wanted my work at San Anton Palace to be a ‘thank you’ to the country that’s given me so much, and it was done completely voluntarily from my end as I saw this project as a contribution rather than a job.”
And a great ‘thank you’ it was indeed, with the beautiful rooms and corridors now standing testament to the aesthetic of our times and to the work done by the artisans of our generation… A legacy that will definitely live on for years to come.
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