In 2006, J Banks Design President Joni Vanderslice, ASID, NCIDQ began renovating and redesigning 24 properties spanning 4,200 acres of Tuscan countryside, including 15 farmhouses, 8 residential villas, and a 41-suite hotel. Some date back as far as the 12th century, and many were once used strictly for housing livestock. Today, they are collectively known as Castello di Casole, a five-star hotel and private residence club that blends Italy’s most modern and most historic design elements. Through eight years of red tape, economic shutdowns, and an eye-opening maze of cultural differences, here’s how Vanderslice made it happen.
Interiors & Sources: Tell us a little bit about the project and its history.
Joni Vanderslice: It was very different for us. The farmhouses in particular held animals on the ground floor and people on the second floor originally, so literally we’re walking into where the animals lived with troughs and such. There were no interior staircases, obviously, and there was no connection between the bottom floor and the top floor.
The original family owners had made a number of decisions and had started the construction already, and they were very clear in explaining their concept with me when I first arrived: keep the living space as it was originally, but take the spaces that would not have been there and juxtapose those by doing them in a modern way, so it’s very clear this was old and this is new.
It was important for them that, for instance, these new stairwells look new and look modern, because they weren’t there before. Likewise, there would not have been bathrooms in these farmhouses, so we went in and did the sleekest, newest Italian and European fixtures and materials. They are some pretty spectacular bathrooms.
IS: Were there any particular challenges in assimilating to the Italian culture of design?
JV: There’s a true difference in what is “old” for us versus for them. The original castle began in the year 958, which means it is literally 1,000 years in the making. We walked into one room with painted ceilings, which we wanted to preserve, and they simply said, “You don’t want to preserve those; those are only 100 years old.” But for us, we couldn’t imagine not preserving them!
But that’s how they look at it: Very, very, very old is important, and in-between kind of isn’t. And of course the Italians are known for their contemporary design, so they have no problem mixing the two within these buildings.
IS: The process of determining what to preserve and what to remove is quite bureaucratic, correct?
JV: Yes, it is. The Belle Arti [a sub-division of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage] oversees and approves building materials and techniques that can be used. They’re very exact about how it should be done and how it shouldn’t be done, which was a learning experience for us. Any walls that touch the roof or anything outside has to be approved, so that the integrity of the building is preserved in their mind and their way of thinking.
The positive aspect of this approval process is that it maintains the integrity of the Tuscan landscape and preserves the way things were in the past.
IS: What is the approval process like?
JV: It’s variable and can be influenced by the political landscape, which at the time was an international news story. There were some slowdowns or partial stops everywhere in this area of Italy because of interpretations of the new people in power; and then, of course, with the economy and banking, just about every other project in the world stopped at that point for some degree of time. Fortunately we had Timbers Resorts’ architecture and design team interfacing with the Belle Arti and doing all the heavy lifting to get the approvals, and our work was supervised along the way.
IS: How did that affect your project? Obviously you managed to make it through that tough time when many projects around the world did not.
JV: It was tough because, financially, you shut down a project for everyone.
We would try to move forward as best we could, anticipating when they would stop. I’m sure a lot of people experienced this during the economic shutdown, but the political situation in Italy was certainly different than what I had seen in the U.S. It was very interesting to see the guys who were able to take the barbs, so to speak, so that they could just get it done. I have great admiration for Timbers Resorts for their perseverance and understanding of the culture and what it takes to complete a project like this. We learned to become very responsive to the cultural influences.
IS: Did you face similar bureaucratic challenges with the interiors of the buildings?
JV: We made all selections and all the specifications for the hotel, only to find out that our fabrics and furnishings all had to be Class 1 fire rated. Okay, so you say, “That’s not a surprise.” However, we found out every fabric had to be approved Italian Class 1—no other rating in the entire world would count. If you wanted to use a furniture company from France or England or the U.S., you had to upholster it and send it to a burn center, where they gave you a determination as to whether they would approve it or not.
We took all of our furnishings and fabrics, and realized if we did it the way we specified it and burned everything to approve it, we would burn $60,000 worth of fabrics and furniture, not knowing if we’d get an approval.
IS: Did you go through that process with everything or did you have to change some of the products?
JV: We re-selected everything. If you think about a very old building with antique rugs, how do you get a fire retardant coating on that? It was a whole new process, and to get the job done you had to take the time to build the right relationships. We ended up using almost all Italian products, a lot of authentic materials found on the estate and throughout the region, like terra-cotta tile, marble, travertine, Italian glass mosaics, and hand-plastered finishes.
IS: Did that change your design significantly?
JV: We were able to find comparable products, but there were certainly some key changes in the design. We also worked directly with some of the Italian manufacturers to show them what we were going to do from other manufacturers, in order to get them to understand the look and comfort level we wanted to achieve.
That was a learning process, because construction methods are quite different with upholstery. They don’t do a lot of down wraps, foam, or more of an English style. It’s just not their aesthetic. Even if you think of an Italian traditional sofa, it’s very straight; they don’t have the pitch. It’s almost wing chair-like sofas with lots of damask—a very stiff and formal aesthetic. I think we did at least nine cushions on our sofas for our guest room before approving.
IS: How has this experience affected your thinking in other work?
JV: Working there has changed my outlook on probably everything from a design standpoint. Italians are willing to take more risk, and if you’re around it enough it influences you, certainly. I think in hospitality, in particular, it’s taught me a lot about using color and really stepping out to have elements that are handmade by artisans. Whether it’s lighting, furniture, glass blowing in Murano, or linens on the beds, they will do all the details that you could ever dream of. Because they’re working with the product, you’re able to dial it in to get more of what you want.
IS: What advice do you have to share after going through this challenging process?
JV: The Italian artisans have family businesses that go from generation to generation, and oftentimes you’re working with grandfather, father, daughter, and son-in-law as you’re choosing everything. We’ve lost a lot of that in the U.S., and it really did bring us back to what a difference an artisan’s outlook can make.
You may not have a plethora of artisans on every job, but some of those details are really worth spending the time and effort for. Involve the opinions and the gifts of the artisans around you and incorporate those in the project. That’s huge.