Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Dreaming of the Greek Islands

Celebrating ‘An Island Sanctuary’, the exciting new Rizzoli book by designer John Stefanidis.

On the remote Greek island of Patmos, in the Aegean Sea, London designer John Stefanidis created an elegant and ebullient house that welcomes guests (and solitude) with lavish style and sublime grace. 

It reminds me of summers past spent drifting around the Greek islands, days of dreaming in the sun, and always taking respite from the brilliant heat and light inside cool, comforting rooms.

John Stefanidis on Patmos.

I recently received a first copy of ‘An Island Sanctuary’ by John Stefanidis and Susanna Moore. The beautiful new book details, with vivid photographs and lavish paintings, five decades of the Greek island house and gardens Stefanidis created for his own pleasure.

The book is published by Rizzoli, also my publisher.

It took just a glance or two at the book, and its photographs of the craggy island of Patmos floating in the calm blue Aegean. I was taken back to my own Greek island idylls and glorious months spent sailing among the Dodecanese and Cyclades islands. 

I adore Greece. 

I love the remote islands, silence at midday, the beaches without a soul, a boat rocking gently as it coasts along the rocky shore, Ulysses perhaps coming into view across the horizon. Or is it Achilles? 

I admire the Greek culture—always with layers and rich depths of culture, history, myths and legends. 

So it is with Patmos and John Stefanidis’s grand adventure with a house, starting in 1963 with a chance encounter.

Patmos Island in the Aegean Sea, with the monastery of St. John crowning the hilltop. John Stefanidis’s house and terrace garden are in the foreground.

In the parlor, a traditional island carved-wood sofa is upholstered with iconic blue and white cotton printed fabric, from the John Stefanidis textiles collection. The designer likes the informality of daybeds and sofas.

The red and blue tabouret-style table was designed by Stefanidis, and this versatile design appears in several guises throughout the house.

Several moons ago, as a student, I spent a summer in the Greek islands. We took a rackety ferry boat out of Piraeus, heading east past Siros and Tinos and rocky Kithnos, and stayed for a few weeks on hedonistic Mykonos, until eventually, after a wander to Paros and Naxos, we washed up on Patmos. 

It’s a graphic island, elemental, rocky, and seared by the sun. 

I can see the immediate appeal to Stefanidis. It’s authentic. Greek life continues there. He arrived in 1963 with his friend, the artist Teddy Millington-Drake. 

Patmos is a Rorschach inkblot of an island, really, a splatter of volcanic outcrops and rocky promontories. 

Stefanidis saw the authenticity and potential, the integrity of its white houses and zigzag lanes and fisherman cottages, and so few signs of today. 

Waves of Turkish conquests, Venetian traders, Italian and German soldiers, and flotsam and jetsam of the Byzantine world, have anchored here. Holidaymakers arrive in August, but this is not a disco island, even today. 

It’s crowned by the handsome, majestic stone monastery of St John the Theologian (Revelations: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, he transcribed.), which is still, millennia later, a living setting of grottos and chapels and a still-vibrant daily religious procession of services and worship. It sets a certain tenor for Greek life there.

Throughout the house, there are corners for solitary introspection and reading, desks for writing notes, and cool nooks for gathering for drinks after a day on the water. Elsewhere in the house there are dreamy white bedrooms with muslin-draped beds, sitting rooms with dramatic paintings by Millington-Drake, and a maze of rooms on several levels.

One of the Mediterranean Dodecanese islands, a hop and a skip from the Turkish coast, Patmos measures just 21 square miles, with a coastline of almost 40 miles. Even today it is hard to get to—requiring a flight from Athens to a nearby island, an unreliable ferryboat, a costly helicopter—and it’s not on the itinerary of the mega-cruise ships. 

It is this solitude and ‘off the track’ quality that appeals still to Stefanidis. Within a few months of the fateful first arrival, he and Teddy, a painter, had acquired a run-down house for one thousand pounds. It was built originally in the 17th-century, and had been mostly abandoned since the 1940s.

Stefanidis, with an international coterie of long time clients in posh places like St Moritz, Athens, Mustique, Gstaad, London, San Francisco’s Pacific Heights (a guest suite for Ann and Gordon Getty), and Paris, has created a house of great comfort and pleasure. 

Rather than go for a ‘Greek island’ house décor with all the clichés, he breathes in the crossroads history of the island, and decorates with Turkish rugs, Indian textiles, Venetian cabinets and glass, Anglo cabinets and beds, and swathes of hand-woven and embroidered textiles traditional to the Greek island. His antiques are quirky, his decorative silverware and glass the kind you might find at the flea market in Athens on Sunday mornings. In the back of my mind, I’m wondering how got everything up the narrow lanes to his house. There are few vehicles (forget a big truck) but doubtless Stefanidis knows a few strong men.

The parlor is comforted with custom-designed rugs, and a mix of Greek, English and Turkish antiques.

Grecian Formula
“What might be called Mediterranean style is a conceit given the numerous layers of civilizations and histories that contribute to it,” said John Stefanidis. “Mediterranean style to me means traditional clean white-washed walls, exterior and interior, as they reflect light and heat. I like cotton as it is fresher to the touch and cooler than wool or silk or velvet. Tile and marble are practical and they are soothing to bare feet in summer. 

“A bench or daybed is ideal for sitting, less ‘hot’ than a big sofa, and a bed draped in simplest white muslin filters the bright morning sun. My color scheme is composed of the colors of the sea and sky—bright blue of midday, coral of sunset, pale grey of dawn. Open rooms are full of the scent of the earth and the small of the not-too-distant sea.”

One of the many terraces of the property—this one a dovecote with a view.

It’s scorching hot on Patmos in midsummer, so Stefanidis surrounded the house with shaded terraces, as well as open patios for sunbathing and reading. Bruce Chatwin, nomad and permanent house guest on many a continent, was a notable visitor. 

It’s a tour de force of design, with each room exuding character, personality, bravado and harmony. It all feels lived-in, welcoming, cozy, and perfect for a weekend visit, a winter sojourn, a rollicking house party, or a month of two alone among the paintings and books.

I can’t wait to get back to Greece.

The library is a book-lovers dream, crammed with books on all walls. Indian dhurries in raspberry and pistachio were custom-made for Stefanidis in India.

This meandering and musing on the Greek islands gives me a great excuse to feature one of my favorite poems, by the great Greek poet, C.P. Cavafy.

'Ithaka' was read at the funeral of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.



As you set out for Ithaka

hope your road is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery,

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

angry Poseidon - don't be afraid of them:

you'll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

wild Poseidon - you won't encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.

May there be many summer mornings when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you enter harbors you're seeing for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind -

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you're destined for.

But don't hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you're old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you've gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.

Without her you wouldn't have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

(Translated from the Greek.)

‘An Island Sanctuary’ by John Stefanidis and Susanna Moore, published April 2010 by Rizzoli.

Principal photography by Fritz van der Schulenberg.


mermaid gallery said...

When I was a young girl of 19 I took a walkabout and came to stay on Crete. I lived in a cave in Matala for many months. Oh, the adventures......I, too, adore Greece....

Book Redux said...

I love this book. Each time I return to it the photos reveal another layer in the interiors. Stefanidis brings together so many multi-cultural elements, and yet the house remains essentially Greek.

vicki archer said...

I think I might be officially jealous Diane! This property is sublime and in such an idyllic location. I will be buying John Stefanidis' book at the first opportunity. Lovely post as always, xv.

Anonymous said...

Sad to say, we arrived on a cruise ship at Patmos and after a rather hurried and busy trip to the Grotto , it was all over !! What a shame we missed the good places.....

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Susan-
BRAVO to you for sleeping in a cave...no, living in a cave...on Crete for many months. I am intrepid traveler (have trekked the Annapurna Circuit with just one porter) but take my hat off to you.
Great good luck with your art!Dear Besotted Bibliophile! Yes, I agree, it is an especially engaging book. The writing--Moore-is very in-depth and varied and absorbing, full of history and lore and legend. Photos--taken no doubt over many many summers--are sublime.
Do stay in touch. I am a serious book collection and...besotted with books always.
Dear Vicki-I love your comment--and yes, can understand pangs about the Greek Islands. Ah...but you are in Provence. You could almost WALK to Greece...or swim to the islands. Yes, glorious days of saying 'Shall we head on to Kos today?" or 'which beach shall we go to today?" or 'shall we stay here another hour and then go and have a bite at the beach cafe?"...a bite meaning a glorious Greek salad or grilled fish or yoghurt and Greek wild honey. I can't wait to go back. Very best to you Vicki...la vie Provencale, indeed.
cheers, DIANE

Lila said...

I would love to get my hands on that book. It's amazing that they've captured that home in all of it's different styles from Turkey, Germany, Italy, etc. I would love to see it in person.
Lila Ferraro
Queen Bedroom Sets

Renée Finberg said...

yes. all is divine....
i can not get the chairs that are upholstered
with paintings out of my head.

i adored them.
i think i will have to try that.


72 and sunny said...

This makes me miss that trip to Greece I never ended up taking! thanks for a beautiful virtual vacation.

Unknown said...

Greek isle, Stefanidis, Cavafe, superb.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hi Lila-Yes, John Stefanidis, from a Greek family, was born in Egypt-and has lived in London for several decades. I think he well understands international design--and that all design around the Mediterranean is a mix of cultures.
Hi Renee-Yes, the chairs are chic, aren't they? They are now in his library in London. Bright idea.
He Megan-Yes...time to go to Greece. This is a good year to do it. If you travel to the more obscure regions (and avoid islands were the ultra-large cruise ships dock) you will have a lovely and authentic time. If not this year--definitely next summer. Bon Voyage--and see you on SRT!
Hi Gaj-Happy to hear from you. Yes, Cavafy is a wonderful poet (he, like John Stefanidis, was from a Greek family and born in Alexandria, interestting...)...I highly recomment reading his poetry--thought 'Ithaka' is absolutely my favorite.
Cheers to all, DIANE

Anonymous said...

Yes, beautiful! I even long for the rackety ferry you mention, tho it sure was hell to travel on at the time.

Beautiful place and feelings, beautifully described!
Best Wishes

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...


You paint word poems like no one else...so lush and evocative that they don't even need accompanying visuals. I haven't been to Greece (How can I NOT have been to Greece after reading this?!) and am swooning over your descriptions. I, too, am loving the needlepointed(?) chairs, especially as set against the colorful wall of books. And the poem is such a rare thing of beauty that I think I need to memorize it, a la the last scene in "Fahrenheit 451", where everyone committed their favorite novel/poem to heart and introduced themselves as "I'm David Copperfield", "I'm The Wasteland", "I'm Brideshead Revisited." We are ALL Ithaka, aren't we? xx

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hi Lisa-

...Yes, you would love the needlepoint! They are paintings by Teddy Millington-Drake (who first went to Patmos with Stefanidis in the 60s...and died about ten years go). These precious chairs are now in his library in London...what memories.
'Ithaka'...I've known this poem for years, and then was reminded of it when I read, in the New York Times, that it was read at the funeral of Jackie Onassis by her long-time companion, Maurice Templesman. How touching and romantic and meaningful.
I would wish everyone:
'May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you're seeing for the first time'

This is the reason--to see the world 'for the first time (very D. T. Suzuki).
You and the boys would adore Greeks (well, it is almost Italy and Greeks and Italians say 'una faccia, una raccia' (well, they pronounce it, 'una facha, una racha'...one fact, one race'...akin.

You do have to travel to the more remote parts now...remote islands.
You are at the center of the world, in a sense, where it all began.
Homer and Achilles and Artemis and Ulysses are swirling around. The statues of gods you see in the Louvre...were made here.

Thanks for your charming post. Yes, we are all 'Ithaka' and we should all memorize the poem...and others.
I will send you some more...
cheers...Counting down the days to your fabulous show. So exciting.


I stayed for a year happily barefoot in Mykonos! If my father had not demanded I return state side I might still be there! Do you remember the fragrant smells of the island, the sound of the cicadas in the lazy, hot afternoons spent cooling off in those lovely waters? Living life - it was magical with not a care in the world...Youth was not wasted on me!! Thanks for taking me back there for a moment.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hi Nancy-

Congratulations on your recent publication of your design work. Bravo, it is most charming.

Greek Islands: well, yes, waking up in the morning to bright Greek sunshine. Do we take a private boat to a remote beach--or do we decamp and catch the ferry to Ios or Kalymnos or Patmos or Paros..or do we relax on the terrace and have fresh bread and Greek honey and yoghurt (the best)...and then decide. Swimming: you can see your pedicure, indeed, and little fish darting.
We always loved the more remote islands that were not really set up for cruise ships or tourists at all...or remote villages and beaches with a lovely house to rent, an impromptu cafe on the beach, Greek island life continuing, authentic, lovely friendly people.
Then we would go on to another remote island, Kythera...or further north to the Ionic Islands. Such exploration.
Yes, you can go back...and it is different now. That is wonderful--see it through new eyes.
cheers and bon voyage...DIANE

Anonymous said...

Ahhhh, Greece, where an octopus attached itself to my leg in shallow water, I have not gone back, but will buy the book. Kindly look at my illustration giveaway at... http://www.davidmcgrieveyillustration.com/
Excuse the shameless plug.

Christina @ Fashion's Most Wanted said...

Dear Diane, your blog is beautiful, I'm very glad to have found you. Wonderful post, it makes me want to go on holiday NOW! xx

A Super Dilettante said...

Dear Diane, you just made my day with this post! I must now rush out and buy this book immediately and it makes me want to go there at once. John Stefanidis has been my long admired interior designer (he's featured on my proud wall on my blog) and he is also a man of taste, a true Patrician as far as cultured man is concerned. When he speaks with his elegantly refined voice on Radio 3 Request, I was very much fascinated by the man and his interest. His speech mannerism is quite impeccable. His voice is quite theatrical...it's rich...like the way he decorates his beautiful houses. It's so nice to hear someone who is very well spoken in the time when good standard spoken English is becoming a rarity.