Gilded Wellington villa
By day, Nicola Koptisch crunches numbers in a Wellington office, wedged between fluorescent lighting and standard issue industrial carpet. After hours, she dwells in Italy. At least, that’s what the accountant tells herself while ensconced in her own version of the grand, gilded northern Italian country villas that stole her heart as a young backpacker.
The Italophile has devoted substantial chunks of the last 18 years to meticulous reproduction. Layers of gold leaf and ornate mouldings, columns, Roman busts and plaster-framed copies of 18th century Venetian paintings have been added to her two-storey weatherboard house. No panelled wall, elaborately painted ceiling or glossy expanse of black granite flooring has escaped attention. And now she is satisfied.
“When I shut the door, I feel as though I’m living in an Italian villa,” says Nicola. “More so at night, when everything lights up and reflects on the granite floor. It’s like a sheet of glass, it’s totally black, so you get the reflection of all the ceiling on the floor.”
Villa Roma is also home to Nicola’s Austrian-born husband Norbert, who has latterly pitched in with paintbrushes and power tools. But the house – and much of its transformation – came long before the husband. A builder showed her how to mitre plaster framing and she has painted and decorated every wall in the house herself.
Nicola was already an old hand at renovation when she spotted a run-down building on The Terrace, in the capital’s city centre, in autumn 1994.
As a university student, she had made a hobby of trawling property listings and plaguing real estate agents to look inside old homes she might one day own. She also helped her antiques dealer mother redevelop a Thorndon property. So, when the villa came up for auction, she had no trouble seeing past its leaning foundations and cheaply constructed 1950s interior.
Once it had been repiled, Nicola installed new wiring and gas piping and employed a landscape architect to draft garden plans before heading to London to live. Each summer over the next 10 years, she would return to Wellington and take up the renovation reins, working alongside the tradesmen.
In between, as a welcome creative distraction from her accountancy work, Nicola began experimenting with gold leaf at her west London studio apartment. She pored over books, quizzed artists and picture framers and began gilding the rail above her bed, inspired by her fervour for the Italian Renaissance interiors seen on her travels.
“I saw trompe l’oeil paintings, a whole wall in a villa painted by an artist, amazing ceilings. I loved the art. It was the light, the colours and painting in a Roman, pre-Raphaelite style.”
As her confidence grew, gold and silver leaf began to engulf door frames, floor and ceiling mouldings, the bathroom, even the bed in her English home. “I spent something like £6000 just on the fireplace.” Inevitably, her obsession resurfaced in Wellington, where she hauled scaffolding and ladders into the house and spent hundreds of neck-bending hours applying tissue-thin layers of gold and silver leaf to ceilings, fireplace surrounds and furniture.
During one of these working holidays home, Nicola met Austrian-born food and beverage manager Norbert Koptisch. The brief trip to Wellington lengthened and eventually she sent for her belongings, moved back into Villa Roma with Norbert and launched into another concentrated round of renovations before the couple married in April 2011.
Since then, Nicola has continued to work around full-time contracts to finish her masterpiece.
“Some people buy fabric and furniture; I work from the ceiling down. I build the room around all the structural parts.
I concentrate on the ceiling and walls for the drama and the impact. A wall or ceiling can be as dramatic as a piece of art or a ceramic vase.”
So plaster florets have been added to ceilings and richly detailed mouldings to walls. Artist friend Mike Ting was called in to paint clouds on magnificently detailed ceilings upstairs and down. The guest room features a stormy sky that reminds Nicola of Wellington being lashed by southerly winds.
Antique furniture and fittings, gathered from English auction houses, antique fairs, salvage yards and London’s Bermondsey silver market, have been restored and reupholstered.
A pair of sphinxes, long stored in her mother’s garage, has been rescued, coated in gold and assigned the task of guarding the wine racks next to the kitchen.
The kitchen itself is deliberately tucked down a hallway, facing the terrace and loggia at the back of the house, away from the main living areas. “I don’t like open-plan,” says Nicola. “If you’re looking for Renaissance, you want to keep the experience going – that feeling of being transported. You don’t want to break it all up with a modern kitchen.
“This is an old home, with old fireplaces, old doors, old windows and high ceilings that give it that Renaissance baroque feel. You couldn’t get that feeling from a new house.”
Nicola relished the planning and preparation her project entailed and most of the physical slog and time spent sourcing materials. But she’s also relieved to have some free time on her hands. “I’m living in my dream house. Now we can enjoy it.”
Visit privatointeriors.com to see some of Nicola’s previous projects (she uses her maiden name, Nicola Wood, on her website).
For more images including web-exclusive images click on the "photo gallery" link above.
Story: Sue Hoffart
Photographs: Paul McCredie