Italy of My Dreams

Matthew White

Interior designer and author Matthew White, who co-founded the New York design firm White Webb, has a new book out. The expressive title, Italy of My Dreams, hints at the beauty contained in the book, both in terms of imagery and of the prose White so beautifully composed. Here’s a taste of his choices for the dreamiest locations in one of the most heavenly countries on earth! In his own words: In these pages, I share how I was seduced by Italy, and how that seduction affects the style in which I live (case in point: though each of the homes featured here could be nestled into the Italian countryside, each one is on American soil). Just as the grand tour so deeply affected travelers three hundred years ago, Italy continues to move and inspire me. So this is my “grand tour” of sorts, a tour of my Italian-inspired homes, past and present. Each one of these houses, whether situated in town or country, East Coast or West, link three essential elements: love of domesticity, love of beauty, and love of Italy. There’s an old Tuscan proverb that says “Man makes the place, and the place makes the man.” From my earliest days at the trailer park I have pursued one thing—beauty. I may have found it in Italy, but I made it at home.

Matthew’s living room in the country is filled with Italian art and antiques, while the room itself was inspired by Palladian architecture.

Matthew’s First Trip to Venice: It was from a train that late September evening when we first laid eyes on Venice. Night was falling, and our view through the window as we crossed the lagoon made the city appear as a sleeping giant lying thin and elegant on the water. I knew I would love Venice long before we had even begun to plan the trip, long before I arrived there. Venice represented to me a city from a different realm. A place not really of this world. How else could one explain a city of stone palaces built on water? Matthew’s take on the influence of the Tuscan villa on American design: Il Poggio and various other great Tuscan houses would inspire architects, artists and writers for centuries. Edith Wharton wrote the book Italian Villas and their Gardens as a way to share her enthusiasm for these romantic places. Bernard Berenson, the famous art historian who specialized in the Renaissance, lived in a charming villa in Fiesole, just outside of Florence. These nineteenth and early twentieth-century American tastemakers understood the architectural importance of the Italian country house and were in part responsible for bringing that understanding to a larger audience in the modern age.

Villa delle Favole was a house Matthew restored in California. Its old garden, like its architecture, was inspired by the Italian Renaissance.

How Thomas Jefferson was inspired by Italian architecture: Monticello was unique in eighteenth-century America in that it looked back to the great buildings of Palladio and ancient Rome yet seemed very contemporary. And because of Jefferson’s ingenuity, the house incorporated some original and very American ideas. The concept of referring to the romance of European history while living in the present and casting an eye toward the future is a completely American trait. Italian influences in the work of McKim, Mead & White, and how that spirit continues: Charles McKim said…”As Rome went to Greece, and later France, Spain and other countries had gone to Rome for their own reactions to the splendid standards of Classic and Renaissance Art, so must we become students, and delve, bring back, and adapt to conditions here, a groundwork on which to build.” More than a century later, I was inspired to follow a similar path. By taking inspiration from the past — ancient Rome, Renaissance Italy, and Stanford White’s New York — I created a place for living in the twenty-first century. The result is a home steeped in two millennia of Italian history yet created by, and for, Americans.

This library holds ideas that are both Italian and American.

Venice’s admiration of styles from the East: No city in the world is a more alluring melting pot of Eastern and Western styles than Venice. Every arched window and each glittering façade stands as glamorous testament to the admiration Venetians had for the art and architecture of the Eastern Mediterranean. And yet each architectural element shows how Venice took that style and made it uniquely its own.

  • Andie Day

    Peel away the layers of a fabulous design project and your sure to find a catalyst of some sort. Inspiration can be gleaned in many ways and often a designer’s (or client’s) aesthetic is changed through travel to regions and immersion in new cultures. You quote the old Tuscan proverb: “Man makes the place, and the place makes the man or woman)” and I agree. Thanks for sharing a great story and informing readers that architects and designers bring education, invaluable experience and immeasurable value to their home — trying to achieve this as a DIY can be daunting at best!

  • Saxon Henry

    I have a feeling you find a great deal of inspiration as you travel, Andie. Is that true? I know I feel I’ve grown greatly in the past year as I’ve traveled to Italy and France. There’s just something about soaking in other cultures that makes a difference. I would suspect the DIY gets even trickier when it’s someone who hasn’t traveled at all. If anyone can make a difference, it’s you!

  • Matthew White

    Thanks for your informed comments Andie! We can learn so much from architects and designers of the past, and yes, travel is an important part of seeking inspirations. Anytime we get away from what we know, we learn more. That’s a good thing!

  • Veronika Miller

    Beautifully balanced story Saxon. Matthew’s quote about Venice and his designs share the same poetic quality. Well done. As far as travel, not just for inspiration but as it adds to us as human beings, each country or culture adds another layer that will remain part of us. Designs become more complex and stories more vibrant. Keep traveling!

  • Saxon Henry

    Thanks, Veronika! I agree. I feel I’ve had a deficit of travel in my life and I’m now trying to make up for lost time. I was intrigued that you’ve had such a nice diversity of places in your past. My first trip to Italy last year and to Paris earlier this year seemed like water in the desert to me, and I can’t wait to see the other destinations on my long wish list! Thanks for stopping in. I love your site, by the way. Took a look at it yesterday. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you get the word out!

  • JoceH

    There is much about this post that is evocative – but for me – the image from outside the library looking in is perhaps the single most evocative image I have seen for quite some time. It has both a contemporary feel (the glass) and a slightly weathered look (the library), which is exactly what libraries should be – weathered and warm and inviting. If you could plug (or photoshop) a picture of me in there – I would have my face pressed up against the glass – trying to read the titles of the books and hoping to be invited in to have a glass of port. Beautiful.

  • Saxon Henry

    You are too adorable for words, Jocelyn! I know exactly what you mean! I’d be right there with you, a circle of mist forming on the pretty glass (much to the dismay of the owners)! Can’t you just smell the pungent leather and slightly musty paper?