The Italian Tiny House Project

The 2 rooms in this tiny house are full of unbelievable ambience, even with the old wall paper and curtains. 

The 2 rooms in this tiny house are full of unbelievable ambience, even with the old wall paper and curtains. 

Last summer, when we were least needing or wanting a project (we were up to our necks building a one-of-a-kind online business to sell Piemontese wine throughout Germany and the rest of Europe), we came across something that caught our attention and wouldn't let us go.  

My friend Annika from Sweden posted on an Italian renovation facebook page that she was starting to think about finding an apartment or other property in Italy that she and her family could use as a vacation spot and possibly retirement residence in the distant future.  It needed to be very affordable, it could require cosmetic work and should be exactly where she wanted to be. As happens on those kinds of open calls, the entire community chimed in with ideas and opinions.  I started scouring  the sites I knew for properties she might like.  I didn't find anything for her.  But, as destiny would have it, I found one that interested us. 

That particular property ended up getting sold almost before I could write an email requesting information.  But as I was letting go of the idea, another property popped up; it was half the price of the one I had seen previously, was closer to the area we have come to love, and had a smaller garden (an advantage to us as there is little gardening work to do).  It had about 48 square meters, or about 516 square feet, of living space and about 35 square meters of cellar space.  It was located just on the edge of the Langhe Barolo village of Novello, and enjoyed views both vineyards and the Alps.  It's located in a borgata of about 12 houses, full of life, kids, animals and friendly people. Yes, there's a connector street in the distance too, but that was a small compromise we were willing to make; we've since discovered that small, very well priced properties like this never stay on the market for long as they are quickly snapped up by locals who know the owners. 

The living space is upstairs, and the cellar opens up to a terrace which leads down to a small lower garden.  It's attached to other houses on both sides. 

The living space is upstairs, and the cellar opens up to a terrace which leads down to a small lower garden.  It's attached to other houses on both sides. 

Up to this point we had kept a long term rental in Piemonte.  After selling our B&B and moving to Germany, our plan was to start the wine business, requiring us to be in Piemonte for long stretches of time.  The rent is super fair and the apartment has been very good for our needs, but we  both want Piemonte to be a permanent part of our lives. We loved the idea of having a small  bolthole of our own that we could design to our own specifications -something that could be bought and renovated for a modest budget.  We don't do vacations in a traditional sense.  We go home to Italy.  That's what we love to do.  

Neither of us were compelled to do a large renovation project in Italy.  We'd had a 6 phase monster of a project under our belts and it had been an exhausting, frustrating process.  But we also felt that we could take on something small, and try to use all of our experience to extract the best ideas with the least amount of money possible, creating a minimalist space that would be functional, cool, and welcoming.  We knew, even though it's a small house, that this would be a challenge.  Italian builders and geometre (the surveyor that helps you get your plans through the city) almost always have an extremely conservative viewpoint of what materials should be used, and also assume that foreigners have deep pockets.  So, with that in mind, we were prepared to stand our ground during the design process. 

Here's the original floor plan.  You enter from the car park (driveway) into the living room (soggiorno).  The shower is located outside on the balcony (wc).  You can see the exterior staircase that leads from the driveway to the basement.  This is staying.  We thought about bringing it inside, but the costs were too high and the compromise on interior space too great. 

And this is the basic redesign plan that we'll apply for: 

 

We're removing the wall between two of the rooms to create a long space - it will most likely require an iron support beam which will be left exposed. This space will be about 9 meters long and about 3 meters at its widest.  This will be an open plan kitchen, dining, and living space with a wood burning stove as a heat source.  It opens onto the back balcony.  The bathroom has been moved and will contain a 70x 100 cm shower, sink and toilet.  The bedroom also opens onto the balcony.  The headboard will double as end tables, with a shelf and lighting.   The floors will all be simple concrete that we'll either acid wash and polish or paint with Carte Colori floor paint. This was a tough sell with the geometra and he's still not really buying it.  The existing ceramic tiles will come up and a reinforced concrete screed will be poured.  This would need to be done even if we were putting wood or tiles down.  The concrete will be compressed with a concrete compressor and then treated. 

For wall color, I will be mixing my own natural lime wash with pigments.  I hope to get the advice of my friend and natural color artist  Alison Faith Kay in the process.  Alison's work is amazing.  We've known each other for years, and watching what she's doing now in terms of living life on her own creative terms is so inspiring.  

We opted against an expensive central heating system, much to the consternation of our geometra.  The space is small and can easily be heated with the wood burning stove.  We're going to be there a few weeks in winter only, so why do more than is necessary to be comfortable and have a great atmosphere? We'll have a very small water boiler for the hot water, enough for a couple of showers and service to the bathroom and kitchen.  More is simply not necessary.

The far wall of the kitchen is planned with white subway tiles up to the ceiling.  My neighbor here in Germany is a blacksmith and is helping me make thick wood slab shelves with iron shelf brackets for that back wall, which will be spot lit - I plan to make a set of natural wood ashed glaze plates, bowls and cups specifically for this house.  This will be showcased on the natural wood shelves. 

Our plan is to be in the space by August.  The cellar space, which we had originally planned to renovate with the house, will remain untouched.  We've had several ideas for the cellar space.  I think, in the end, it will be a wine cellar and art studio.  Turning it into official living space would have been costly.  The ceiling highs downstairs are 260 cm, and Italian building regs require 270 ceilings on renovations.  That would have meant digging out the cellar and repouring the floors 10 cm lower, lowering doors, windows, etc.  In addition, there would have been a 5% change of use tax on the renovation costs. We simply lost interest when we carefully looked at why we are doing this project.  It's to provide us with joy, not headaches and anxiety.  We are putting in a tube to be able to install a wood burning stove at the lower level.  Next year, we might have the builder just put down some rebar and a cement screed to level off the floors.  But the rest of the downstairs we will do ourselves over time.  What's the rush, really?  

This whole project is a bit of an experiment in letting go of things that do not serve.  I have been fascinated by small spaces for years, ever since making Tammy Stroebel's acquaintence on the internet back in 2009.  I would like this house to be of good design, and the lessons drawn to be of living large through going small.  

So this is a bit of a spiritual journey, this little house, quite an unexpected one.  I am finding myself very excited at what is to come, about doing art work there and seeing what results.  

Here's a short video of how the front and interior look right now.  I'll keep filming through the renovation and completion - the good and the bad :)  I like to say the Tiny House is all Annika's fault!  I will make her pay by coming and sharing a bottle of wine with us when it's all finished! 

 

 

From the Ashes

It had been a long time since I had spent quality time in my studio.  For the last year I'd been focusing my energy on our wine business in Germany, creating the website and marketing, and it left little time for ceramics. 

But I came back to it with a renewed sense of creativity and commitment to design, experimentation and sustainability.   I've decided to continue my exploration of natural and contrasting surfaces using soft colors.  

More than anything, I want to produce pieces with depth.  With purpose.  Functional but also full of soul.  Years of experience have taught me there are absolutely no shortcuts to this process.  To produce work of quality means going through many phases of learning and self-discovery.  The most enlightening part of this process for me is what every artist eventually learns:  to produce a certain simplicity, you have to know what you're doing.  You have to know what works.  

For me there have been a lot of misfires, stop and go periods, and difficulties along the way.  They still happen. But I have the sense that I am coming into my most meaningful work in the pottery studio.  

The longer I work at this, the more I want to produce works that have a natural quality.  I don't want to produce art in the pottery studio.  I want to produce functional pieces that have an artistic or creative bend.  Most important, I want to use as many non toxic materials as I can in the production of pots.  The one glaze that I love the most is a glaze made from wood ash.  High fired, absolutely pure, it is composed of only four ingredients:  feldspar stone, chalk, talcum and wood ash from my wood burning stove.  

Those four ingredients, mixed together at appropriate proportions and fired over 12 hours at 1240 degrees centigrade produce a beautiful glaze.

It can be gently colored, as it is in the photo above, with just a touch of cobalt.

There are no colorants in this glaze in the photos below.  Its honey colored and shading comes from the glaze ingredients. It's lush - and when it's applied thickly it looks like honey.  Where it's thinner it looks like milk.  

It seems like such a simple thing, to create a simple glaze.  But so many years of experience go into making one, and then making sure you're using the right clay to put it on, and to make sure you are firing it correctly.  

So I am busy in my studio designing new pots using this glaze.  Because I love its effect and gentleness. And because we produce a lot of ash as we heat with wood all winter.  So I can use the ashes to make beautiful vessels.  These pots are dishwasher and oven safe.  Which is kind of incredible, I think.  It has to do with the fact that they are stoneware, and fired at such a high temperature. 

i'd love your opinions on this natural way of creating durable pottery. 

Spinning

There are these days when things feel as though they are spinning out of control.  Lately, I have been feeling quite Pavlovian concerning the news coming out of America.  It's that irrational feeling of knowing there's very little I can do from this distance while at the same time wanting to know every detail of what is happening.  It's frustrating and energy draining. 

In all the years I have been in Europe, I have never felt as I do now concerning what is happening in my home country.  Being American has always carried with it a certain credibility.  We're viewed as foreigners but not all "that" foreign.  Americans are made to feel welcome in Europe.  Memory goes back a long way, especially here in Germany, where American soldiers (such as my father) and American money gave the country back its honor after it had singlehandedly tried to destroy humanity.  

There was the unbelievable outpouring of sympathy and empathy after 911.  I was in Copenhagen with my visiting sister when the planes hit the buildings.  We were surrounded by warmth and kindness on Danish streets. I will never forget, a week later,  standing in the Hamburg City Hall Square and hearing America The Beautiful being played by trumpeteers from the windows of City Hall to a crowd of over 20,000.  I will never forget my neighbors leaving flowers by my door, or the black-banded American flag that was hung in our apartment building's atrium window.  

As if to say, "Be gentle.  An American lives here."

Things changed with the war in Iraq and the bogus WMD debacle.  Americans abroad felt the icy winds from the decisions our country was making, so out of step with the rest of the free world.  American expats are always the country's first line of street diplomacy.  I personally spent a lot of time trying to explain a policy I completely disagreed with, until I finally stopped, and simply shrugged.  

But there has been nothing to prepare me for what's happening now.  The floor feels like it's cracking.  Reality has shifted. Up is down. The country I know and love has been hijacked by an evil, cowardly force that insists running it into a wall and destroying all that is good about it is the only way to go.  

I no longer shrug.  I have a voice.  I will speak out against what I see as The American Travesty.  And I will speak about it to every single person who will listen.  

And I will do that out of patriotism. 

I don't know any American expats who are not patriotic. But when the patriotism at home starts looking like propaganda that's starved of any common sense, it no longer is defensible and no longer something that I can abide.   I personally have been able to see this divide and have watched it with growing alarm for years.  From a distance, America's relationship with itself and the world has felt tenuous for years.

To love a country and watch forces within that country shatter all that is good without the awareness of what is truly being sacrificed (its soul), and to do that from a distance has been horrifying.  

I have worried and lost a great deal of sleep as this spiral has continued. My family. My friends. What will happen?  Health insurance?  Safety?  Violence?  Hatred on the streets? My niece is a teacher in a public high school in a fairly rural area.  I can't even focus too much on that or I'd never really sleep.

And now, the persecution of immigrants and US residents?  

But I also know there is nothing I can do except be present in my own life and be as loving and kind and respectful as I can.  That is what I believe a good American expat must do right now:  represent the good things that America has always stood for, and to let the rest go.  I can volunteer to help some of the 1.5 million Syrian immigrants my resident country has taken in (I am so proud of Germany for the grand size of its heart and the example it is setting for the rest of the free world - including America).

More I can really not do. 

Except state my opinion.  I will do that.  

And resist.  I will most certainly do that.  

I spent Sunday contemplating all of this in my pottery studio.  I decided today would be a day of repetitive practice.  Bowl after bowl.  I need to center. 

My country is spinning. 

I am spinning. 

May all be well. 

 

 

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this time now

the soft time

when beauty is etched into naked branches and and breath you can see

the gentle time

when grass crunches with a sound that ends abruptly

the cozy time

when flannel pygama bottoms and hooded sweatshirts dominate the fashion landscape

the pure time

when a white coat hushes the world into gentle acceptance 

the reflective time

when the necessities of life are reduced to a cup of tea and a lit candle and a journal

the precious time

as are all the days

always.  

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The Irony of Chaos

I have a confession to make.  I'm disorganized.  

I work hard at hiding my chaos from the viewing public.  It's there to see, of course -  the haphazard receipts in my purse, the lack of coherency in my closet, the socks (and more) under the bed.  Even as I have tried to reduce and simplify to get a handle on the disorder,  I admit none of it comes naturally.

I cannot tell you how it was to own and operate a five star B&B and keep this part of me squirreled away indefinitely from the viewing public.  It's one thing to start each working day at point zero and bring everything to a high standard.  It's an entirely different thing to start at point minus twenty and do the same thing.  It ate up a lot of my life force to do that.  More than I care to think about. 

I am not going to sit here and say I didn't enjoy it.  I enjoyed a great deal of it.  But I spent too much time fussing about all the things that were not, in my mind's eye, perfect. To complicate things, the property was 400 years old.  If there's something that's never going to be perfect, it's a 400 year old stone house.

I have often considered the irony of that. 

Why people really came to our B&B.   

Why people really came to our B&B.   

I missed, in those days, the big glaring elephant in the room.  And the elephant knew this:  People were not coming to our B&B for perfection.  They were coming there because of us, our story, and what we had created.  And the warm, inviting atmosphere came, in large part, from my sense of chaos and willingness to throw things together in such a way that they felt comfortable but not planned. They were coming for the creative energy on our little hill in the wine country. 

The part of me that shames me was actually responsible for creating the very thing people loved.  It wasn't perfection they were looking for after all; it was rather the magic that came from whirling creativity that expresses itself on occasion as a hot mess.

 Now, all these years later, I consider the ultimate irony in that and feel grateful for it.

I learned from this.  Changing my basic nature is not going to happen. And I find that I no longer want to. I am accepting that there is only so much order I can demand of myself without being self-destructive. And while I'm pretty sure I'll never completely get away from the small voice demanding some kind of unattainable perfection, I will learn to hush her as I choose my paints and clay and messy sock draw over the dust rag and Swiffer one more time.