On the tiny Greek island of Kastellorizo, there is a three-storey house, more or less like any other overlooking the picturesque port. The neoclassical façade, painted rosy pink, is traditional. Behind it, though, is another story. Inside is a vast two-bedroom space. Walls, furniture, benchtops and cabinets – all are rendered in chunky shapes and surfaces, and painted bright white. Storage cubbies appear carved into walls like organic rock formations. Glass basins are fitted into wonky bases whose shapes evoke primitive sculpture. An “invisible” stair ascends a wall in slabs, like blocks of wax. The aggregate is strange and disconcerting and beautiful. But what’s most singular about the interiors of The Pink House, as it’s known, is that they are almost entirely made of trash.
To be specific, they are made mostly of discarded styrofoam, found in the streets of Athens by the Greek designer Savvas Laz. Laz shapes and glues the various pieces together, then binds them in fibreglass. He calls these pieces and interior elements Trashformers. They, like The Pink House itself, are more than just a provocative design project: they are an attempt to propose entirely new and sustainable ways of making and building that challenge perceptions both of what’s useful and what’s beautiful. And they’re all part of a greater, island-wide project to remake Kastellorizo’s built environment as a destination for culture and art that starts conversations about both.
The project is the brainchild of Italian collector and patron Nicoletta Fiorucci, who is known for planting contemporary art and ideas within the landscape of diverse islands around Europe to provocative and experimental effect. She spends summers hosting young artists on the Li Galli archipelago off the Amalfi Coast; her Fiorucci Art Trust hosts the annual, artist-led Volcano Extravaganza on Stromboli.
When she first visited Kastellorizo, a tiny dot in Greece’s Dodecanese, over 30 years ago, it didn’t immediately speak to her. Once a wealthy, thriving port – at the turn of the 20th century, still under Ottoman rule, it had a population of more than 10,000 – its maritime economy crashed when steamboats became the chosen mode of sea transport. Bombed by the Germans during the second world war, at one point it became completely depopulated. When Fiorucci arrived in the ’90s, there were a few hundred people living there for at least half the year; dozens of houses had been repaired and renovated, and many descendants of the island’s emigrants, who had ended up in Australia, were returning to purchase second homes.
But Kastellorizo was still a wounded landscape, dotted with abandoned ruins and dilapidated buildings. “On other islands, I was happy to watch the sunset over the sea,” Fiorucci says, “but on Kastellorizo I felt almost from the beginning that it really needed my engagement and energy.” The more she learned, the more captivated she became.
In the years since, she has purchased various ruins and plots of land and helped support the renovation of the island’s public and historic spaces. She’s simultaneously gathered an impassioned group around her, as committed as she is to the island’s cultural growth. In 2014 she met the Greek architect Fotini Chalvantzi, then restoring the island’s Monastery of St George of the Mountain; Chalvantzi had spent years researching a thesis that examined all Kastellorizo’s remaining historic buildings. Having someone so trusted by the local community as an adviser and an ally was important. “As an Italian in Greece, I’m sensitive to Italy’s historical impact – both positive and negative – on the island,” says Fiorucci. “I have no interest in coming in here as some kind of colonial force. I want to add a positive layer.”
She has also taken advice from Sylvia Kouvali, the respected contemporary-art dealer behind the Rodeo galleries in London and Piraeus. It was through Kouvali that she was introduced to the Transformers project: Fiorucci was drawn to a large green chair by Laz on a visit to Kouvali’s Ampersand design agency in Athens.
“I immediately understood his language,” recalls Fiorucci. Even though she didn’t know exactly how the chair was made, she gelled with the 36-year-old artist’s ethos and the idea of creating something out of other people’s waste (something Laz had absorbed as a student of Dutch artist Joep van Lieshout, a pioneer in working with styrofoam). What if, Fiorucci wondered, he could develop something beyond furniture. “If Savvas could create a chair, he could design an entire house.”
The results of that first dialogue became the Trashformers Gesamtkunstwerk that is The Pink House. Purchased in 2016, the 150sq m space also has a living area and kitchen, which extends outside to a terrace and rock garden. As a canvas for Laz’s Trashformers, it is the perfect space.
Although almost all of the furniture was produced in Laz’s atelier in Athens, the designer finished and installed everything on site over a period of four months in the spring and summer of this year. The Trashformers pieces aren’t the only recycled ones. Broken taverna seats that Laz and others rescued from dump sites in Athens have been reassembled, embellished with decorative sculptural elements of styrofoam and painted white. The floor is a mosaic of black-and-white stripes, created via a traditional technique of laying smooth stones, one flush against the other (a dynamic visual anchor, since every piece of furniture and surface in the house is painted bright white). All the doors and wood elements are reclaimed or recycled.
The entire top floor is a light-filled master bedroom, with a large Trashformers bed complete with abstract headboard in its centre and several smaller pieces: an asymmetrical sideboard with a watery green-hued mirrored surface and a bench-like chaise longue. Here Laz had fun, installing a swing in front of a large window overlooking the harbour as well as a bedside lamp – a combination of fibreglass, styrofoam, mirror and cast metal – in the abstracted shape of a sea turtle (“My ode to the turtles that swim in the port”).
No space, from the bedrooms to the storage room, would be out of place aboard Discovery One from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Still, the unique variety of asymmetrical shapes, and the fact that Laz dictated there be no straight lines in the house, impart a sense of something strongly handcrafted and human – as familiar as a Greek Ionic column in the Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis.
When Fiorucci toured the house after it was completed, she was both delighted and inspired. “When you walk through you never once think, ‘This is built of trash.’ The space is stunning, harmonious – so much so it makes you realise how successfully waste can be transformed into objects and spaces of beauty. That is the message.”
She hopes the project ends up being “a prototype that can be scaled in a bigger way and inspire real change”. Her plans on Kastellorizo reflect this intention: together with her team of advisers and collaborators, Fiorucci is inviting designers to experiment inside other houses she has acquired and restored, to transform used materials and establish new ideas of sustainable design. The designer Michael Anastassiades is already at work, collaborating with Studio Mumbai on the reinvention of a historic church garden. The renovation of a cultural centre that will host educational and cultural programming is being funded by the the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. And not far from The Pink House is the family home of the legendary feminist American artist Lynda Benglis, who locals hope to involve with the cultural centre’s projects when she is in residence.
Laz, too, says he hopes to spark dialogue; both on the island and beyond. He also believes Kastellorizo could become a sort of next-generation Hydra – a fashionable nexus of artists and contemporary-art happenings. But one, Fiorucci adds, that looks to past and future, and finds a balance that is light on the land, even as it captivates us one house at a time.