Décor and decorum

Lawyer-turned-interior-decorator Michele Tufigno believes beauty will truly save the world as he chronicles his dramatic career change and the path to his passion for doing up properties.

One day, three years ago, Michele Tufigno decided to ditch his nine-year legal career and embark on a drastically different and more creative line of work, moving from lawyer to interior decorator almost overnight.

“My mother asked me what was wrong. I could either lie to her and say I was just tired, or I could tell her the truth… I told her law was not my passion.

“I then informed my father, whose law firm I worked for, and the very next day, I handed in my notice.”

Tufigno has never looked back since…

Today, he is in the place where he belongs, perched comfortably on the plush and vibrant velvet armchairs he chose for the members-only Casino Maltese, whose refurbishment he has been entrusted with.

Photos: Chris Sant Fournier

The mega job of reviving the iconic Valletta club was only his second commission – a baptism of fire of as he strode into his new and self-styled role.

In truth, the promising lawyer, specialised in data protection and transport, had long been pondering the move and it came as no surprise to those who know him well and whose only question was what took him so long.

Even his lawyer father, in whose footsteps he was following, was happy for him to veer off course.

“I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do instead;” Tufigno admits of his unrest at the time.

“I knew it would be creative and related to beauty,” he says about having held back from taking the plunge, while conceding the leap was not totally by default but somewhat by design.

“Then someone told me he was a creative consultant, and when I asked what that meant, he explained that he edited books, curated exhibitions and did interiors.

“That was just what I wanted to do,” he says about the moment he found his career path and job description.

Tufigno had been dabbling in the above and was constantly surrounded by artists, so it was no alien world to him. Indeed, it was his rightful home.

From that moment, he says he felt “completely liberated”; that he had found himself and freed himself from the “prison of my profession”.

And it did not take the accidental decorator long to carve out his niche. Within a month of working his notice, winding down, throwing in a Cher ‘live in concert’ for good measure and drumming up enthusiasm to get going, he took on his first job.

AP Valletta executive director, architect Konrad Buhagiar, asked him to do up the outdoor space of a Sliema flat – an endorsement and show of confidence if ever there was one.

The brief was to make the terrace “feel like Rome”. And the rest is history…

Three years later, Tufigno has countless jobs under his belt, from historic homes to Gozo getaways, old and new, and the icing on the cake – the grand but tired Casino Maltese, which he has started working on bit by bit.

“I fell in love with this place at the age of nine, when I used to come here with my father.

“So, this is big for someone who has just stepped into the role and a huge show of confidence from the management too,” he acknowledges. “It has always been my dream to do it up.”

Now, the hands-on Tufigno can be found hanging off a ladder, excitedly assisting the electrician in fixing new light fittings over the internal courtyard… before he slips into a navy linen kimono-style suit and matching suede loafers, and merges into the tones and textures of the newly refurbished President’s room.

The courtroom just down the road seems a distant world and a far cry from what could tickle Tufigno’s fancy as he talks feverishly about the space, energised at having unearthed the original sage green wallpaper of one of its vast halls and trying to get the identified Italian company to replicate it.

In fact, his trademark approach to interior decoration would be literally peeling off the layers from a wall with a surgical blade to reveal its past, says the “researcher by nature”.

“I like to determine the original colour of the room and then take the decision with the client whether to go back to it or flip it.”

But back to the job at hand, Tufigno does not mince his words. Despite his “love affair” with the Casino Maltese, it felt like an “Edwardian mausoleum”.

There is no question about the starting point, but neither does he have doubts about the outcome.

“Now, it will feel alive, more welcoming, comfortable and pleasant to spend time in,” he says about his conversion mission.

There will be more sofas, fewer chairs; no Rexine and more velvet; different colours and fabrics, he lists as he admires a sea of stacked and dust-collecting seats in the closed bar.

They are robust Art Deco replicas from the 1980s that he proudly got hold of from a Bugibba hotel through Marketplace and that march the originals too.

As Tufigno sashays through the halls that have yet to undergo his touch, he explains that this is based on an understanding of old buildings; essentially, knowing what they should look and feel like.

Destroyed by the war and rebuilt in 1953, with refurbishments in the 1970s and 1980s, the Casino Maltese on Republic Street is Valletta’s prime property, with corner views on St George’s Square and Piazza Regina.

But it is due for a facelift. And the intervention, which started with the virtually empty 150-square-metre President’s room, has grown to encompass the whole property, says Tufigno as he plumps up the cushions, reorganises their blushing colour scheme and explains that the red velvet pouffes are awaiting matching lacquered stained pine trays,

It’s a tall order, he confesses, as he outlines his mission to maintain the formality of an English club, while bringing it into 2022 and still suited to the specific Maltese spirit.

In interiors terms, Tufigno believes this could be achieved through a play on fabrics and colour; on layering that creates the illusion of history.

His general focus is, indeed, on colour – a move away from the drab ‘greige’ of most interiors. And this is already evidenced in the President’s room.

Tufigno’s work is also characterised by a respect for the history of a building. “A house tells you what to do with it; not the other way around,” he maintains.

He is also inspired by the stories pieces tell. “Most new homes do not have any and our old ones are busy erasing theirs as everything gets ripped out,” he continues.

His approach is to talk about the client’s needs and listen, “but I may try and talk you out of them,” he winks.

“We look at the items you already have and then see what the house feels like and tells us.”

It is a “conversation”… to which Tufigno brings his cultural references and accumulated historical knowledge, applying this to the case at hand.

“I’m not an interior designer,” he stresses. “I have no formal training; just good taste… It’s about an intuition for the right volumes and proportions, for colour and texture.”

Tufigno’s courageous move from courtroom drama to dramatic decoration coincided with COVID-19 and the pandemic did stall him just as he got the wheels in motion.

The Casino Maltese was meant to be finished last week, but delays and “crazy prices” due to the global situation have slowed the project.

Price hikes have been problematic, and clients may have less money to spend on beauty.

“But we can do champagne on a lemonade budget,” he is convinced.

“Everyone can afford a pot of paint” – even though that has shot up too, he acknowledges with a cheeky smile.

Most items are sourced from overseas, but Brexit has caused problems there too.

The insomniac spends hours upon hours trawling the internet and getting in touch with suppliers, COVID-19 having put a stop to fairs as well.

Tufigno is now also working on launching a range of tiles, but the thrilling project is still under wraps, and he is meanwhile busy with another coffee-table book.

The decorator may be a dandy and dapper, but Tufigno is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and get down and dirty.

He is known to handle the finishing touches and “do anything I can do that needs to be done” to reach “one million per cent” on a project.

“I buy latex gloves in ridiculous quantities (not to soil the fabrics),” he says as proof of taking on the upholstery jobs.

“You could say I am detail-oriented.”

No, scratch that – more like “detail obsessed”.

Being confined to their homes during the lockdown, people realised they were looking drab, so he has encouraged many a replastering job in fresh lime-based paints.

But for someone whose aim is “never to compromise on aesthetics”, working in the “aesthetic desert” that is Malta can be hugely frustrating.

“We live in a country that insists on making itself ugly. The insistence that what is actually ugly is beautiful is immensely frustrating.

“We are still under the tyranny of Modernism; the alien tyranny of minimalism. And it is time to be brave and not fear judgment – and colour.

“After all, your home is a reflection of who you are,” he stresses.

Despite the negative outlook, Tufigno has not lost hope and remains optimistic.

“I believe that change comes a little at a time, first by changing our own immediate surroundings.

“I was flattered when someone told me I was making Malta beautiful one kitchen at a time. But that is truly what I seek to do.”

Quoting Dostoevsky, he says: “Beauty will save the world”.

And he firmly believes that too. “As human beings, we need beauty. It is a spiritual need; not shallow and vain.

“In this post-colonial and post-socialist society, everything must be utilitarian, but beauty is not frivolous.”

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