Rui Ribeiro, a London-based interior designer, searched for a pied-à-terre in Lisbon for five years before finding the perfect spot. “I wanted an apartment in an old building, and it had to have a lift and a garage for me,” he adds.
He also wanted to purchase in the ancient Chiado neighborhood, where he had spent his late teens and early twenties. “It was so different back then,” he remembers, “there was an innocence about Lisbon 30 years ago that is no longer there.”
Only a few foreigners and eateries were present. There was nothing there in terms of design.”
Things have drastically altered. Chiado had been a tourist destination prior to Covid, but there are still a few elderly residents.
“That helps to keep some of its original character,” adds Ribeiro, who was born in Angola but spent most of his childhood in Portugal. He came to London in the early 1990s and has been a regular on House and Garden’s yearly list of top 100 interior designers since opening his own business in 2008.
An Arts and Crafts home in Chelsea, a 16th-century weekend hideaway in West Sussex, and houses in the Middle East are among his projects.
Ribeiro’s building was the only one on the street that had been refurbished when he finally discovered it a decade ago. He adds, “For years, I looked out on an abandoned building with the occasional squatter.”
“It’s now a five-star hotel,” says the narrator.
Despite the dilapidated surroundings, Ribeiro was instantly impressed by the 120sqm space’s almost flawless arrangement. The restoration it underwent in the 1990s was less spectacular.
A developer had removed all of the building’s original architectural details at the time (it was built soon after Lisbon’s catastrophic earthquake of 1755). He’d also constructed drop ceilings, bringing each room’s height down to about 2.3m.
“One of the first things I did was open holes all over the place to see what was going on above me. I discovered that I had 4 million to play with.”
He added high skirting boards and 3m-tall doors to emphasize the verticality, but only made modest modifications to the layout. He merely split the previous master suite into two bedrooms, bringing the total number of bedrooms to two. He also shied away from restoring historical cornices and wall paneling.
“It just felt very fake to me.” Instead, he used the minimalist style that he is known for.
“I studied in London in the 1990s with David Chipperfield and John Pawson, where there was a very minimal aesthetic going on,” he says. “It was something I liked and could still relate to.”
That isn’t to imply that the interiors aren’t sparsely furnished. His home room in Lisbon, in particular, is crammed with mementos. He just likes to use a more neutral backdrop for them.
“I want to be able to look at these things without being distracted by a patterned or colorful floor or curtains.” Instead, he chose a gloomy, subdued hue, which is out of the ordinary for Lisbon.
“It’s a sunny city,” he adds, “but it gets very hot in the summer, and I wanted a cool interior to retreat to.”
Ribeiro favors items with strong sculptural qualities: the coffee table was carved from a single block of wood by Welsh artist Simon Gaiger, and the famous wingback chair was created by Danish furniture designer Frits Henningsen. He also favors large-scale works. The bespoke dining table with its 2.8m-long polished brass top was the first item to arrive in the apartment.
It not only serves a functional purpose in the lack of shelf systems, but it is also used to showcase books and items.
A centuries-old Chinese scholar’s stone, which Ribeiro bought in London years ago, is the most striking. Meanwhile, a 19th-century Burmese food box, consisting of many trays and containers piled one within the other, sits on a plinth in front of a neighboring window. “It almost looks like a Russian doll.”
He also enjoys photography, with images of a bull in the kitchen and a picture of a lady by Dutch photographer Justine Tjallinks in the entrance hall being two of his most striking examples. Each piece of art is hung in a logical order on a picture rail, a display method selected to compensate for the absence of architectural detail on the walls and to enable him to replace pieces without having to drill new holes.
The flat became more than a pied-à-terre during the repeated Covid lockdowns. Ribeiro decided to stay in Portugal to be closer to his family, and he took use of his time there to seek out craftsmen in the country’s heartland with whom he has collaborated on two new collections of limited-edition and one-of-a-kind items.
One is constructed of barro negro, a textured black clay historically used to create containers for storing olives, honey, and grains. Ribeiro used it to make vases and boxes, and he views the cooperation as a means to keep the skill alive.
Thanks to Ian Phillips at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.