This 19th-Century Apartment In Rome Is A Citrus-Hued Oasis

Artist Liselotte Watkins' Italian home finds a sunny disposition in homage to her grandmother’s Swedish summerhouse


Chrome yellow is the predominant ‘happy’ colour in Liselotte’s decorating palette. Photo / Mike Karlsson Lundgren

After consulting numerous nomads, I have discovered that a certain mindset is required for a successful transition; dithering or clinging, however limply, to home will only end in a half-lived adventure.

Nothing but full immersion will do. If you don’t speak the language, learn it fast. Open up! Join in! Make a fool of yourself! Otherwise, you risk hovering on the edges of the new place or creating your own expatriate island.

Liselotte Watkins’ nomad story is one that I have heard many times. It’s the “leaving early” story of a youthful iconoclast, a “throws-caution-to-the-wind” type of gypsy, who picks up their bags and follows something or someone without a backward glance, too young to question the sagacity of such a move.

Imagine leaving Sweden for Texas at 17, with “no money, no plan”. “The worst-case scenario was going back,” says Liselotte. “I was a sponge ready to soak it all up.” A full-immersion nomad indeed.

The kitchen, dining room, and sitting room are separate spaces but they are all connected on one side of the apartment. Photo / Mike Karlsson Lundgren

Quitting Texas, she headed to NYC while her then-boyfriend went back to Sweden, promising to return. She landed at the YWCA on 14th Street opposite the Chelsea Hotel, a hip-adjacent address ideal for a neophyte New Yorker. Chance meetings, surviving from day to day, from gig to gig, meant operating in the present tense. “Days went by and you were a winner for still being there.”

After making friends with an art director who worked for Barneys, the temple of NY chic, Liselotte turned her hand to illustrating the store’s weekly beauty ads for The New York Times. The boyfriend did not return, but fashion illustration stuck.

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Liselotte met another Swede, now her husband, who whisked her to Paris where she had her first child and then another in quick succession. But before she could settle into a Parisian life, they moved to Milan and her Italian odyssey began.

In terms of colour temperature, I think of Sweden as monochrome and Italy as a rainbow. Considering Liselotte’s Rome apartment, which throbs with citrus yellow and tangerine, it’s clear that she feels exuberantly at home in her Roman setting.

Paintings found at flea markets line the walls of the diminutive dining room. No flower can compete with the bright patterns of Liselotte’s vases; simple grasses are the perfect foil for the extravagance of the dancing patterns. Photo / Mike Karlsson Lundgren

She has a wardrobe full of La DoubleJ maximalist patterned silk dresses in shades of everything. Her distinctive palette fizzes through all her work, from the bold vessels on which she paints stylised female characters and Cubist patterns, to the recent larger-scale paintings in soft sherbet shades painted during the pandemic for a solo show at the Swedish Millesgarden gallery.

These depict detailed interiors inhabited by voluptuous female figures: mothers, goddesses, and their offspring, imaginary characters drawn from her observations of Italy and the Italian way of life. Liselotte, the outsider, celebrates the obsessions and rituals of her chosen country; the Italian predilection for routine, tradition, craft, food, and, of course, style.

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Unsurprisingly, the tender domestic scenes are in sync with her 19th-century apartment, where a centrally located dining room connects on one side with a wedge-shaped sitting room singing with sunshine yellow and on the other to a simple white kitchen where Liselotte’s colourful ceramics add a decorative flourish.

“Homemaking or nesting is my coping mechanism,” she explains. It’s a feeling that she wants to create rather than a particular style, aiming for a sunny vibe that reminds her of her grandmother’s Swedish summerhouse.

The hexagonal tiles of Liselotte’s living-room floor. Photo / Mike Karlsson Lundgren

Even in this discreetly bourgeois neighbourhood (the apartment looks on to the grand facades of embassies), Watkins will shout “Buongiorno!” to locals as protocol demands. “Community is important here,” she says. “You have to make the effort.”

Her roots may have grown in Rome, but recent events have allowed the family to spend time in the Tuscan countryside near Siena, where they are renovating a house.

Like many others temporarily set free from metropolitan life due to the pandemic, they have thrived in a bucolic setting; Liselotte’s daughter is able to ride horses there and she paints in her spacious studio, easing the transition of her work from commercial fashion illustration to fine art.

In fact, the family has adapted so easily to country life that they plan to give up city living for this version of la dolce vita, another colourful full immersion.

Extract from Nomad at Home by Hilary Robertson, published by Ryland Peters & Small, distributed by Bookreps.co.nz

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