THE four-level lane house where Barbara Niggli lives with her family is perfectly located in the former French concession area.
“Living in the heart of a city is a prerequisite. A lane house gives me a feeling that I’m integrating in the Chinese way of life and there are real people living real lives around us,” Barbara said. “The house should be well distributed and have a natural luminosity. And I found this property exactly met our needs.”
Large windows bring in plenty of sunshine. And what Barbara liked most in the house is that the simple decoration leaves space to express itself. “We tend not to choose houses that require renovations, but prefer one that we feel already has had a life of its own.”
This house was built in 1946, so it has been a witness to many changes. “We find our daily energy from this, knowing that we are the passengers of another page of Shanghai history,” she said.
The house features a first-floor living and dining room, three spacious bedrooms, a bedroom converted to an office, a TV room and a patio.
“Our home is where we live, so we try to recreate a feeling of keeping the soul of our previous homes,” Barbara said.
Barbara is of Dutch origins and grew up in Geneva, Switzerland. Her husband Theodore and she have lived in several places: Geneva, Warsaw, Brussels, Sao Paulo, New York, London and now Shanghai. “I feel privileged to have been given this unique opportunity to live in so many countries. It has always been enriching but, most importantly, it has forged a strong bond in the family,” Barbara said.
Meanwhile, all objects in the house remind them of the countries they have lived in, their travels and the beautiful memories they have as a family.
Their living experiences in different countries have also contributed to the decoration style Barbara has acquired over the years.
“We have quite an eclectic style. I do not have a particular rule for mixing different styles and do not go by the book. I just try different combinations. Sometimes the choice of furniture does not make me comfortable and I just simply change it. To me, a home is a projection of our soul,” she said.
“People that like organization will have an organized home. We, on the other hand, are maybe more nomadic,” she added.
Having lived in seven countries, the couple has collected memories, experiences and also pieces of furniture from all these places. “I’m sure that for some of our visitors it may look a bit eclectic, but in fact this is what we really are. Most of (our things) have sentimental value, but I am particularly fond of the Brazilian feathers which are worn as head ornaments by tribes.” The feather ornaments are the highlight in the living room, adding an exotic touch to the rather neat space. The theatrical chairs sourced at European auctions in the center of the living room bring a touch of class and opulence, while the ethnic fabric used to cover the dining table adds exotic elegance.
“I bought my furniture in shops and occasionally at auctions. I like to mix French antiques with ethnic and contemporary art and furniture. I don’t have any rules to buy furniture and usually just go by instinct.”
“We’ve also acquired artworks with different forms and origins from around the world. When we travel as a family, we always try to bring back a piece of memory, but sometimes we come back with empty hands. We don’t like to shop with purpose,” she said.
Regarding the color scheme, there is no dominant color throughout the house either. The furniture tends to be shuffled into different rooms during their moves. “Constantly moving allows me to create another style and feeling each time for our home.”
The upper floors of the house are the private zone of the family members. Barbara loves to decorate bedrooms with simplicity and elegance. For maximum relaxation, she uses furniture that is familiar rather than innovative, colors that are soothing rather than invigorating. In the master bedroom, the gorgeous bed takes center stage in simple surroundings.
“We have always rented the houses as we never settled down in one place. We are like nomads. As long as the house has empty spaces with some character, we simply add our personalities and styles and make it a welcoming, relaxing family space,” Barbara said.
“We do enjoy our life in Shanghai and the vibe of the city is inexplicable until you live in it. I have Mandarin classes three mornings a week at home and I spend the other mornings studying. I have started learning characters a few months ago and enjoy it very much!”
ASK THE OWNER
Q: What’s the best thing about living in Shanghai?
A: The vibe of Shanghai is inexplicable until you live in it.
Q: Describe your home in three words.
A: Soul, warm and lively
Q: What’s the first thing you do when you get home?
A: Talk to my daughters.
Q: How do you unwind?
A: Write Chinese characters.
Q: Where do you spend most of the time at home?
A: My husband’s office.
Q: What’s the view outside your window?
A: My lane and its buzz.
Q:: What’s your favorite object at home?
A: Head feathers of a Brazilian tribe.
Q: Where do you source furniture in Shanghai?
A: I have bought Chinese character neon lamps from my friend Jay Speiden.