Home of the Week: Middle Eastern treasures in Florida

A retired couple fills a serene space with furniture and objects that remind them of their years abroad.

For the built-in shelves in the living room, "I measured every item I wanted to feature and gridded the shelves accordingly," Debbie says. Courtesy Amy Kellison
Powered by automated translation

For 25 years, Debbie and John Ricciardi called the Middle East home. John worked as a principal for Saudi Aramco's school system, and the couple raised their two children in the American-style compound in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Like many expatriates, their restlessness resulted in regular travels throughout the Middle East, Europe and South East Asia. Whether they were visiting Bangkok, Paris or Dubai, collecting furniture and antiques was always a priority on the family's travel itinerary.

Moving back to the United States was always the plan, and when John retired from his post seven years ago, the couple built a dream home in Florida, close to their daughter (who was then completing a doctorate programme), and shipped their collection of precious finds back to the United States.

Yet the dream home didn't turn out as well as expected, so they set about building again, opting for a small, leafy plot in Tampa, Florida. Abutting a nature preserve, the lot offers privacy despite its limited size. The couple selected a layout that was compact but open, wrapping around a patio and pool ensconced in a screened lanai.

With enough rugs, vases, cabinets and antiques to fill the former dream home, the Ricciardis faced a dilemma: how to balance the clean, crisp serenity of the smaller space with the expansive collection.

"To edit the antiques down and have the home feel uncluttered was hard," admits Debbie, an interior decorator and expert in home accessories who now develops window and merchandising displays for the gourmet cookware company Williams-Sonoma. She applied her mastery of artful displays to the home, but not without first settling on a colour palette of grey, white, blue and brown. "I really love grey and used six shades of grey in the house," she says.

The neutral palette provides the perfect backdrop for showcasing Arab and Asian antiques, custom-made furnishings from the Middle East, Europe and the United States, and elaborate Nain carpets.

From the moment one steps into the home, the Ricciardi family's time in the Middle East and Debbie's tasteful attention to detail are evident. The foyer features an antique Syrian mother-of-pearl chest and an Arabesque mirror from the High Point Market, an industry furniture fair in the United States that is the largest in the world. Debbie says she attends the fair every year, and many of the items in her home originate from the highly lauded interiors fair.

The harmony of rare antiques and custom designed furniture continues in the dining room, where a table handcrafted in Rotterdam takes centre stage. "I wanted an old farm-table look with very peculiar measurements, and I couldn't find the table. A friend in Amsterdam referred me to this female carpenter, and I travelled to Rotterdam three times to have the perfect table made," says Debbie, who accented the table with a restored Indian rice chest that now serves as the sideboard. Adorning the walls are a mirror custom-built in Saudi Arabia, a painting by the renowned Spanish-Puerto Rican artist Ángel Botello and a Burmese Bible purchased in Bangkok, later mounted on black silk and framed. Set atop a Nain rug, the pastiche of ethnic furniture stays true to the couple's aim for a clean, serene but personal space.

In the back half of the home, the open layout permits ease of movement among the living room, den, kitchen and the backyard lanai, which is accessible through fully opening sliding pocket doors. The living room features crisp, contemporary furniture before a fireplace tiled with diamond-shaped stone. Flanking the fireplace are Moroccan-inspired lanterns set in custom-designed niches.

In the kitchen, white cabinets and black granite provide sharp contrast to the iridescent Italian glass tiles that cover the backsplash and wraparound bar. The Wolf professional range and double oven provide adequate equipment for the Ricciardis, who are both avid cooks, and the island, topped with a black walnut slab custom-made by a Vermont cabinetmaker, harmonises the Brazilian walnut of the floor with the black granite countertops.

Debbie included unique decorative elements in the kitchen, such as a Burmese offering box in a small niche above the double oven and a one-centimetre-thick strip of black moulding beneath the white crown moulding. Debbie says she was inspired by the cabinetry hardware's thin black handles. "I removed my belt to test if this little black line could give that small contrast," she says.

Few rooms capture the breadth of the family's travels like the den. The elaborate built-in shelving showcases many exotic finds, although crafting the structure was a painstaking process. "I measured every item I wanted to feature and gridded the shelves accordingly; I didn't want adjustable shelves, nor did I want each cubby to be the same size," says Debbie. Among the items on display are an antique basket from Bangkok, blue Iranian glass from the Abu Dhabi port, Indian musician sculptures purchased at the Sharjah souq, and blue and white vases from Europe and South East Asia.

The three bedrooms and en-suite bathrooms continue the grey theme, albeit in a more plush manner. In the master bedroom, white silk serves as both the curtains and the upholstered headboard, while grey velvet upholsters the sofa. The coffee table is a Kuwaiti chest in which brass nail heads create a subtle Arabesque motif. In the guest room, Roche Bobois furnishings offer visitors tasteful accommodations, which are made more personal with an expansive display of blue and white vases.

The guest room opens out to a seating room, and pocket doors offer privacy, when preferred. The seating room features an Ethan Allen sofa and a gold Indian window that Debbie had made into a coffee table by a carpenter in Dubai. Balinese puppets next to the television and Saudi Arabian landscape photographs by Carol Cocker accent the seating area, which opens out to the lanai.

Whether lounging on the lanai or cooking in the spacious kitchen, Debbie says she is continually reminded of the adventures her family had abroad, which she counts among the many benefits of a home with a more "ethnic" style - although for Debbie, "ethnic" is not so much an aesthetic choice as a reference to the period of her family's life in the Middle East.

As Debbie says, "The older you get, your house truly ages with you." Indeed, an American home's charm can not only be retained but augmented by Arabic and European design elements.