A Delightfully Deceptive ‘Italian Villa’

Chinese designer Stella Sun has always been fascinated by classical Western beauty, and particularly the illusions of perspective mastered by Italian painters.

The exterior of Stella Sun’s Vancouver home exemplifies a Palladian style, reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Almost all of what appears to be stone-carving work on the façade is actually painted on using a technique that makes it seem three-dimensional.

Vancouver designer Stella Sun has fashioned some of the city’s most beautiful homes, but her own home is the fullest expression of her art.

Designers and clients generally work together to form a home’s aesthetic, a dynamic process that can create beautiful spaces. In designing her own home, however, the creative force of Sun’s personality and passions had free reign.

Sun had already refined her craft over the course of decades — she built her home 17 years ago, when she was 56, and she has continually refined its decor ever since. It is her masterpiece.

The story of its design is the story of her life. In it, East and West blend seamlessly — Chinese reverse-glass paintings and blue-and-white porcelain vases sit demurely in a home adorned with stately European-style columns. Her furniture includes a traditional Chinese opium bed and a cabinet custom-made with antique doors from China, yet Sun’s home is essentially modelled to resemble an Italian villa.

As a child growing up in Shanghai, China, Sun would often go down to her parents’ wine cellar where they kept the forbidden Western things — Coca-Cola, for example. The communist regime had banned many objects related to a Western lifestyle. In this cellar was a stack of Time magazines.

Sun collected the stone carvings now hanging on the walls of her living room from various places — flea markets in New York City and Paris, for example — and had them painted in similar colouring. The fringe on her couch was made by a merchant in India, and it is held in place by antique coins.

She cut out pictures of beautiful Western homes, and she cherished these clippings, even bringing them with her when she left China to study abroad.

“I think Western design is more exotic to me than the Chinese,” she says. But when it comes down to it, “I just love beautiful things. I like beautiful Chinese houses too.”

While her home’s decor is cosmopolitan — with furniture and art collected from Morocco, India, Egypt, and many other places — it is primarily classical European. Her greatest inspiration is Palladian architecture, which favours a balance and structures reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman temples.

Sun loves dark wood cabinets and also classical architectural features as seen in the framing of this archway leading out of her living room.
The detailing on the upper part of the fireplace looks like a carving, but it is painted. Among the objects displayed on the mantle are a camel figurine from Egypt, a Buddha from Thailand, and a door-knocker from London that Sun had silver-plated.

Local tour bus operators make a point of driving by her home and highlighting it to their guests, not only for its outstanding classical aura alongside modern West Coast-style homes, but because it exemplifies an impressive style of architectural painting popular in Liguria, Northwestern Italy.

When you walk down the streets of Liguria, you will see elaborate window frames with gorgeous, overflowing flower boxes and graceful white curtains. Only if you look closely will you make the surprising discovery that they are not real — they’re painted onto the façades of the buildings.

That discovery brings with it the delight of a magic trick, the awe of skillful illusion. This delight is combined with the already impressive Italian bella figura (which literally translates as “beautiful figure,” and describes the spirit of beauty and refinement in Italy).

The seating by the window in Sun’s family room is her favourite place to stretch out and read or take a nap. She purchased the antique prints of columns on her wall at an auction in London, England.

The illusionist

When Sun was building her house, she met an Italian artist in Vancouver named Stefano Piccone. “He’s my little brother now,” she says. He has worked on her house intermittently for 17 years, painting elaborate ruses inside and out.

The “pillars” and “stone carvings” on her home’s exterior are his work. The details on the fireplace in her family room, the crown moulding that seems intricately carved, are all actually intricately painted by his hand.

The drapes in the dining room give the windows the look of leaded glass. Gold accents in the decor and the imposing table made from an antique mirror give the room a classical grandeur. The painted concrete floor creates the feeling of being in an ancient Roman building.
Sun hosts guests and conducts business deals at the large island in her kitchen. The inspiration for her custom-made Corian kitchen sink was a deep, elegant sink she saw at a salon in Italy.

Sun wanted a spacious European garden inside her office, so Piconne painted her one.

Piccone is a master of trompe l’oeil, a technique that creates the illusion of three-dimensional objects or scenes. This technique is rooted in the Renaissance.

The 15th-century Italian painter Andrea Mantegna was a master of perspective and illusion. Sun had Piccone recreate Mantegna’s Oculus in the Camera degli Sposi in her family room. This painting of Mantegna’s was done on a chapel ceiling, and it featured what appeared to be an opening to the sky, surrounded by angels and a wreath. Sun’s “Oculus” is actually a glass skylight dome. Angels and a wreath are painted on and around it.

When Sun first constructed her house, she made it to be a blank canvas on which to paint her dream of an Italian villa. She made all the walls the same colour, and the exterior was initially plain so that she could fill it all in with treasured objects from her travels and paintings by the hand of an Italian artist who has become a good friend.

Photography by Milos Tosic