Into the Wild Blue

For photographer Gian Paolo Barbieri, the lush tropical setting of the Seychelles is the prelude to his own private paradise. Diane Dorrans Saeks pays a visit.

Early morning light flickers across pale ocher walls as Gian Paolo Barbieri slips through his house and into the fragrant garden, where geckos do-si-do along the stone path, then skitter into a thicket of bamboo. Diving into the pool set high above a scoop of private beach, he savors his favorite hour of the morning. As he swims laps, gazing up at palm fronds, orchids, and clouds, ripples melt into the turquoise sea and blur the distant horizon. Alone in the world, it seems, he wraps himself in a linen robe and heads inside to enjoy breakfast with a coterie of family and guests. His month in the Seychelles has begun.

"A swim and a taste of fresh avocados from my trees, and Milan does not exist," Barbieri says, slicing mangoes and bananas from his garden. "I breathe the salty-sweet air and I am home again."

Barbieri's open-to-the-breezes home in Mahé, a small Seychelles island off the east coast of Africa, is a far cr from his photography studio in Milan, but that's just how he likes it. Indeed, with a flight time of just eight hours (from Italy), the transition from his nonstop professional life to paradise has become a breeze. "I never get jet lag because there is only a two-hour time difference," says the always tanned, silver-haired photographer.

Best known for his dramatic fashion photography for designers like Armani and Versace, as well as his work for GQ and Vogue, Barbieri is currently working on new book on the culture and architecture of Sicily. Although his photographs are included in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and th Kunstforum in Vienna, his most memorable images are the highly charged black-and-white photos in his three recent books, Equator, Madagascar, and Tahiti Tattoos (Taschen). Working on undiscovered beaches in the Seychelles, the remote jungle of Madagascar, and the oute islands of Tahiti, Barbieri approached flowers, fish, islands, rocks, and native people with a keen eye and a macro lens.

"I am happiest working intuitively and directly with nature," says Barbieri. "I like to create images that stir the imagination from a world untouched by modern life." Living in the Seychelles, the photographer has become a fierce protector of the land. His own house, built of indigenous materials, is in perfect harmony with its setting on the undeveloped southwest coast of Mahé, the largest island of the Seychelles group. It's the third house he has built on the island, and he believes this time he has attained the perfect balance of polished style and ease.

"It's a little paradise," he says. "This bay is completely protected from development, so there are no other houses in sight. The sound of the waves and the wind wakes me in the morning. The house is designed so that there's always a fresh breeze, and you can look outside and see the sea and the fan palms and casuarinas from every room."

The Seychelles archipelago lies four degrees south of the equator in the Indian Ocean, a thousand miles off th Kenya coast, along ancient trade routes connecting India, Madagascar, Africa, and seafaring nations to the north. At various times a British crown colony and a French protectorate, the Republic of Seychelles consists of 115 islands, some of them little more than a coral atoll with a coif of palm trees. With a native giant tortoise on its coat of arms, the island nation saw few tourists until an international airport was built in 1972. When Barbieri ventures forth, perhaps to the tiny capital of Victoria for provisions, he appreciates the polyglot culture. Even today, he notes, there is little tourism, and island life is remarkably unaffected by Western influences and brand names.

In the Seychelles, buildings on the islands are rarely taller than a coconut palm, so the archipelago has escaped the overdevelopment of many tropical islands. For Barbieri, it is the island paradise he had been searching for since he was a young boy growing up in the Italian countryside. "When I first arrived in Seychelles in 1975 for a French Vogue photo shoot I felt that it was my land," recalls Barbieri. As a child he had been captivated by Gauguin's languorous Tahiti paintings, and when he explored the deserted beaches of Mahé it seemed that Gauguin's visions had come to life. He returned to Milan, but dreamed of building his own house among the takamaka trees on Mahé.

For the next decade, as he traveled around the world on assignment—to the Mediterranean, Tahiti, Easter Island, Morocco, and the Caribbean islands—Barbieri studied the traditional architectures, observing the patterns of their simple design language. His house, he determined, would follow the unaffected vernacular style of the Seychelles.

"I saw the design of this house as a kind of magical Chinese box, with the floors and walls of integral-color concrete and the pitched roof of wood, like a lid," he says. "I had to reject anything that felt too European or complicated. Windows have no glass, only shutters to protect us from the rain and wind."

Barbieri, who studied architecture and design in Rome, completed his house and three guest bungalows in 1993 and has been working on the grounds and furniture ever since. Rooms unfold one into another so that even on the hottest days of summer the house feels refreshing. With just two bedrooms, a study, and large verandas and terraces on the bay side, the house is compact but feels spacious. Two large living rooms overlooking the beach are simply furnished with large-scale sofas. Chairs, tables, and chaise longues were crafted to Barbieri's design in his own workshop. Tapa cloths from Tonga and Tahiti, shells, and hand-worked timber screens lashed together with leather and raffia are the only adornments in the dining room. "I didn't bring furniture from Italy," says Barbieri. "Sending chairs and sofas from Europe is a mistake. They just don't feel at home here. The only Italian things in the house are the pasta and the people."

Salt air, the sun, and rain all take their toll, but Seychelles hardwoods are unaffected by the humidity, he says. Barbieri's stroke of genius was to tint the concrete floors and walls with local earth, bestowing on them warm, timeless patina. To do so, he threw handfuls of local clay into the white cement mix; when the concrete walls and floor were set, he had them polished smooth, to feel silken and soft to the touch.

"We polished them with coconut-husk brushes, an then finished them by hand-buffing with wax," recalls Barbieri. "The surface feels wonderful for bare feet, an the wax gives it a warm glow."

Three bungalows in the garden accommodate friends and family. "Gian Paolo's house seems to float like a boat on the edge of the ocean," says image consultant Annalisa Milella, a longtime friend. "You sit near the open windows and smell the sea and you never want to explore the island. We wander down to the beach and swim all morning. It's so calm in the bay, it's like being in an aquarium."

In sudden afternoon showers, raindrops dance on banana palm leaves and spatter across the waxed floor. Skinks and exotic beetles roam, and rare magpie robins, fairy terns, and paradise flycatchers hover across the bay on their way to bird sanctuaries on nearby islands.

"I like to come to my house on Seychelles for weeks at a time and immerse myself in the pure beauty of the island," says Barbieri. "Sometimes I work on photography projects, but usually I stay at the house and swim, read, and craft furniture."

Barbieri schedules his hectic year to spend the entire month of August at his retreat, and usually flies in for Christmas and Easter with family and friends. "The best season on Mahé is around Easter, when there is little wind," he continues. "The water is pale and transparent, and the colors of fish are intense. We stay in the water all day, and the fish come up and greet us. I am especially fond of the parrotfish."

Other days he heads off on his Boston Whaler to dive or fish beyond the reef. "We are intent on protecting the sea life—sharks and stingrays, bonefish, hawksbill turtles, moray eels, octopus, squid—and we catch only a few fish for eating," says Barbieri. "If I'm lucky I catch red snapper for lunch."

These waters also hold the stuff of legend. It's said that Olivier le Vasseur ("The Buzzard") lost a treasure trove worth millions of dollars nearby in the late 18th century. Local lore suggests that a cryptogram referring to the treasure's whereabouts was found, but none of the bounty hunters have yet unearthed it.

In this verdant setting, architectural minimalism enhanced by vibrant color works well, says Barbieri. Mahé lies outside the cyclone belt, but the house must stand up to tropical rains and wind. The swimming pool overlooking the powdery sand is shaded by palm trees during the heat of the day and is the perfect vantage point for viewing the sunset. Barbieri and friends gather around the pool with aperitifs to watch the sky turn amber and pink as the sun spins west toward Mombasa.

Nighttime surrounds Barbieri's house in black-velvet silence, with just the flash of a green or blue star. In the darkness, friends hear whirring and flapping fruit bats and the strange whistling of black parrots. An island orchestra of sibilant waves and rattling palm trees is occasionally accompanied by the distant thrumming of a zèze, a Seychelles instrument reminiscent of the Indian sitar, echoing in the night air like a fading radio frequency.

Dinner is, say, fish and pasta, served with avocado salad, papaya, coconut, langoustines, fresh mango, and pineapple. "After dinner we gather indoors to play cards or watch classic movies," Milella recalls. "Gian Paolo has the best collection of classic black-and-white movies."

His favorites are by Orson Welles an neorealists like Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti. "As a photographer who works in black and white, I learn so much from the art direction, styling, and cinematography of their best movies," says Barbieri, who trained in photography at the legendary Cinecittà film studios in the sixties. "One night I screened Hurricane, a thirties film starring Mary Astor and Dorothy Lamour. As we watched the film, we looked out the windows behind the screen an saw the same landscape, the same pal trees, the same full moon, and sea as on the screen."

Longtime friends like Milella and Gianfranco Ferré say that they are happy to hang their Panama hats in Barbieri's domain. "Flowers, fruit, fish, sea, friends, and sunshine—everything you need is right there," says Milella.

Diane Dorrans Saeks, who live in San Francisco, is at work on her twelfth book, Country Interiors.