When decorators describe their beach houses as places built for wet bathing suits and flip-flops, it's best to take the assertion with a grain of salt. Casual means different things to different people, and for those who spend their days trafficking in important antiques and exquisite passementerie, the concept of informality rarely jibes with the barefoot fantasies of the hoi polloi. In decorator-speak, seaside casual usually means that silk velvet upholstery has been kept to a minimum.
Sig Bergamin's retreat in Trancoso is a delightful exception. With confidence and wit, the Brazilian designer has conjured a mad amalgam of styles, periods, colors, textures, and patterns, all whirled together into lighthearted compositions set against a crisp backdrop of white floors, walls, and ceilings. The furnishings and art range wildly—high to low, old to new, Paris to Beijing—but nothing seems so precious that it couldn't withstand a few spilled caipirinhas or an errant kick during an impromptu samba session. "I use this home for quiet, relaxation, and fun. It's not a place where I bring clients," Bergamin explains. "The only entertaining I do here is for close friends and family, which for me is also a form of relaxation."
The laid-back attitude of the house is very much in keeping with the spirit of Trancoso, a dreamy coastal village in the state of Bahia founded by Jesuit priests in the 16th century. Undisturbed by development and modernization for centuries, the town grew up around the historic Quadrado, a village green lined with brightly colored colonial houses, which today contains fashionable shops and restaurants. At the far end of the square, rising majestically on a cliff above the Atlantic, is the brilliant-white Igreja de São João Batista, Brazil's second-oldest church.
In the 1970s, Trancoso became a magnet for artists and hippies, some of whom can still be found selling their hippie wares in the Quadrado. Electricity finally arrived in 1982. More recently, the village has morphed into a favorite destination of well-heeled members of São Paulo society and international glamour-pusses (Naomi Campbell and Gisele Bündchen, for example) attracted by its rustic charm and pristine, white-sand beaches.
That intriguing dichotomy—dirt roads and private jets, fishmongers and Diane von Furstenberg—is reflected in Bergamin's decor, a marvel of unstudied chic and cross-cultural savoir faire. The mix spans continents and centuries in the blink of an eye.
In the sprawling living room, guests sit on stately Brazilian colonial chairs, Chinese ceramic stools, Nigerian beaded armchairs in traditional African patterns, or Mies van der Rohe's quintessentially modern Barcelona stools, here upholstered in white leather rather than the standard black for an extra dash of sex appeal. A scallop-shell console table in one corner of the room looks like Serge Roche meets Dorothy Draper in a Miami banquet hall.
"The fact that this home is situated in Trancoso already makes a different statement than a home in a large metropolis like São Paulo," says Bergamin, who also maintains residences in Paris and New York [Siweb, December 2010/January 2011]. "Here I tried to make the decorating very easygoing, like the people. Even the food we eat and the way it's prepared is different than what we would eat in São Paulo."
Bergamin's freewheeling attitude also informs his selection of artwork. On one wall, a pair of masks from Kenya flank a 19th-century painting of a marine scene that the decorator picked up in a Hamptons flea market. Elsewhere, embroidered suzanis from Uzbekistan add a colorful, graphic punch to walls, sofas, and lounge chairs. On a display table in the living room, a massive wood Buddha head from Laos sits happily alongside a Roman bust procured in Paris. Vintage travel posters from Tahiti, Cuba, and other ports of call preserve the lighthearted atmosphere of tropical revelry.
"Many people tend to be insecure or indecisive about decorating," Bergamin says. "I try to mix colors and patterns whenever possible. I also have no problem mixing things from all over the world. That is one of my signatures as a designer. Perhaps that is why today I have four dogs named Africa, America, Asia, and China."
Despite all those colliding colors, patterns, and decorative flourishes, the prevailing mood is surprisingly calm—a testament to Bergamin's skill at balancing potentially jarring elements. His favorite piece in the house, a Chinese opium bed discovered in Bali, epitomizes the desired effect. It strikes the perfect note of exoticism and languor.
"I didn't actually plan the decoration, I just let it happen," Bergamin insists. "I wanted to create a tranquil and unpretentious mood. This, I think, is what a Brazilian beach house should be."