In 2012, Maltese architect Chris Briffa founded Valletta Vintage. In the beginning, it wasn't a glamorous affair. In fact, it was one room above his office that he didn't need and that he decided to rent out to guests. Before long, however, that one room was paying most of the mortgage for the entire building, and he knew he was onto something.
Soon after that, he met his future wife Hanna, who had recently moved to the Mediterranean island from Belarus, and she brought with her a passion for design that matched his, as well as some serious business acumen. Over the years since, the dynamic duo have expanded—into a family of five, with 10 uniquely stylish apartments around the Maltese capital.
Valletta Vintage brings new life to historical buildings with an imaginative blend of bespoke and vintage design pieces, as well as eye-catching works by talented local artists that they feature in gallery-like spaces. The original five properties have all played a role in the Briffa family's life over the years—a gallery, a library, an atelier, and even their former home—while Scala is a newly-restored collection of dwellings in a 17th-century townhouse, which is named after the solfège do-re-mi-fa-sol.
We're big admirers of Chris and Hanna's work, in part because what they do sums up everything we believe in here at BoutiqueHomes—personal homes with great stories, an obsession with design, and making connections between like-minded travelers.
Read on to find out more.
We've known you both for quite a few years now and always admired what you do, but can you explain a little more about how Valletta Vintage works?
Chris: "When Hanna and I met, Valetta Vintage was in its infancy, and I had just two apartments. It was like a hobby. One of them was on top of my office, the other one was next to my parents' house. And then when I met Hanna, she helped me increase it from two to five, and now from five to 10. She runs the show. Hanna pretty much set up the whole operation, from the bookings to the guest relations to the housekeeping. It's quite a job. Especially when you have three kids.
"When it comes to the more functional aspects, that's me, as in the size of the bathroom and the swing of the door. But then, when it comes to the concept, and especially choosing the furniture and all the pieces, that's both of us. Our bedtime reading is going through vintage shops online!
"We love vintage stuff. We love traveling. We always check out different places whenever we travel. We rarely stay at hotels, unless it's very short, because we feel that it's much more local to stay in someone's house. Nowadays, you can stay in the house of someone who's an architect, who's a designer, and you'll find these really loved pieces that you won't find in a hotel. Very often, it leads to incredible friendships as well. We stayed once in a house in Portugal through BoutiqueHomes and now we're best friends with the guys who own it. He's an architect as well. It's called Skinny House, and it's in Porto."
That's always been one of our goals, to bring creative owners together, so it's great to know that it works! How did you connect?
Chris: "There was a problem with the heating! So the owner Cesar came, and he told me he was an architect. He's my age. He also has three kids. And we became friends. We've been to Porto three or four times, they came to Malta the same, so it's incredible how, instead of staying in a hotel, which is a bit sterile and a bit run of the mill, you get to know people and even make friends for life."
Chris, I was thinking about the fact that, in your architecture, you work between commercial and residential spaces, and vacation rentals occupy that exact space. They're deeply personal but also a business. How do you create a home or an apartment that works in both ways?
Chris: "I think what we do is just design it like it's going to be our own house. You can't go wrong like that. If you're in bed, and you want a good light so that you can read, you want the same for your guests. Some of the furniture we have, especially in Scala, are pieces that I have loved since I was a student. The bubble chair for me was an amazing piece. When I bought it, and I hung it there, it was just a dream come true. That's the reality, that we design like it's for us. A lot of people, unfortunately, design for rent. We don't do that."
Hanna: "I think also there's the experience itself. So once guests arrive, it's not just an apartment, but there is an experience of staying in that apartment. There's the vision behind it, a bit of story behind it."
Chris: "All of our buildings are a bit of a story. On one side, there's the historical element—what was this building before, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 200 years ago...? We are just a chapter in the building's life, in a way. So we are doing our best to make that chapter as experiential as possible.
"We have a lot of returning guests who want to check out the other apartments. We have one Danish woman, every year she comes and she stays in a different one. So, this is lovely. Because, like I said, we make friends. They appreciate what we do, and we meet like-minded people."
With Scala, which is named after a musical scale, you'll have people who want to work their way up the notes! How did you come up with that concept?
Chris: "I love music. My second passion would be music, after art and architecture. So for me, even from the beginning, we were thinking of having musical themed apartments. One of them, we were thinking of calling it 'Soft Cell'. The one on the fifth floor was going to be 'Pizzicato Five'. These groups have shaped my taste, but it was a bit cheesy... Then I got inspired, I think from the staircase itself, because in Italian a stair is called scala, but it also means a musical scale. So, for me, it was like, 'Oh, that's it! Do-re-mi-fa-sol, the first five notes of the scale!'"
Hanna: "Re was for the piano nobile."
Chris: "Apart from the name of a note, it's regal, something which is important. It feels like an art gallery, it feels like something very special. 'Fa' is a soft sound, and that is a curvy one with curtains. In fact, inside the building, it's not do-re-mi-fa-sol, it's do-mi-re-fa-sol, because 're' fits more with the third room."
Hanna: "And Mi was a mezzanine."
Chris: "It's also very soft, a bit Japanese. So we said, let's change the rules a bit."
Hanna: "Some people say, no, no, no, no, your scale is not perfect..."
I think we can all agree life is better with a little imperfection in it! Can you tell me about the spaces in Valletta Vintage?
Chris: "They're in four different buildings. The first three—gallery, library and atelier—those used to be part of my office. And Doma was the house where we used to live before this one. And they're all in very, very close proximity. And one of the things we would like to do when we have more numbers is to have a Valetta Vintage café or some kind of place where all the guests can meet and share their experience, maybe over breakfast."
When can we expect that?
Chris: "We have two properties earmarked for it already, we just need to see how it's gonna work out financially. We're trying to find a different formula. I'm not happy just to open yet another café."
To those unfamiliar with Malta, what's it like?
Chris: "For me, living in Malta, it's either living in the middle of nowhere in the countryside, or in Valletta. There is nothing in between. Valletta is a town where you walk. We walk to the beach, we walk to the restaurants."
Hanna: "It's full of architects and artists that you meet over and over. We have the same coffee spots, same shopping spots, same museums. When you go out of the house alone, you'll never be alone, you will definitely meet 5 or 10 people on your way who you'll talk to. This is great because you never feel lonely. And then the history of the place, you just walk, look around, and you are immersed in it."
Chris: "You walk looking up. You see this building from the 15th century, another other one from the 17th. And it's all built with one material, stone, so you have this really monolithic space but with different styles. And apart from that, it's not a provincial town, and this is the beauty of it. You can walk out and bump into the President of the European Parliament [who is from Malta], so it's not just a little town somewhere sweet in the middle of nowhere. You're bang in the middle of it all, so there's a lot of activity, a lot of things happening. And that, I think, keeps the city alive. And the experience is like no other."
Hanna: "Chris and I, one of our hobbies and things to do as a couple... we go around the island, we always try new places, and we prepare a small booklet for guests. We update it every month, with all of the new restaurants, places we like to go."
So they get a chance to experience the real Malta through your eyes? That's such a great extra. What do guests come to Malta for?
Hanna: "We have a lot of people who come here to get to know the culture, the history. They go to the Hypogeum, they go to museums, they go with tour guides."
Chris: "There are three Michelin-starred restaurants in Valletta. There are two very famous Caravaggio paintings. One of them is the biggest painting he ever did. It's like a cinema screen. It's this huge 5m x 4m painting, which, when he was in Malta, he was commissioned to do, before he killed someone and ran away. These stories, it's quite incredible. I mean, Lord Byron came to Valletta. He wrote a lot about it. The Queen used to live in Valletta just before she became queen."
Wait... You just said that Caravaggio killed somebody and ran away...
Chris: "Yes, he killed someone while he was here. They put him in the dungeons. Luckily, he had already finished his masterpiece! Someone got him out of prison, and he went to Sicily, and a few months after that he died."
So where can we see this notorious painting?
Chris: "In St. John's Co-Cathedral. That church in itself is quite an experience. The whole floor is made out of tombstones, but very beautiful marble inlay tombstones, with knights buried under the floor you are walking on. It's beautiful. We always tell our guests not to miss that."
Visit Chris and Hanna's inspirational apartments in Valletta to find out more about the design pieces they've chosen and the art on their walls. Once you're there, take their personalized guide to the island—and go exploring. To start the process, click here.