Graceful living in Italy and France...

The smell of jasmine winds its way down our 16th century cobblestone street in Umbria as I step outside to greet the day.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Houses speak to us

 Houses talk to us. It might take time to hear their voice, to adjust to their symbols. They tell us about previous lives, different occupants. Decorators are often chatty people, full of their ideas, who might fail to catch what the house is trying to say.

Dan and I always try to imagine and interpret a house’s multilayered stories. Our aim is to minimize the decorator’s presence while enhancing the potential for the house - to show what it was like for generation after generation to live in it. Le Muguet was a relatively easy job. The charm of it was all there to be seen, and Ginny has been the easiest commissioner.

There is often a serendipitous event - call it the intervention of a patron saint, or the deus ex machina – that starts it off. We were discussing creating an opening through a plain partition wall between the salon and the kitchen. We knew that wall was a problem, just because it lacked color and movement in a context rich with period details. Yet cutting through it didn’t seem the best solution either. Then a set of eight engravings caught our eyes at a large brocante (flea market) in the nearby town of Carpentras. If the subject - portraits of courtiers from the reign of Henry II of France (1519-1559) - was in line with the origin of the house (a section of the castellated wall of old Vers Pont du Gard, with its vaulted stone salon, its plafond à la française, or beamed ceiling, its spiral staircase and fenêtre à meneau, or mullioned window) the wooden frames painted in black and yellow were going to lead the way for many of our choices. It reminded us of our visit many years ago to the chateau de Bussy-Rabutin where the owner, disgraced from the court of Louis XIV, surrounded himself with the most incredible gallery of portraits of men and women of his time on a whim of both nostalgia and humour.

How to describe the beautiful yellow, so sunny and hearty, that you see so often in Provence on market stalls? Or those vibrant fabrics, mounds of spices, and warm ceramics of Marseilles, Anduze and Montpellier? It is a textured deep yellow, with a hint of burnt sienna, that reminds you of the robust soul of the land, the cheerful approach of its people. The massive fireplace at Le Muguet lost its sombre allure and found a domestic contentment with the mantel adorned with yellow platters and hearth screened with a new ochre curtain. And an Anduze enamelled vase is softening a sharp stone corner, red and yellow toile hangs from the windows, yellow lampshades top old petrol lamps.

When you see Le Muguet for the first time you’ll be enchanted by its quintessentially French surroundings. The square it overlooks is planted with ubiquitous plane trees, the men in the village linger all year on sunny days to play endless games of petanque under the trees next to a 19th century covered fountain. The vans from the vendors of fish or vegetable stop regularly during the week. And when April rolls around, and the asparagus fete takes place, everyone in the village sits at long tables covered with white linen, eating, drinking, and joking to the sound of the accordion.

‘French’ and ‘domestic’ have become les mots d’ordre (watchwords) for all our picking. A ‘comptoise’ - the French country version of a grandfather clock - was found at a local dealer, adorned with naïf decoration on the pine case. Every house, every kitchen, would invariably resound with the ticking and chiming of a similar clock: part of the French provincial DNA, just as is the case with the old-fashioned petrol lamp, with the porcelain cloche, now hanging from the salon ceiling. It bespeaks an era not too distant from us, especially in terms of comfort and cosiness. Yes, it is still possible to live our modern lives surrounded by objects from the past that speak of functionality, dignity, and pleasant design. A ‘Voltaire’ chair, still upholstered in its rich green linen velvet, can be as comfortable to snuggle in with a book than anything manufactured today - and the curves of a Louis XV caned chair have no rival in the history of furniture making for simple elegance.

Another happy ‘trouvaille’ (find) at a flea market made our day: a huge wooden panel with a central diamond motif also a suggestion of French renaissance, that found its perfect place on the hood of the main bedroom fireplace.