Summertime in Provence is a feast for the senses – fields of sleep-inducing lavender contrasting the positively sunny disposition of row upon row of sunflowers; the colorful and tempting displays of fruit, vegetables and flowers at village marchés arranged in eye-catching compositions reminiscent of a Cezanne or Van Gogh; aromatic herbs carrying their heady notes through the warmed summer air; the building crescendo of cigales (cicadas), the official symbol of Provence; the golden and red ocher and metallic redolence of earth; the green-gray calico of the plane tree’s bark; the secrets of the mistrals; the sun-baked Provençal clay that protects and cools dwellings with rustic simplicity; the Provençal table set with fresh and simply prepared local ingredients; the distinctive herbal flavor of the traditional apéritif; the sound of crushing gravel over a game of pétanque. Provence beholds a romantic, seductive beauty and ease of living nonpareil. Slow living has always been a way of life here.
Atmosphere is the single most essential quality, in my opinion, of an engaging environment – be it interior or exterior, natural or man-made. For my love of houses I was instantly drawn to the regional vernacular with its taste for rustic yet refined simplicity and the hand-made versus the machine-made. There is a quiet, unpretentious elegance to how things are done here. There is an inherent grace and ease with which they live out their daily lives: no rush to “catch-up” with the latest this or that. Time stands still in these ancient hills of the Celts, Greeks, and Romans.
My favorite Provençal dwellings are the simplest of them, void of “pretty” contrivances – bundles of lavender hanging from beams and posts; a panoply of pretty coordinating patterned textiles; rusty, wobbly iron furniture (please, not another iron daybed-cum-sofa!); or, a surfeit of quaint French country furniture. I much prefer rooms with a personal point of view that relate to their surroundings naturally and elegantly.
1 the quality of being graceful and stylish in appearance or manner; style
2 the quality of being pleasingly ingenious and simple; neatness
Elegance need not be, as many assume, formal. Of course, there are many refined and formal residences that capture this region’s unpretentious qualities with grace and elegance. The best of them embrace the characteristics of their locale and traditions without resorting to kitsch notions of the romantic. Nor need rustic simplicity infer the bolt-hole of a country bumpkin – le péquenaud. Au contraire! A certain level of appropriate sophistication is always welcome in my book, and expressions of an artful life is high among them. After all Cezanne lived and worked here, as did Van Gogh and Picasso. What better place to express one’s creativity than in the calming embrace of the countryside? It’s cliché, I know, to say, but nature is my muse.
Creative gestures through references to one’s personal history and caprices, within the parameters of good design, is what makes one’s abode compelling. Two designers whose work I greatly admire, Jacques Grange and François Catroux, inject their rooms with insouciant style, personality and panache, often referencing myriad stylistic periods and cultures. Their respective private residences in Provence honor local building traditions without resorting to local decorative artifice, creating highly personal, elegant and gracious rooms that transcend time and place.
The living room of Jacques Grange’s Provençal mas was once a shed for farm animals. A mix of styles and periods is unified through shape, proportion, material and textural simplicity: the facing woven rush lounge chair in the foreground was designed by the French modernist Charlotte Perriand while the fauteuil near the fireplace is 17th-century; a 1950’s oak table by Jean Royère is watched over by a metal sculpture of a bull that incorporates a removable head mask once worn at fêtes in the Camargue – from where denim and the cowboy originate; Berber rugs are laid over local terra-cotta tiles.
Jacques Grange combined seemingly disparate furnishings and decorative objects in the library-dining room: English Arts and Crafts oak chairs surround a table covered with a Tarascon quilt beneath a Venetian lantern; 19th-century French ceramic columns flank a window lined with Moroccan pottery. The mix is decidedly eclectic, a tad exotic, yet harmonious, bearing the quality of the hand-made.
François Catroux opted for treated cement floors imbedded with stones from the river Durance in a diamond pattern in favor of the ubiquitous local stone or tile. Natural materials and textures harmonize in a sober environment of cool, almost monastic, calm.
Raw, bleached and pale painted wood furniture, rusticated and painted beams, a pale cement floor, and natural linen curtains punctuated by contrasting black iron table bases, the dark diamond pattern of the river stone-set floor, and the dark trim on the curtains is done to great harmonious effect.
These quietly confident rooms speak to me on a soul level. They aren’t designed to impress but to embrace, elevate and provide comfort. They represent a life well-lived free of artifice. These are rooms which cultivate creativity in their absence of clutter, naturally. Nature is their muse.
In coming posts we will visit in more depth the Provençal homes of Van Day Truex, Jacques Grange and François Catroux. We will also visit another Provençal retreat designed by Grange for Terry and Jean Gunzburg, along with the famous and oft documented retreat of the late Rory Cameron, as well as a few refined and elegant estates that represent the best in gracious living and timeless beauty.