Renovating a rural home in France
Author Josephine Ryan explores a renovated rural home and finds plenty of inspiration for antique buys
La Fabrique is set deep in the French countryside in a lush, green valley, with a fast-flowing river running alongside. From the outside, the building looms up, large and imposing, giving no indication of the chic and whimsical family home inside.
La Fabrique is enormous. The home (and antiques business) of Bernard and Maxime Cassagnes was originally a paper mill, hence its size. Bernard, a trained architect, bought the 1890s mill in its original state and moved there in 1981; Max, his bohemian wife, joined him in 1985. Using his architectural skills and unerring eye, Bernard has created a truly remarkable and unusual home.
Famous in the trade as Le Baron, a term of affection given to him by his fellow architecture students, Bernard runs his antiques business from the mill. His speciality is art forain – fairground art – and there are plenty of examples in the shop, as well as in the living space, but he deals in all things large, strange and beautiful.
The couple live in only a small section of the building, although the ghosts of the mill workers seem ever-present in the cave beneath the living accommodation. This huge vaulted cellar is where Bernard stores his restoration equipment, from piles of wood and crates of chair springs to sheets of mirror and antique glass panels. Small in stature but larger than life, Bernard is passionate about his collections and never throws anything away, believing that there’s a use for everything.
The faded red front door with a Georgian fanlight opens onto a gargantuan hallway, where you are greeted by a giant-sized plaster theatre prop of St Marc Antoine. The ground floor is shop space, complete with a pou du ciel (flying flea) aeroplane and a church organ.
A sweeping staircase with beautiful, aged wooden treads leads to a small door to the living space, with a discreet notice requesting incomers to Essuyez vos pieds (Wipe your feet). Although taking up only a fraction of the mill, the living space is vast. Absolutely immaculate, it is in contrast to those areas used as work, storage or shop space, and equally, if not more, beguiling.
In the kitchen/breakfast room/dining room, collections of stuffed reptiles cling to the back of the door, while the mix of wine and beautiful glass apothecary bottles displayed on a shelf beneath a stuffed fish is the lightest decorative touch. The main dining table is covered with a 19th-century yellow embroidered cloth from Morocco. The disguise is appropriate for more sensitive diners – the table was originally an operating table – but for those with a hospital background, it is only partial, because the pedals are still visible. To complete the scene, there is an operating theatre light above.
Outside the window is a long cord attached to a brass bell that Max pulls to summon Bernard to the phone or for dinner. Off this room, an enormous terrace overlooks the river where Max swims in the summer.
The grand salon is, as its name might suggest, the biggest room of all, with a beautiful polished wood floor, which means that shoes are forbidden. It is dominated by a coffee table made from a roulette board of inlaid wood, covered with glass for protection. Even the humdrum is disguised to look attractive: the television is hidden behind tall double doors, and the heater on the window wall is covered by an ornate ironwork grille. This originally formed part of the Art Nouveau arch above the entrance to one of the Paris Metro stations, designed by Hector Guimard in 1900. All this is presided over by a 1930s life-size equestrian statue of Maréchal de Bassompierre, used as an advertising emblem for Vin tonique de la Durante.
Climbing the creaky staircase to the next floor, one is greeted by two stuffed lions flanking a door.
With their back halves missing, they look as if they’re emerging through the wall. As you go through the door, you feel as though you’re entering the world of Narnia. Eight rooms, including bedrooms, Max’s studio and a huge bathroom, lead off the long corridor.
The magnificent slate-floored bathroom has a bank of four basins set in marble and lit by bare-bulb lights, creating the magical feel of a theatre dressing room. The claw-foot, cast-iron bath offers an unobstructed view of the river and countryside beyond – utterly romantic. If time is short, there’s also a walk-in shower with antique fittings and slate walls. The equally impressive bathroom on the ground floor has ochre-yellow walls and an enormous red, antique cast-iron slipper bath.
The master bedroom has an intimate feel, with beautiful wide wood floorboards and subtle paintwork in cream and yellow. The conservatory off the room, a 1920s addition, is home to Max’s impressive collection of orchids and pelargoniums. The windowless guest room is illuminated by a huge, square skylight. An eccentric collection of antique musical instruments is displayed on one of the walls, beneath which there is a beautiful miniature carousel.
Max’s studio is reached through two impressive Art Nouveau doors and by tripping across a seemingly enchanted doormat. One step on it and the lights go on; step on it again as you leave and the lights go out!
Antiques dealers could be described as the last gypsies or consummate recyclers, and Bernard must be the ultimate example of both. Although a self-confessed hoarder, he has a sophisticated eye, which is immediately apparent as you step through from the business part of the mill to their elegant home.
Get the look
With nifty French high street and online purchases, you can steal the stripped-back, simple style of La Fabrique. Prices and availability correct at time of going to press.
Make light work
The clinical feel of Bernard and Maxime’s kitchen is lent industrial cool by the use of a former surgeon’s lamp. As an alternative, try this €109 zinc suspension light, called ‘Hector’, from www.lumidora.com
Get that sink king feeling
Add to the modern utilitarian feel of La Fabrique’s kitchen with a simple white evier (sink). This one from Leroy Merlin is called ‘Trendy’ and costs €249.90. www.leroymerlin.fr
Uncomplicated layers of grey elegance complement stripped floorboards in the bedroom. This Scenario duvet cover (housse de couette) costs €27.99 from www.laredoute.fr