French Dressing

from Decorating
Follow the lead of these homeowners to combine formal and country-French themes in your home decor.

Beyond a rim of formidably tall wrought-iron gates and within a rabbit warren of narrow streets in a small village close to Montpellier, in the south of France, the entrance to Le Domaine d’Hugo is almost completely hidden from view. The impressive house, whose grand architecture is typical of France’s Languedoc region, is the sort of place where, 250 years ago, wealthy landowners of a successful wine-producing estate would have lived, surrounded by beautiful gardens filled with flowering bougainvillea and heavily laden fruit trees.

When Michel and Véronique Hermel found the palatial grounds in 1996, however, it was in a desperate state of disrepair. Almost every improvement in the building and its beautiful landscape can be attributed to the capable restorative and creative skills of the couple. Michel is an advertising illustrator and designer, and Véronique is an interior designer with a relentless passion for beautiful things, evidenced in the home and in her shop next door. The talented pair named the estate for their now-12-year-old son, Hugo.

The renovation was a massive undertaking with scarcely a detail spared. The main farm buildings, where animals were once stabled and their foodstuffs stored, are now attractive and comfortable living areas. A new stone staircase divides the home’s new salon into sitting and dining areas. Michel found the stone for the salon floor in the Luberon village of St. Pantaléon. “If possible, I like to source materials locally, as this gives even more credibility to the restoration,” he says in crisp French. Michel also has incorporated local traditions, such as creating a small trench in the floor around the edge of the dining room and adding a layer of tiny pebbles on top of the soil. Trees and large shrubs are then planted directly into the floor and watered.

All the door openings and majestic tall, arched window in the salon are new. At the far end, Michel added two doorways with ornate surrounds and pediments, leading to the romantic master bedroom and en suite bath, rooms that once housed farm animals and agricultural vehicles.

The large kitchen was created from three small rooms. Michel designed several pieces for the space, including two painted storage cupboards with mesh door fronts and a set of cabinets he modeled after the fixtures in an old-fashioned grocery store.

In addition to searching local specialist salvage yards for materials, he found many antique fixtures at local markets. A copper bathtub with zinc interior was a rare find from the famous antiques market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in Provence. When using old was not an option, Michel fashioned new versions and gave them the patina of age with clever paint effects. For example, the floors in the bathroom and master bedroom feature new wide-plank boards painted with a soft blue-gray checkerboard pattern and aged to look as if they have been trodden for a hundred years.

As soon as Michel finished restoring the building and grounds of Le Domaine d’Hugo to its former grandeur, Véronique set to work on the decor, mixing classically lined modern furniture with antiques and linen textiles. Inspired by the old-world charm of the kitchen, she patinated the cupboards and cabinets with a soft green paint and decorated the room with bouquets of dried flowers and tresses of garlic, onions, bay, and other aromatic herbs — hung from the beams and batterie de cuisine, aka kitchen utensils. Above the cupboard next to the fireplace, she displayed dozens of photographs of Hugo as a baby as well as the Hermels’ friends and family, all framed in antique wood, ivory, and porcelain.

The salon’s dining area boasts high woven chairs surrounding a
stunningly beautiful enameled iron dining table with a whitewashed wood lath top. In the room’s sitting area, Véronique chose light, soothing colors — pastel and ecru. “I didn’t want any harsh, bright colors in this room, which is where we love to curl up on the big sofas and relax,” she says.

On the room’s chests and traveling trunks, Véronique continually changes the decor, placing fresh flowers, potted plants, collections, and other items according to mood, season, and light. She brightened the far wall with a touch of eternal spring: a collection of dried flowers, framed in perfect symmetry. “These dried flowers, often from Italy or Provence, offer a range of delicate colors, with their faded yellow-ocher flowers and pale green stalks,” she says.

Véronique created a fragile, surreal feel in the master bedroom with muslin bed hangings that drape romantically from the tall ceiling and sweep delicately across the pale wood floor. She covered the satin-quilted bed with madras cushions over crisp linen sheets that are ideal for rest and relaxation.

In their work as interior designers, the Hermels combine modern comfort with a deep regard for the authenticity and beauty of the past. Le Domaine d’Hugo bears testament to their ample creative skills and passion for renovation. Michel believes there will always be a need for people who are devoted to returning historic buildings to their former splendor. “There is nothing more satisfying,” he says.

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