Artist In Residence

from Decorating
See how one artist used her country-French home décor ideas to design a place to call her own.

Ceramist Kathryn Nelson relcalls the day she first spied the 350 acres of pristine Colorado ranch land that would one day be her home. "The site had everything: plains, mountains, views, wheat fields, woods, and a stream. And there were no buildings anywhere. It was a blank canvas."

The artist in her immediately began envisioning the form that would one day be nestled in the golden wheat fields. Like a piece of sculpture emerging from clay, she imagined a fortress growing out of the landscape to protect her from the harsh elements that come with living at 7,200 feet above sea level on the open plains. The fortress idea gave way to a French country farmhouse, a place she would eventually call La Bastide, meaning The Strong House. The home, which she shares with Steve Scobee, has thick concrete walls meant to look a century old.

An admitted Francophile, the homeowner has a love affair with all things French that began years ago during a long-overdue trip abroad. “I should have gone to Europe during my junior year in college like everyone else, but instead I was 40-something when I rented an apartment in Paris for two months and took French lessons,” says Kathryn, who spent hours watching people and gazing in store windows. “I wanted to see the things they had and what they did with them. I really wanted to understand the French aesthetic.”

Among the things she observed was an offhanded ability to mix and match with fabulous results. “The French are very ethnic-oriented and comfortable putting things from all over the world together, and they aren’t afraid to blend old and new,” she says. “Everything looks so effortless, and that’s what I wanted to do here.”
To help achieve the desired result, Kathryn compiled a “look book” filled with magazine clippings and photos that architect John Knudson and his crew could use to visualize what she hoped to accomplish. “In the old-world tradition, I wanted all these humble handmade materials, but that’s just not how houses are built today,” Kathryn says. “Fortunately, everyone was game to give my ideas a try.”

Among the early challenges was finding the right texture for the exterior stucco walls and, as the architect directed, “making the outside corners of the house look like cows had rubbed their backs on them for years.” Inside, plasterers accustomed to covering gaps with baseboards and moldings had to learn to do the walls perfectly because no trim is used.

According to Kathryn, selecting the hues for the color-infused plaster wall treatment was one of the project’s great joys. “The colors of Provence are so beautiful. How could you not have a yellow and a blue and a green and a white?” A creamy hue meant to mimic old muslin was chosen for the living room, entry, kitchen, and hallways. Two guest rooms, one saturated in a deep clear blue and the other bathed in warm gold, evoke the brighter side of the Provençal palette, while the master bedroom basks in a subtle ocher-camel that changes with the light.

When she wasn’t perfecting the color scheme, Kathryn was shopping for items that would give the interiors a sense of randomness that might have resulted from the house being added onto over generations. She established relationships with reputable antiques dealers, who notified her when new shipments were due to arrive. “One designer went on buying trips to France and Italy, and when the containers came in, I offered to help her unpack so I could get first crack at things,” says Kathryn, who scavenged relentlessly for ancient trusses, old cupboards, and architectural salvage. “I knew that if I wanted to incorporate old fireplace mantels and antique doors into the architecture, I had to have them in time.”

The difficult task of installing beams from old barns and making warped doorjambs jibe with modern hinges fell to Steve, who is a master trim carpenter by trade. “Trying to make a 10-foot-tall door airtight is no easy feat,” Kathryn says about one of the many problems Steve would solve.

From the beginning, Kathryn’s artistic sensibility drove every aspect of the design. “Form follows furniture,” she told her architect early on when to her dismay she determined many of her things were not going to fit in the existing floor plan. The request for 2 extra feet in the living room ultimately required making the whole house bigger—and according to the owner, better. “Five-foot-wide hallways became 6 feet wide, making them big enough to put furniture in,” Kathryn says, noting that many of the houses she saw in French lifestyle magazines had expanded hallways as well.

Like all good farmhouses, this home centers around its kitchen. With its open shelving and oversize island, the gathering space is at the intersection of the home’s Y-shape floor plan. “You can access everyplace in the house from the kitchen, which is very open as compared to the rest of the rooms, which are more compartmentalized and intimate,” she says.

Mottled-tan concrete floors tie the main-level spaces together, but each room is meant to stand on its own. “I had to have lots of rooms because I had so many different ideas and I wanted to fit them all in,” Kathryn says with a laugh. Photographs and sculptures by the homeowner are seen throughout the house, and lovingly composed vignettes are visible at every turn.

A study in white, the serene living room is distinguished by sofas slipcovered in natural linen and a pair of walnut chairs upholstered in white muslin. The adjacent library with its hush of blue-and-green-washed woodwork is often the scene of cozy dinner parties. “I never used the dining room in my last house, so I decided not to include one here,” explains Kathryn, who loves entertaining among the shelves of books and artfully arranged collectibles.

Two antique French doors with etched glass provide entry to the master suite, where gently flowing muslin curtains soften the corners of the metal four-poster. An antique lit enfant (child’s bed) stands at the foot of the bed; Buster, the family terrier, sleeps there.

“When you say French country, people think Pierre Deux, but that’s not what it’s about,” says Kathryn, referring to the classic designers of French country furnishings and fabrics. “It’s about letting go of one particular style and having a sense of living. In the long run, it’s understanding that what you like is more important than having things match.”

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