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Ten years of visiting, followed by three years of construction and refurbishing, and now Shauna Varvel’s family Provençal mas situated just outside of Avignon, France, is an exquisite Provençal destination to see both inside and out.
Feasting first on the thoughtfully designed and decorated property through Instagram beginning in 2018, I continued to follow her as the property named Le Mas des Poiriers as well as serving as a family home for her and her husband, their adult children and the growing grandchildren, is also now available for rent (although, likely for the most elite due to the price point – which it is worth based on the expansive grounds and thoughtful decor).
Featured in Veranda‘s April 2019 issue, inspiration abounds whether or not we will be able to visit and see with our own eyes, as Varvel’s new book Provence Style: Decorating with French Country Flair (published by Vendome, photography Luke White) was just released earlier this month.
With today being the first day of summer in the northern hemisphere, I thought what better way to celebrate the ideal season during which to visit Provence than by dedicating this week’s podcast episode entirely to welcoming the Provençal decor and garden ideas into our home and lives wherever we may call home.
Having had the opportunity to receive and read Shauna’s book, if you are looking for visual inspiration as well as a historical exploration of the design styles associated with Provence, Provence Style is a book you will appreciate and find incredibly resourceful.
Below I have gathered 15 ideas adding a touch or a wealth of Provençal decor inspiration to our sanctuaries. Let’s take a look.
1. Welcome in the natural light in abundance
Open the curtains, pull the shades, if you are in the middle of designing a space or choosing a home or apartment to live in, choose one with oodles of windows and preferrably south-facing (northern hemisphere) or north-facing (Southern Hemisphere) along with east, west and north as well of course. Why? Natural light works magic on the beauty of a space and Provence is all about the sun and the mistral-clear blue skies painted and appreciated by artists.
In other words, treat your windows with curtains or shutters or shades, but never forget to open them when the sun is out.
2. Add earthenware to your decor and dining experiences
“Established in Marseille in the late seventeenth century, the earthenware industry in Provence gave rise to names such as Saint-Jean-du-Désert and Fauchier, known for their exceptional blue and white faience glazes.”
From large jugs and handmade pieces of pottery to plates for dining or plates for wall décor, earthenware is quintessential Provence. Begin gathering a collection, use the jugs as vases, use for functional purposes in the kitchen at the dining table, find them at flea markets, brocantes, online or a second-hand stores, and when you do, a touch of Provence will be seen and felt.
3. Mind the door and window hardware, custom millwork details and ironwork
The details matter in any home, and when it comes to Provençal style, swap out the modern for the traditional. From knobs to closures, staircase handrails, and drawer pulls, seemingly small, yet certainly significant.
4. Provide direct and easy access (inviting and encouraging as well) to outdoor spaces, the garden
Provence is about the outdoors, eating seasonally, working with the weather (yes, the mistrals are a real thing and while clearing the sky to keep that pristine blue as well as cooling you down during the summer season, they can be fiercely aggressive in the fall and winter), so provide access to the outdoors with ease. Keep your kitchen garden close to the door closest to the kitchen, create inviting sitting areas outside under the vines and the trees, and perhaps invest in a door or screen door which lets the outdoors in reminding you to step outside and enjoy the warmth.
5. Ah, the traditional hexagonal terracotta flooring tiles
“A distinctively Provençal floor material that is characteristic of most houses in south-west France, known as tomettes de Salernes, these quintessentially local tiles have historically been made in the villages of Salernes from the red, iron-filled clay of that area. During the nineteenth century, terracotta tile production was prolific, with tomettes exported throughout Europe and Africa.”
I remember seeing my first terracotta hexagon floor in the vacation rental I enjoyed staying in while traveling in the Luberon. A two story villa in a little hamlet near Gourdes (tour it here), the hexagon tile covered the bathroom floor and dazzled me primarily because of its history and being in the region of France where such tile was originally made. No matter what the color scheme, this style, this color is a neutral, it is timeless, it is classic Provence.
6. Strike a balance
“Carefully judged contrasts between rusticity and gentility, modesty and opulence, the democratic and the aristocratic, are the signature of the contemporary Provençal home.”
Here is where time and travel and exploration create the expertise of knowing what that balance is. Knowing how to strike the balance of opulence and rustic is not initially simple to do, but with intention and time, you will find it eventually becomes instinctive. Provençal homes no more adhere to entirely one aesthetic – everything ‘country chic’ than France is a country of singular flavors. No, no, no. While staying in my first vacation rental in Provence in 2018, this four story home in the medieval Ville of Vaison-la-Romaine included centuries-worn stone steps, iron-railings, classic artwork inspired by the time of the Renaissance as well as simple, floral bed linens, linen curtains and a modern bathroom. Mixing and matching – function and beauty, a touch of the present with fond inclusion of the past.
7. Know the objective of furniture selection and placement
Varvel writes the guiding principle “is to generate an impression of artlessness, though this requires thoughtful consideration of scale, comfort, design detail and choice of upholstery.”
Look for vintage furniture, yet reupholster with preferred fabric and restructure the pieces to create the desired comfort. Layers work as well, soft and hard, some, but not too much. Don’t clutter, but don’t be a minimalist. Creating seating areas to sit, relax and be. Design with the eye of the guests in mind – what will they be drawn to? Let one item sing and the others complement. Include upholstered items in every room, but not every piece need be upholstered.
The foundational design elements hold true, but now you let the other items on today’s list guide you to what type of items to include.
8. Plaster-finish for the walls
Provence is quite hot in the summer, but very much a geography which beckons you to be outside nearly the entire year even though they do have all four seasons.
“Plaster-finished walls are a common trait of the mas. When overlaid with lime wash, the lime sinks into the plaster, giving it a luminance and patina distinct from that of a conventionally painted wall.”
Varvel goes on to share, she chose a custom mix of lime wash and chose a flat finish to match the tone of the limestone floors in order to create a sense of ‘unity and openness’.
9. Restrained elegance
While yes, a rural locale, Provence has a rich and lengthy history stretching back to the Romans who “conquered the Greek colonists who had introduced grapevines and olives and also built the port of Massilia, later known as Marseille. This city would be instrumental in infusing Provençal living with a sense of opulence.”
“A culture of contrasts, merging bucolic bliss with bourgeois aspirations; rural tradition with refinement; rustic crafts with luxury.”
What does restrained elegance look like in a Provençal mas or home?
- opulent chandeliers over a table covered in a linen tablecloth with fresh flowers from the garden lined up in a row down the middle
- ornate gold-framed mirrors set in front of a vintage upholstered armchair
- carefully laid table settings, silverware, multiple glasses and plates with an open window framed with modern fabric for the curtains which stretch to the floor.
- Bare floors of limestone, covered only occasionally with an antique wool rug
Brilliant in late June and through July, the sunflowers as you drive about the countryside in Provence will, if you are like me, successfully tempt you to stop the car and take pictures. Never mind, they are ubiquitous in this region, and likely you will find more around the next bend in the road, but still, their beauty draws a breath of awe each time.
Plant them yourself in your own garden. I planted my first sunflowers last year at Le Papillon and found direct sowing worked best. They don’t need much water and by August I had giants standing guard around my property. This year, I direct sowed all of my three different pouches of seeds and even have some self-planting sunflowers along my front path to my porch. My neighbors have been planting sunflower seeds since I moved to the neighborhood, and they sow them well before the last frost. Currently, they have an alley of sunflowers about four feet tall and doing fantastically.
In last Friday’s This & That, I shared a link to this article from Homes & Gardens UK containing 30+ ideas for styling your own French country inspired kitchen. One of the many recommendations I have welcomed into my own home is a rack full of copper pans that are actually used, but also provide a stunning rustic, yet sophisticated focal point in the kitchen. (become a TOP Tier subscriber and tour my kitchen here)
From rustic to new, large, medium or small, in all different styles, baskets about the home are a functional touch that also looks wonderful from a decorating perspective. I recently picked up a few baskets for my home during Rabbit Hill’s French Lifestyle online pop-up shop, and highly recommend checking out her monthly offerings. As well, market baskets are wonderful treasures as well as highly functional. I have displayed my own in my mudroom, and wrote a post about how to
13. The love of cloth
Specifically Indiennes, originally imported colorful Indian chintzes which had small repeating motifs of flora and fauna. Serving as bed hanging, bed curtains, drapes and bedspreads as well as clothing, Indiennes is especially well associated with Provence. Other cottons depicting scenes from nature as well as stripes and ginghams have come to epitomize the Provençal decor.
14. Gardens full of herbs for cooking, medicinal purposes and exquisite fragrance for the home
Beginning with lavender as the most immediate herb that comes to mind when Provence is mentioned, did you know it also while scenting the air repeals flies and mosquitos? Yep!
As well as many other herbs, be sure to welcome an abundance of basil as Varvel shares, ‘it is also a natural insect repellant and has been an essential in the Provençal kitchen garden for more than a thousand years”.
Place in the ground or in pots just outside your kitchen for easy access while you are cooking and welcome oodles of fresh flavors to your meals.
~Have you checked out The Simply Luxurious Kitchen cooking show? Seasonal Fare to Elevate the Everyday Meal. The fourth season will debut on Saturday September 11th, and be sure to catch up on the previous three seasons here, YouTube or Apple Podcasts.
15. Create natural shade in the garden and outdoors
“The Provençal garden gives shade, with plantings of plane, chestnut, pines, cypress, evergreen oak, drought-resistant blackberry, and fruit trees, especially olive, fig, apricot, peach and plum.”
Varvel shares the many artists who would work en plein air in Provence and which trees appeared in their paintings along with the sunflowers which captured Van Gogh and Cézanne’s admiration. Needless to say, Provençal style cannot be what it is without the outdoors or the honoring of the outdoors with the welcoming in of fresh flowers, floral and fauna prints and the opening of windows to let the fresh air dance about the home.
If you have an outdoor living space, no matter how small – balcony, a porch, create a space which beckons you to sit, relax and take many deep breaths of appreciation. In other words, to be present.
More than anything, to echo what Shauna Varvel’s shares in her introduction of her book, the lifestyle of Provence rejuvenates, gently, yet assuredly nudges us to slow down and be present and never rushes us to hurry to the next thing. Taking in the sights, taking in the tastes and savoring the seasonal beauty, Provencal living is peaceful living. The markets run year-round, the attire need only be comfortable as you need your skin to breathe and your body to move as you walk about and around the many medieval towns and villages. Life in Provence is living well and savoring the everyday. When we create a home to encourage us to embody these qualities, no matter where we call home, our lives changes for the better.
~Be sure to check out an interview with the author Shauna Varvel by Jamie Beck who lives in Provence.
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~The Simple Sophisticate, episode #308
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