On a wintery first day of spring, a visit to the Foire de Chatou Antiquities Brocante, after a fleeting séjour of sun satisfied seeker in Marseille, I’d like to share some of my experiences and finds with you. The combination of these two experiences led me to think about my work, having sourced for clients’ secondary residences - summer homes in Watch Hill, Little Compton, Rhode Island, East and Southampton, Long Island.
I had enough work to keep me on board full time. I dream of sourcing for a Provencal Mas - farmhouse in Cotignac or an Hôtel Particulier in Aix, or a beach-front Villa in Ile de Ré. Secondary homes are typically relaxed in compared to main residences and are frequently furnished with less expensive things, and perhaps one or two standout pieces in the mix of high and low. One doesn’t want to feel stuffy and afraid to sit down if there’s a little sand left over on the back of one’s legs. Also, since it’s not always occupied and in a potentially low lying area, one might not want to invest as much as with a primary residence. If acquiring a property abroad, it makes sense to source locally. The brocante - the flea market - is a perfect place to start and is surprisingly affordable, though, this may change again as tastes and currencies fluctuate.
Upon arrival at the brocante, I take in rows of tented booths that sit on raked gravel, and immediately my eyes are drawn to a hand-carved gilded wood sculptures depicting a winged angelic face with garlands, and another portraying a woman’s face surrounded by grapes, perhaps representing a fruitful vendange. One is displayed across the arms of a French 18th century chair and the other on top of a garden urn. At another booth old phonographs and other forgotten musical playing devices with yellowed punch cards that play a tune when the box is cranked.
We are a group of five friends, some old and new; one who recently acquired a property near Avignon and anticipates opening a Bed & Breakfast just in time for the Provençal vendange. I introduce her to a dealer who is located a stone’s throw from her. In addition to brocante finds, we have an opportunity to socialize. As we get closer to lunch, the dealers set up tables near their booths and eat in civilized manner, off of ceramic plates and stainless flatware. While walking from booth to booth, I spy plates stacked with oysters, glasses of wine and Champagne. Lending to the ambiance and the festive feel. This and the sound of walking on raked gravel assures me that without a doubt I’m in France.
We disperse looking at various booths of what lures us. I head for the vintage postcards - I do see the merits in de-cluttering, but I let go of one too many postcards from my now defunct collection. I would have been better off swapping or selling my collection, if even for a song. All of the booths at the brocante are neat and tidy and this booth is no exception, with its neatly organized box after box on a table, and each postcard in a small plastic sealed envelope. I ask to see those with images of Saint Paul-de-Vence and Marseille. I go through many postcards and narrowed it down to a postcard of Roquebrune. The postcards are mostly in black and white and it is a fascinating and entertaining way to look at a slice of history. Some have messages written out on the back of them and are stamped. I’m so glad that these small snips of history haven’t gone to the recycle bin or worse landfill. I’m fond of postcards and suggest buying them as we don’t print so many of our pictures anymore. The composition was generally approached more thoughtfully than today. Digital photography has become so popular that photography classes might need to move from a college elective to prerequisite for all majors as we all clicking away with our mobile phones.
Following my purchase, I continue to take it all in and here is what I found of interest: framed botanical prints, vert-de-gris bust of a woman that sits on a unremarkable side table, blue pharmaceutical bottles with their labels in latin of yesteryears medicinal remedies, well polished silverware tied neatly with grosgrain ribbon and separated into bundles of knives, forks and spoons resting on crisp linen table cloth, a sample book from a by gone era of white lace bits adhered to contrasting sky blue paper, stacked safety deposit boxes, hat box from the venerable department store of Bon Marché. Some of the booths looking like vignettes right out of a set design. One such vignette I recall featured a white painted wrought iron chair with just the right amount metal coming through, a plant stand filled with daisies, a potted plant with a white flowering flower, a beat-up quaint sky blue painted vanity table with mirror, an old tricycle, and framed panels painted green French trellis peaking from behind.
Walking about Paris and Marseille, much caught my eye too and I found storefront decor particularly interesting and even novel. They put much more thought into it than I’ve seen stateside. A locksmith’s shop windows displays a little history of their business precursor’s, with chunky skeleton keys alongside contemporary ones and an impressive Napoleon III 19th century safe with decorative gilded mounts on bright blue. A printer exhibits old printing presses in its window. A Japanese aesthetic - inspired Parisian gallery exquisitely presents jewelry and scarves thoughtfully arranged in beautiful display cases, including a single étagère incased in glass. Colorful eye candy graffiti Art adorns the wall in le Panier section of Marseille. I take an educated guess to attribute it to Os Gêmeos graffiti artists.
Many outdated, neglected, or outcasted objects come back into play later as curiosities. Reflecting on this, I got to thinking of how I would use them in an interior. I imagined a room with an old record player and a small collection of vinyl to play, I saw myself browsing through an old sample book with bits of lace, viewing almost unrecognizable images of the familiar through an old view finder as time has shaped the past into the new. I think this activity is a contemplative one and quiets the mind while it’s energizing at the same time. Downtime is nourishing to the soul. It also helps us with productivity in an ever increasingly hurried world. Sometimes you have to slow down to speed up.
If you like to collect, study and display, then maybe you might like to have your very own contemporary room inspired by the cabinet of curiosities - the 17th century precursor to Natural History museums. In this case, I would suggest to including somethings representing natural history as well; sea shells, vintage pieces of coral, leaves, a collection of mineral specimens in various size and shapes and certainly at least one obelisk of rock crystal. Mineral specimens are visually delightful and some believe these minerals have esoteric and healing properties. I would keep a pair or two of magnifying glasses, note pads, pencils and erasers. I may line a wall with pressed botanical specimens or prints. I would include comfy upholstery, with good ambient and task lighting. Old store vitrines can be useful to display items and could be used as a contemporary variation on the idea of a Kunschränke (a piece of furniture for displaying natural history). In this case, I would have one for the vintage items, a separate one for natural history, and a book shelf or table for books. I would keep collections on the spartan side to give them space and rotate them from time to time to keep the collection fresh. I personally don’t advocate adding taxidermy to one’s collection which one would have found in the original cabinet of curiosities.
Many towns greet us with a fountain upon arrival which is both a visual delight and an audible one too. I think a fountain is a lovely addition to one’s home exterior and interior if done well. I find if a home or work place are too quiet, it can actually be difficult to work in. This morning, I heard lovely bird songs on my morning walk. Later, I sat outside to meditate briefly and in hope of taking more of their lovely song. Apparently, the bird song is a reassuring one to hear and good for one’s health.
I would like to have my own recording of city sounds of Paris that I would find appealing to use in lieu of a morning alarm for some days. Of course, not all city sounds are pleasant yet some man-made sounds are. Church bells have a distinctive sound and some are very beautiful. Then there is the charming cacophony of transportation - cars, bicycles, motorcycles, Vespas and the a like. Cities have a very distinctive sounds. Paris, New York,Venice are all quite different. The Metro of Paris has a far more appealing sound than New York’s subway, as it’s much quieter. I like the door closing signal sound and the sound of the tires contrast sharply with the ear damaging effects of New York’s subway metal wheels.
The morning interests me as everyone is setting off on their day and there is optimism in the very notion; of our first foot-steps out the front door as we embark on our day. The sound of our footsteps running down the stairs, a hint of an elevator, commuters dashing to work, mothers taking their children to school, distant conversations in French, an occasional dog bark, and maybe even a cat’s meow. Perhaps, at a quick stop for an espresso, as we take in the sound of French language conversations- those we understand, those out of range, those we can hear and yet fail to understand completely, the sound of ceramic coffee cups, the espresso machine, the steamed milk and much more. Thinking about sound reminded me that Fine Art can incorporate sound. The work of Shi Jinsong - Suspension Strategy made from branches sourced in New York, Connecticut and cast bronze models of Chinese tree branches that are suspended from the ceiling. This work of Art created a unique sound that enhanced the experience of this sculpture- an interesting way of incorporating the natural world inside.
In addition to interesting objects, curiosities, comfy furniture and sound - we need to add some fresh flowers to our interiors. If you love to entertain - l’art de recevoir - as much as I do, then keep a wide array of vases. When I have overnight guests, I make sure I have flowers throughout the house and certainly in the guest bedroom. Imagine walking into your ample sized foyer and greeting guests as you stand next to a welcoming oversized bouquet of local wild flowers, lavender and sunflowers, in a cream painted cast iron garden urn resting on a table that is dressed in a linen table skirt with a double width tape along the leading edge that breaks ever so slightly onto the floor. When receiving houseguests, it’s a good hospitality to offer some amenities; a luggage rack, an adequate amount of towels, bath, hand, face, a bath mat, guest soap, perhaps the renowned savon de Marseille or your personal favorite. One’s home should have fragrance, yet best to keep it subtle and natural as possible sans chemical additives.
Many of my ideas for a summer home in France translate well beyond the scope of summer or France and could be suitable for various residential settings or even commercial ones such as luxury bed and breakfast or a small boutique hotel. I conclude with fond memories of a recent trip to Marseille and of holidays past in the hill villages of Alpes Maritimes I never wanted to leave yet I didn’t know how to stay. Nearly, twenty years later I’m still longing to have my home in France and yet for now, I continue my journey as a flaneuse, interior designer and writer.