Around the House, French Hotel Chic

There’s nothing like a real vacation to renew my inspiration. I recently returned from a two-week painting vacation in Southern France; a dream vacation for me.

I spent one entire week with a group of five like-minded amateur painters. We were all thrilled to be indulging our dream of painting the French countryside "en pleine aire" with our guide and instructor, an Italian by the name of Francesco Fontana. The landscape, the colors, the ambiance and, not least of all, the food were all grist for the mill of creativity. And then of course there were the accommodations: being a designer I can’t help but constantly scrutinize the design details of hotels and restaurants, both looking for new ideas and taking note of what does not work. Clients, too, will often refer to a feature that they have encountered in a hotel which they would like incorporated into their design project, so it pays to be attentive!

Our first stop was St. Tropez, and unfortunately the hotel we had chosen there received low marks for design. The least impressive and most expensive (owing to it’s prime central village location) it was called "La Maison Blanche" (The White House) and the theme was "white": whitewashed floors, white curtains, white bedding, white cabinetry — you get the idea.While the idea wasn’t bad, the execution betrayed the hand of an untrained amateur. The bathroom, for instance, sported stylish vessel sinks (white) with wall-mounted faucets which looked good but when in use the faucets extended so far beyond the drain in the vessel that water splashed all over the counter and floor. Take note if you are planning wall-mounted faucets. Europeans tend to prefer shower enclosures with no moving parts (i.e. no doors or shower curtains) which when well-designed can be quite elegant and functional, but in this case a bath tub was located in the center of the room and enclosed with glass panels on the two long sides; in order to reach the controls I had to awkwardly cantilever my body over the tub and stretch my hand out to a panel of five mystery controls. Were they faucets? Diverters? Hot? Cold? After a few tries and a few dousings with cold water, I managed to get the bath water regulated, although one control remained a mystery (what did it do?) for the entire stay.

Another curious feature at the White House was the number of closets. There were at least four good-sized closets. I thought one would be perfectly adequate for my needs, albeit my wardrobe was fairly modest for this trip since my luggage was largely devoted to my painting easel and canvasses. I would have preferred open space rather than extra closets but maybe those jet-setting types who are likely to stay in St. Tropez have much more extensive traveling wardrobes than I. Then there were several full length but odd cross-shaped mirrors (white-framed of course) which were clearly making a "statement," but the statement really hampered my ability to check on my appearance before heading out. I could only get a sort of narrow view of a portion of my outfit. Then again, maybe those typical St. Tropez types are all models and very skinny so a cross-shaped mirror would not be an obstacle for them. All-in-all, I rate "La Maison Blanche" as pretentious and overpriced — but, hey, it’s St.Tropez.

Continental Window Treatments

The four hotels I stayed in over the two-week period don’t constitute a major polling sample, but strangely enough they shared one decorating detail in common — all handled the curtains in the exact same manner. In fact, the private house where we were treated to dinner used the very same treatment as well. Let me describe: grommets (think shower curtain) are evenly spaced along the top hem of the curtain panels which are threaded onto a pole. It’s pretty basic; the only real variation occurs with the weight of the fabric — a heavy fabric will tend to form large uniform rounded pleats and a lightweight fabric will tend to be drifty and unstructured. I wonder if the French government has a new edict about window treatments — all windows must be dressed with grommets and poles? In any case, La Maison Blanche again came in last in the window treatment category for, while the grommets were there, they were threaded on to a cable which tended to sag and was affixed to two ugly wooden blocks gratuitously nailed into the wall on either side of the windows. Shame; the windows themselves were lovely.

Modest Digs in the Countryside

Next stop on the journey was our main destination in L’Isle sur La Sorgue, the B&B where I was to stay for the painting workshop. L’Isle sur la Sorgue is famous for it’s Sunday antiques market which I attended on my first day in town. Unfortunately, with the dollar so weak against the Euro, there were no tempting bargains — better to buy existing stock from dealers in the US. The market itself is quite an experience; vendors line up all along the canals, the roads, the sidewalks, and the town plazas to sell everything from vegetables and sausages to clothes to souvenirs, antiques and whatnot.

Unlike St. Tropez, in L’Isle our lodgings were so unpretentious and the sign so obscure that we missed the turn-off entirely on our way back from market, however, "Le Temps d’une Chanson" (Time for a Song) as it was called, was the perfect venue for our painting workshop. The tile floors, the unfussy toile bed coverings and sturdy muslin curtains (grommets on wooden poles in this incarnation of the standard window treatment) reflected the natural charm the region is famous for. The bathroom was small by our standards but, on balance, it had a surprisingly large tiled shower that was simple to operate and a charmingly old-fashioned space heater mounted on the wall that was very effective in warding off a chill as you stepped out of the shower. The closet had rustic wooden carved doors and each room had French-style doors leading out to a terrace.

No ground-breaking decorating discoveries here except maybe the observation that our hosts at the B&B had such a gift for hospitality that our experience there was almost magical. Eric always seemed to appear at an opportune moment to offer our painting group an aperitif and we marveled at our good fortune that every evening after our painting expeditions we were treated to a delicious meal beautifully prepared and presented by Helga. Special experiences can be planned but they cannot be forced and this one proved to be a serendipitous combination of Francesco’s thoughtfulness in choosing inspiring sites for our painting expeditions, the genuine hospitality of our hosts and the truly appreciative enthusiastic spirit of the group.

Country Chic

It was a wistful parting when we left L’Isle, but I was not disappointed when we arrived in Grignan at "Le Clair du Plume," a French country inn that manages to satisfy contemporary requirements for upscale bathrooms and flat screen TVs without sacrificing any of the country charm. Our room overlooked both the impressive colonnaded town fountain and the hotel courtyard garden which served as an outdoor tea room from noon to six. The room was furnished simply with sisal floor covering, a large antique oak desk and a pair of comfy wicker chairs. The headboard was another popular device I’d see again: it consisted of a pleated fabric panel hanging from drapery hardware — sort of an illusory headboard. The bathroom was quite sleek and contemporary; this time the faucets were aimed properly into the vessel sinks and minimalist Hansgrohe fixtures were employed throughout. A tiled counter and a fabric underskirt on the vanity were the touches that married the contemporary conception with the country style.

Renovated Chateau

Our final stop was a Chateau I picked for it’s location near Fountainebleau. I was delighted when we arrived to find yet another wonderful version of French Hotel Style. This was a 16th century chateau that had been competently and tastefully renovated into a golf resort. Our room featured 15-foot high ceilings with what appeared to be the original wooden beams still with traces of decorative painting. The other vestige of the 16th century was an imposing carved fireplace surround that dominated the room. What I had come to see as our standard grommet and pole drapery treatment looked very impressive indeed, flowing from the top of 12-foot high casement windows which looked out over the golf course. The bed again sported fabric panels hung from drapery poles but the panels were 8 feet high, lending an imperial scale to the bed. The bathroom, which was to be found behind a 10-foot high partition neatly dividing the room, had all the contemporary accoutrements, including the same severe but handsome Hansgrohe hardware, an enclosed WC, a separate shower, an enclosed tub, and a monumental heated towel rack. It was all quite grand with the great high ceilings!

But for all it’s grandeur and luxe, few golfers were braving the cold and rainy weather to stay there, so the Chateau had a bit of a hollow ring. No amount of high style could compensate for the missing warmth and genuine hopsitality we had experienced earlier at L’Isle. And when I finally had my chance to visit the Great Chateau at Fountainebleau, I discovered that all the State Monuments are closed on Tuesdays, the only day possible for me. Oh well, my disappointment was only assuaged by a visit to Vaux Le Vicomte, another fabulous Chateau, and knowing that I would have to go back to France to finally visit Fountainebleau.

Barbara Sternau is an Interior Designer with offices at 37 Main St., Tarrytown, NY

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