With its craggy hilltop towns, lofty cypress trees and plentiful vineyards, the Luberon in France is unyieldingly beautiful. Composed of three mountain ranges, the region has long been a summer retreat for well-heeled Parisians, but it also holds an exquisite romance for many Brits. Driving towards a pretty house of buttery Provençal stone encircled by lavender fields, it is easy to see why its English owners fell for it.
For them, it was the view across the valley that clinched the deal; by contrast, the building was distinctly underwhelming, consisting of a labyrinth of subdivided rooms, shoddy dropped ceilings and Sixties decor. Thankfully, the estate agent had brought with him the architect Hugues Bosc, who was fluent in the local architectural vernacular and could see the house was steeped in potential. Having worked with the owners on their boat, interior designer Sophie James of was already on board. And so a three-and-a-half-year project ensued, during which the footprint of the house barely changed, but the interiors were slowly reworked to what feels like the original mid-eighteenth-century layout, but in reality is far from it.
The most pleasing discovery was in the entrance hall, where the ceiling was plasterboard. Hugues, suspecting that things were not quite as they should be, poked his finger through the gypsum to reveal a series of elegant vaulted arches. The addition of a wide stone staircase at the entrance to the house elevated the room from architectural afterthought to a handsome space of classical proportions.
The building has proved to have strong opinions and so the hall, much like the rest of the house, is a pared-back affair. 'It spits things out that it doesn't like,' explains Sophie. So, rather than fight the architecture, they have let it sing. The walls tend not to be hung with art; the furniture is chic yet simple; and the colour palette is understated. Most of the downstairs walls are limewashed and both the wooden and the stone floors are reclaimed.
Sophie and the owners spent two years accumulating furniture with one clear rule in mind: every piece they bought had to have three potential places where it would work within the house. It is a clever trick that stops the house from looking overly immaculate. There are loose-covered sofas, comfortable armchairs and light linen curtains.
This considered approach was applied both inside and out. Having spent a lot of time on boats, the owners have a keen eye for the practicalities of space. There is always a bright spot in which to sit as the sun moves around the building, every bedroom has a place you can work at and it is possible to have a full house without guests ever tripping over one another.
But, for the owners, the pièce de résistance is the kitchen, which comprises two adjoining rooms - one is where the bulk of the cooking takes place, while the larger area houses the dining table and opens up onto the garden. Katie Fontana of Plain English oversaw the project and nothing was left to chance. 'We built every cupboard knowing what would be going in it,' explains the owner.
Equally important was the garden. 'We wanted it to be authentically Provençal, but with its own personality,' says the owner. She and a great friend, garden designer Janie Lloyd Owen, did the planting, while the designer Michel Semini masterminded the landscaping. There is a cutting garden and a potager and, of course in summer, the surrounding brilliant purple lavender fields, which are preceded by a wash of scarlet poppies.
The house and garden are the products of unwavering efficiency and an acute eye for detail. The muted colour palette and understated furniture bely the level of work behind its exacting composition, but this was a complicated project. Sophie and the owners are keen to attribute one another plentiful credit, but it is clear that this is a house built on the foundations of collective effort
For more information on Bucknall James, 020-7349 7216