A Year in Provence, Sarasota-style

By staff February 1, 2007

We have the tourists, shopping, wine and even the small-town scandals Peter Mayle describes in A Year in Provence. Sarasota’s beaches are arguably superior, our azure waters Riviera-picturesque. We dread hurricanes; they fear a wind called the mistral. But perhaps the most compelling similarity is our common attitude about time: Both in Sarasota and Provence, as Mayle suggests, the tempo of life is measured in seasons rather than in days.

French Country décor adapts remarkably well to Sarasota homes. The colors work with our sun-drenched light better than they do up North. We’re more relaxed here, more open to informality and decorating laissez-faire. French Country is a look that exudes self-confidence; you choose what you love regardless of what others think. You mix and match hand-me-downs with priceless antiques. You go for character and personal style.

That’s just what Barbara Kupferberg did on Longboat Key, in a one-of-a-kind remodeling project orchestrated by designer John Hargreaves of Sarasota and Highlands, N.C. “This was a generic box,” Kupferberg says. “Every villa in the community was designed exactly the same.” But she and husband Lloyd were confronted with an even more troublesome conundrum: Their family had seriously outgrown the home.

“When we bought the place 16 years ago, we had one child married and one grandson. Now all three kids are married, with a total of seven grandsons,” she says. The Kupferbergs didn’t want to move, but they needed an extra guest bedroom, better access to guest baths, and a layout that would give homeowners and visitors the feeling of privacy.

Hargreaves attacked the floor plan, reconfiguring the dining room into a new guest bedroom and making the living and family rooms a great room that included spaces for serving meals, reading, watching TV, playing cards and gracious entertaining. He also revamped the kitchen footprint, restructured hallways, reconfigured doorways and added a transom to fill the new foyer with natural light.

With a livable new layout in place, the French revolution began. “Barbara requested Country French,” Hargreaves recalls. “But she had a large collection of Southwestern furnishings she still loved and wanted to keep in the home.” Hargreaves’ solution was to gather all Southwestern pieces and put them together in one room. “The master bedroom was most appropriate because it’s a private space where the décor wouldn’t conflict with the rest of the home,” he says.

Hargreaves knew that Southwestern colors are remarkably similar to those of Provence, and that both styles share an affinity for rustic materials. “We painted the walls sapphire blue and added 200-year-old beams with terra-cotta tiles in between,” he explains. Now perfectly suited to either decorating style, the room could be switched to Country French and look equally good, should Kupferberg later decide to make the change.

The most stunning architectural alteration was the conversion of the former dining room into the new guest bedroom. But the move had its downsides. “The dining room opened to the foyer and a sunny courtyard beyond; I knew the creation of a bedroom would darken the hallway,” Hargreaves says. To compensate, he added 45-degree-angle transoms on the new bedroom wall, allowing daylight to shine through to the hall.

The foyer’s walls are mustard gold, cheerfully accented with white French pottery from Yves Delorme on St. Armands Circle. A rustic metal table and tapestry rug hint at the authentic Country French treasures that wait inside a fieldstone-rimmed archway leading to the great room beyond.

The reverse of the arched wall is completely outfitted in stone, a typical Country French detail. “Poor families built out of fieldstone,” Hargreaves says. Sometimes the walls were plastered, sometimes they weren’t. Now the plaster in farmhouses is knocked off to expose the primitive stone.”

In rural Provence, no room is complete without an armoire for storage; therefore several appear in the Kupferberg home. In the living area, an 1850 antique conceals entertainment equipment; in the kitchen, where the French would use an armoire to store crockery, pots and pans, a state-of-the-art refrigerator is concealed behind wormy chestnut cabinetry, fooling the eye into thinking the fridge is a real armoire.

Country French focuses on simplicity and charm. Devotees love its naive carved roosters and ducks, iconic Provençal fabric motifs and decorative tiles. All these appear in the Kupferberg kitchen. Rustic iron fixtures from Kressle Forge and dinnerware of classic French pottery (fine china is rarely used in Provence) impart the ambiance Kupferberg hoped to achieve.

The grandfather clock Hargreaves selected for the living room has authentic élan. “It’s an old French clock cabinet, from around 1840; at that time farmers made clocks in the winter to earn extra money,” he says. Another example is in the home office, a delightful French mantel clock, circa 1860 to 1880, from Steven Postans Antiques. “It’s also a country piece,” Hargreaves explains. “In Paris it would have been done in bronze and covered with gold ormolu. Farmers in Provence copied the designs in wood because it was cheaper.”

Exquisite woodworking abounds in the office, which features blind fretwork on either end of the partner’s desk that Hargreaves designed. “All cabinets in the room are knotty pine for continuity,” he says. “It was very important in French design that woodwork [the brasserie] all be done specifically for that room.”

The charming new guest bedroom’s lavish treatment of yellow toile fabric is characteristic of Provence as well. Hargreaves chose typical white French sheers to cover glass sliders, and an antique French bed from Palm Avenue’s Coco Palm Gallery. Though the headboard had to be expanded for 21st-century comfort (beds and people were much smaller in the past), the guest room is authentic, warm and welcoming.

As for color, “I asked Barbara to choose the primary colors and built the palette from there,” Hargreaves says. The mustard gold entry hall is punctuated with doors and frames painted the same dark blue-green sage that runs throughout the living spaces and kitchen, both typically browned Country French tones.

Hargreaves visually heightened the boxy villa’s ceilings by painting them the same colors as the walls. “When you eliminate the line of demarcation between the white ceiling and colored walls, the space takes on another dimension,” he explains.

“My job is to interpret the look the client wants,” Hargreaves explains. “Whether it’s German, English, French or Bulgarian, each has an attitude and an aesthetic one connects to a country or people.” The best way to do that is to go to the source whenever possible, he says. “If you can afford 18th century, get it. Nineteenth century is better than 20th century. But if you can’t afford that, get the 20th-century reproductions; get the closest to the original you can afford.”

C’est la vue

How to achieve a French Country look.

Country of origin. Choose furnishings made in France, especially Provence, and buy the best antiques or best reproductions you can afford. Mix and match for a handed-down look evoking local character and style.

Architectural effects. Add interest to boxy generic rooms with a fieldstone wall, vintage window shutters on a windowless wall, rough-hewn beamed ceilings, authentic corbels, fretwork and delicate wood carving.

Go natural.  Painted finishes, hand-rubbed woods, rusty iron accessories, metal furniture and woven rush chairs provide authentic ambiance. Go for iconic regional artifacts like carved roosters and farm motifs.

Contain your gardening. Walled stone villages in Provence leave little space for gardening—pots of flowers abound instead. Kupferberg’s potted Florida wisteria evokes images of Country French window boxes and lavender fields.

Texture and color. Use crude pottery, warm copper pots, distressed woods, terra-cotta tiles and cotton prints in Country French tones for texture and color.

Adjust for size. Scale seating to the client’s comfort, and adapt beds to people of this century’s size. Hargreaves’ artisans skillfully enlarged an antique headboard without compromising comfort or style.

Less is more. Don’t pile on too many decorative accessories in French Country and other cottage-style homes, Hargreaves cautions.

Get the Look

Local specialists in Country French furnishings.

Décor de France, 24 N. Boulevard of the Presidents, Sarasota (941) 388-1599.

European Focus, 508 S. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota (941) 330-0877.

Yves Delorme, 28 S. Boulevard of the Presidents, Sarasota (941) 388-4494.

Via Mediterranee, 1564 Main St., Sarasota (941) 955-8985.

Pamela de Provence, 665 S. Orange Ave., Sarasota (941) 955-9102.

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