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French Country Home that Embraces History
A 17th-century stone house in the heart of Provence provides a busy American couple with the chance to relax and unwind in charming style.
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Alix Rico is a New Orleans decorator who specializes is creating honest country French design that evokes the Provençal countryside. But when she and her husband, Paul, bought a second home, there was no need to import the French look: They purchased a 17th-century stone village house in the Luberon valley.
In 1997, a French real estate agent walked Alix and Paul by an old house on a narrow village street in Goult. The house was due to go on the market but not yet open for viewing. For a couple who avidly collect French antiques, the location was ideal—Goult is a short ride from the famous antiques mecca of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The location—and the promise of ample garden space—enticed the Ricos to put in an offer on the property without seeing the inside.
The stone surrounding the front door is original, with the date 1699 carved into the keystone. The original door itself was quite plain, so the couple had one made by a company in nearby Coustellet.
Stylist: Lynn McBride
Photography: Gordon Beall
Produced by: Sandra L. Mohlmann
Interior designer: Alix Rico, Alix Rico Design Source, 419 Fairway Dr., New Orleans, LA 70124; 504/488-0205; alixrico.com.
What they later discovered were dark interiors that had been stripped of most of the original architectural trim. But in a one-year renovation, the couple peeled back layers to reveal stone walls, arched doors, and beams. They also added authentic touches, such as stone mantels, to bring the house back to its former grace.
The Ricos’ home in New Orleans exudes a cozy formality, but Alix wanted a less-dressy look for their French home. “I’m always about comfort,” Alix says. “I want you to walk in and feel like it’s a bright, happy place.” That’s not always an easy task in an old stone Provençal house, as they typically feature small windows, dark beamed ceilings, and rustic terra-cotta tile floors. So Alix employed simple pieces and light colors, favoring painted surfaces and linen over glossy wood finishes and silk fabrics to keep the mood light and relaxed.
The magnificent Château de Goult lords over the Rico’s upper terrace on one side, while the other end of the terrace showcases a sweeping view of the Luberon Valley. Below the terrace, the new kitchen addition opens onto the garden.
Provençal Dining Room
The hunt for the right furnishings began before the renovation kicked off. The Ricos found two antique Louis XV style fauteuils for the living room and an enfilade (a long buffet with multiple doors) for the dining room. These pieces set the architectural tone for the decor. The enfilade still has its original painted finish, a pale Provençal color called vert de terre, or earthy green. This green, coupled with shades of cream, became the principal palette for the home. “I didn’t want the cutesy country Provençal look with lots of colors,” Alix says. “I was after something more sophisticated.”
Alix and Paul Rico’s dining room showcases an antique cartoon, a design template for a French tapestry. The chandelier was crafted by friends in Provence using old Italian artifacts.
To complement the neutral decor, Alix had dark ceiling beams that had been unattractively aged by time painted the same soft white as the plaster walls. She also lined the floors on the main level with creamy Jerusalem stone, which varies in size to impart a natural look. As a result, when you pass through the small foyer into the living room, the space feels luminous. Acid green accent pillows on the sofa do their part to brighten the scene in an unexpected way. “I always add a little something that’s a bit off in a room to attract you, but it’s never the overlying principle,” Alix says. “It’s like wearing a white dress but adding yellow shoes.”
The living room sofa is covered in antique linen threshing cloth that is elegant yet rustic in texture.
Sheer linen curtains filter light and soften the living room’s views of the village street.The antique Louis XV style fauteuils are covered in a Pierre Frey linen stripe. The Rico's beloved Papillon, Mignon, graciously poses.
“I decorate extensively with books,” Alix says, “and I like to top them with architectural fragments. I love things that have lost their paint and polish, I find them enchanting.”
The largest part of the renovation required adding a new wing to accommodate a kitchen. Vintage and local materials help the modern work space nestle into the rest of the house. “We turned to a local French artisan to help us get the Provençal details right,” Alix says. Those details include glazed cabinets, a stone sink, limestone countertops, and a graceful French range hood.
Arched windows, a range hood with a hand-plastered finish, and rusty cabinet pulls help the new kitchen blend in with the old house. The room opens to the garden, “so I can breeze out and get herbs for dinner,” Alix says.
A 19th-century Provençal boiserie with its original paint anchors a small breakfast nook within the kitchen.
In the master bedroom, Paul selected a painting of Madame Le Fèvre Caumartin—a copy of a famous portrait by Jean-Marc Nattier—to hang over the mantel. Antique chairs found locally flank the hearth. “I have a lot of respect for the insouciance of true French decor,” Alix says. “Their houses say, ‘We live here.’ It’s not overdone.”
The Ricos removed plaster in the master bedroom to expose a stone wall and had a period-style mantel made from local limestone. Two carved wooden love birds from an old mirror crown the curved head of the bed, which was designed by Alix.
The old cast-iron tub in the master bath was hand-painted by a local decorative artist.
The antique walnut commode is Louis XV style, as are the beds. Alix found a matched pair of trophies which came from trumeau mirrors, to top the beds. The plaster cast of a face in the niche is the Provençal version of the iconic ‘Marianne’, a symbol of French liberty.
Alix used a Ralph Lauren print pillow as her inspiration for this feminine guest room. A carved Louis XV style chair sits nearby; the closet and niche were added during the renovation. A French ‘cartoon,’ the design for a needlepoint chair cover, hangs by the bed.
This Louis XVI style desk in the guest room is a favorite piece. The couple bought it in L’isle sur la Sorgue from a dealer who lives in Goult. “We grabbed it and fled before he changed his mind!” Alix says.
The refashioned gardens foster a sense of come-as-you-are. Vines scramble over stone walls, and boxwoods provide soft boundaries for perennials allowed to flourish wildly.
An antique iron daybed makes an elegant garden bench. The steps lead to the upper terrace, which enjoys sweeping views over the Luberon valley.
A large stone fountain, a swimming pool, and multiple garden rooms for dining or for les apéros, the French version of the cocktail hour, entice the Ricos and their guests to spend numerous hours outside.
The fountain is a soothing presence near the outdoor dining area, perfect for softening the noise of a French village street.
“It was made for me!” Alix exclaimed when she walked into her stone-yard and saw the old sink. It fits perfectly into this small corner of the garden. The Ricos use it for potting plants, and the old faucet trickles down to water the herbs.
Sipping wine under their rose-covered pergola, the Ricos admit life feels full. “I’m always inspired by being in France,” Alix says. “I love the authenticity and consistency in the villages. They inspire me to be as good as the whole.”
A wrought-iron pergola, called a tounelle in Provence, shelters the family’s main outdoor dining area. A ‘Lady Banksia’ rose provides deep shade. “We rarely eat a meal inside during the summer,” Alix says.
Alix and Paul Rico in the garden outside their kitchen.