I’m like Icarus drawn to the sun, unable to avert my gaze, as I scan the limited vista of a sitting room window.
It’s surprising what you can see in that few seconds as you walk by, although insufficient time to determine if the walls are painted in Elephant’s Breath or Purbeck Stone without risk of being caught.
But there’s an alternative for interior voyeurs: Coffee table books go some way to suppressing nosey-parker tendencies, but don’t necessarily provide the desired fix.
A new and surprisingly satisfying read, however, comes with Perfect French Country by Ros Byam Shaw, (published by Ryland, Peters andSmall at €37), who has penned several other books on interior styling themes.
However, rather than take a prescriptive approach to describing the interiors — which here range from manoirs to the most humble miller’s cottage — she allows the owners to talk about how they came to have the houses, what they’ve done with them, (and what’s yet to be done in some cases), with beautiful photos included.
If you’re expecting French touch-me-not chic throughout the 13 properties drawn from all over France, you won’t find it.
Certainly, some have been modernised, and upgrades have been achieved with sensitivity to the style and age of the various houses, while others show a deliberate attempt to maintain or reinstate some of the character and interiors of the period in which they were built.
Owned by a mixture of indigenous French, and new arrivals, who either live in them all year round or holiday there, they all have something in common: A sense of style that crosses design, decades and even centuries.
So it was hardly surprising to find one of the stories is on the home of Frenchwoman, Irene Silvagni, one time editor of French Elle and French Vogue, a woman with a reputation for being a style maverick, a quality which is mirrored in the house she bought in 1989 as a wreck, having seen a sign in an estate agent’s window declaring: “Ruine à Vendre.”
Located on the edge of the Carmargue, the house dates from the second half of the 17th century and has become what she terms a mix of her bohemian style and the classical style of her Italian husband
No room is left untouched by the stroke of a strongly coloured paint brush, which provides a striking background to an extensive collection of furniture and accoutrements which the now-widowed retiree has collected over decades.
Amongst this cache is a pair of Russian Constructivist chairs in stringent post-revolutionary design which also provide a nod to a Russian ancestor: Leon Trotsky, who was the editrix’ great-uncle.
Conversely, a young Dutch couple have an ongoing renovation project in Normandy.
Called D’Une Ile, it’s a cluster of ancient cottages — one of which dates back as far as the 16th century — and which all together form a little hamlet beside an ancient forest.
It looks as if it’s been plucked from an historic film set, but instead of rosy-cheeked milkmaids and crook-bearing shepherds, you’ll find owners Sophie and Michel, running a hotel in their personal village
Opened in 2012 while they were still in their late 20s, the work is ongoing and the hamlet’s bucolic environment gives no indication of the interior style, where mod-cons have been incorporated into an authentic, the vernacular re-build.
Among the 11 other properties in the book, freestanding bathtubs are a common feature as is their treatment, with vivid primary colours applied to the exteriors, whether they are slotted into a miller’s cottage or something closer to a minor chateau.
It’s a theme which draws on what the French call élan, a word defying exact translation but representing a certain flair — here amongst a diverse range of homes with diverse owners, élan pervades.
From the elegant simplicity of tables spread with French blue check tablecloths, or rough-hewn wooden tables with the patina of age, each offers up simple fare — like bread, cheese and local wine amidst peace and quiet — never overstyled and slightly undone.