A love of colour and teste for well-placed mementoes have brought the simple style of the French seaside to our shores, writes Bonnie Malkin.
Virginie Fontes has created a little of southern France in her rented apartment on the northern beaches. However, she does not hail from the rural france of Guy de Maupassant, or even Peter Mayle, but its coastal cousin, whose interiors are light and airy and full of whites, blues and greys.
“When most people think of France they think of the interior, of Provence,” says Fontes. “But because I’m from the coast I think of stripy cushions, blue ticking and the sea.”
Fontes, a shop owner and furniture importer, and her husband, Stephane, moved from the seaside town of Arcachon, near Bordeaux in south-west France, to Sydney six years ago. They have been living in their Queenscliff unit for three years.
The second-floor apartment is long and thin, with a corridor that connects the main and second bedrooms at one end of the unit with the bathroom in the middle and the open-plan kitchen/living/dining room at the far end.
Through the French doors at the end of the living room is a small balcony and beyond it lies the deep blue-green of the ocean, so close you could imagine jumping right in.
“When we saw the view we knew we wanted to live here-for us it represented the real Australian lifestyle of living by the sea, and it is really quite peaceful here, too.”
The apartment’s location might represent a slice of the Australian dream, but its interior is pure French reverie. “I wanted a comfortable interior that reminded me of home a little bit. That’s why I bring things back for the apartment from France whenever I go, like the soup tureen on the coffee table.” In the bright living room, an antique chaise longue and a day bed are covered in French lined, striped cotton sheets and a thick eiderdown quilt.
“The cushions on the bed are covered in toile a matelas [ticking],” Fontes say. “It is the same fabric that we used to cover our mattresses at home, so it has the French antique look, but it is also good for the seaside because it is stripy.”
Opting for a day bed and chaise longue instead of a sofa and armchairs made perfect sense, Fontes says. “I wanted to have something comfortable and relaxing so that I could lie down and read and listen to the waves, and our sofa wouldn’t fit in here anyway, so we had to go for the smaller option.”
The day bed’s frame might look like it comes straight out of a Juan-les-Pins hotel room, but is actually an old Sydney hospital bed.
“You don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money to get the right look,” says Fontes. “It’s more important to feel at home where you live.”
Shell collections on the windowsill and driftwood from the beach in a bell jar nod at the beach-side theme that Fontes was keen to cultivate, given the apartment’s location. “It was obvious, because we are by the sea, that we should have a seaside look and I have always liked these things because when I was in France I lived by the sea. The deckchairs, the little wooden fish on the wall and the storm lantern on the table, they were all chosen with the sea in mind.”
Because the apartment is rented, the couple couldn’t change the colour of the walls or alter the fixtures, but they managed to turn limitation into inspiration. “The light-grey walls with a bit of blue were perfect with all of the grey things that I have, so it was easy to place everything in here-I just added a bit of blue and green to go with the ocean.”
Her love of colour dictated most of her purchases. “I chose the fan in my bedroom because it is blue. Most of the things I have I picked for their colour.” If she falls for a cupboard, table or chair that is the wrong colour, she simply paints it. “I love the colour of natural lined, so I took a piece of then with me to the Bristol [paint] shop and they made me the perfect paint.”
One of the pieces of furniture ho have benefited from a fresh lick of paint is the 100-year-old dining table. “This was my great-grandmother’s and originally it was in dark wood, so I painted it in this blue-grey and covered it with a linen cloth. The chairs are old French garden chairs also simply painted grey.”
The dining table isn’t the only piece of furniture in the apartment with a history. Every item tells a story, from the clock in the corridor that was made by a Parisian artist to the French jam jar on the bedside table that doubles as a vase for white tulips.
“I have always liked items that have a story behind them. The jam jar was originally my great-grandmother’s,” Fontes says. “At one stage in France, people wanted to get rid of all of their old stuff because they wanted new, modern things. I have seen people burning their furniture because it was old and that broke my heart. I love old stuff.” Accordingly, the linen cupboard in the living room was the first piece of furniture Fontes bought in France and the small wrought-iron table beside the day bed originally hails from a bistro in Paris. “ Every time I go to France, I love [to look through] bric-a-brac shops, so I always bring something back here with me.”
The light-filled bedroom also holds stories of days gone by. Two black-and-white photographs hanging in painted wooden frames hint at the couple’s family history. “My husband’s family and my family knew each other for a long time,” Fontes says. “In this photo you can see my husband’s grandparents and my grandparents on holiday together.”
A wrought-iron washstand from ici et la in Surry Hills also harks back to old France, but has been given a modern twist with a wicker basket full of soaps and lotions sitting in the place of the original porcelain basin.
Some Australian antiques have also benefited from the Gallic treatment. In the dining area, a linen bread bag, chosen for its white-and-blue colour scheme, has been framed in rustic painted wood. In the bedroom a small duck egg-blue bag, made from old woolen blankets and found in a shop in Balgowlah that has since closed, hangs from the dresser.
“You can find some really old fishing baskets here that we also have in France-anything old will do,” says Fontes. “I don’t really like modern things like glass dining tables; they don’t have any character or personality, and I like character.”
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