From the archive: a theatrical country house in Provence (1998)

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Tim Clinch

This house is unlike other houses. It is more like a theatre set – certainly more dramatic than most houses in southern Provence, with a magic that is an expression of the personality of its owners, Tom and Diane Berger. It is a fantasy in which their passion for French cafés and bistros – tin ceilings, Edith Piaf music, crunchy paper tablecloths and waiters in long, starched aprons – finds expression in the booty of numerous hunts through French flea markets. In a tiny village next to St Rémy-de-Provence, it exudes the kind of theatricality which transports visitors into a dreamland of Provençal hospitality.

By taking Diane to her favourite French restaurants in New York, Diane Berger’s mother instilled in her daughter a lifelong passion for all things French, Tom Berger spent his childhood summers in France, making the crossing from the States on stately old ships like the SS France and the Queen Mary. Each background fostered a sympathy with the French mentality. Married and living in London, the couple began to revisit France. After three summers spent in this way, they decided to search for the perfect house to rent: they intended to focus on one village or town and later find and purchase their dream project.

While they were trying out the lifestyle of home-owner in Provence, it became clear to the Bergers that what they wanted most was a small, ‘authentic-feeling village rather than a big town. “What I hoped for was a village house with a château feel; enough room for a pool and a field of lavender, but only a walk away from the local market,’ Diane rem embers. ‘A fairly tall order.’ A telephone call from the local estate agent produced an interesting prospect. A house was coming on to the market. It had been in the same family since it was built in the eighteenth century, but had last been left to two elderly nuns who lived in the convent across the street and who had recently died. ‘Its façade was listed Grade 1 by the Monuments Historiques, but inside was a wreck,’ says Diane. ‘In the room that is now the dining room, there was a cathedral height ceiling with a ladder going up into a big black hole; that “hole” was to become our bedroom. We bought the house practically there and then, without even seeing upstairs.’

Diane Berger is known both for the element of fantasy and the historical detail she gives to her houses. Her books – The Dining Room, The Bathroom, The Bedroom and, soon to come, The Kitchen – mix art and design history with the last word on modern chic and function. But in this house she wanted to go further, to create something really fantastical. She wanted the house to reflect the love she and Tom share for Provence, the flea markets, the village fêtes, the café lifestyle, even the bullfights they both recognize as part of the region’s heritage. So they started hunting for the contents of this house, buying piece by piece: scraps of vintage bouties, the local regional quilts, fragments of antique ribbons and, on one lucky day, seventeen doors from a château. When asked what her religion is, Diane always answers Isle-sur-la-Sorgue – the ‘location of a famous Sunday flea market. ‘Tom and I spent every Sunday there – we became very fond of the dealers. At midday. they’d lay out the most glorious picnics. They’d often invite us to stay. Once, we dined al fresco, and I sat in an eighteenth-century chair I’d just bought from the dealer himself.’

Diane and Tom were very anxious to employ the traditional methods of building which give Provençal architecture its unique style. The work, which involved gutting the house, tearing down walls, replacing the mud floor and installing wiring and plumbing, was undertaken by Monsieur Sautel, the local builder and mayor.

Discovering the detail of the old building techniques required research. Diane made friends at the Souleiado Museum in Tarascon, the starting point for those interested in historical Provençal style. She then applied to the Monuments Historiques in Paris for permission to paint the exterior of the house pale pink; she enclosed a pale pink ballet slipper; a swatch of vintage fabric from the Souleiado Museum and a dab of original paint from the museum’s vaults. Known for their long deliberations, the Monuments Historiques nevertheless sent its approval-and its congratulations-by return post.

The job is now complete but the love affair continues – Diane and Tom have found their idyll. They see their women bullfighter friends and marvel at their femininity, grace and stamina; Tom scours the markets for fresh basil or the perfect tomato; they relax in a place where, in many ways, time has stood still. For a busy couple living a hectic life in London, it is amazing how quickly they ‘go local’ on arriving. Tom dons a Souleiado shirt and espadrilles, Diane ballet slippers and bullfighter’s skirt. But they transform themselves not only in dress. In their spirits, they achieve a tranquillity that comes from enjoying every last bit of the environment they have created.

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