Life at № 42 by E.M. Coutinho
The background problems were discussed in some detail here, but having had ample experience in design/furniture/art over the past 24 years, I wanted to talk about the things people don’t always consider when taking on a period property.
The appropriateness of the quality of what goes into the house is of primordial importance to making it into a success. We often see people on television saying improvisation is an easy alternative. Programs like Escape to the Château show people making curtains from their old underwear and fixing the plumbing with used condoms. In practice I can assure you these are in all likelihood not good ideas.
Take the dining room: The faux silk wallpaper on the bottom section of the wall is probably from the 70s/80s. On top, matching the cut velvet curtains, is something considerably older. Imagine the fun of getting glued fabric off a wall? Then we have 1950s chairs around a table covered in something rubbery and medallion chairs from yet another period against the wall. Discombobulated in every way, nothing quite gels together.
So let’s go through the list of what needs to be done before we begin. Stripping the wallpaper with steam and praying that works on the fabric without pulling old plaster off the walls with it. Smoothing out any damage from that process (it’s inevitable), filling old holes. Taking down the curtains. The floors will have to be cleaned up and repolished last because of the mess all the work will create.
Now back to the matter of quality. In a room this size, the first basic is an appropriately sized table. I think period extendable works best because you allow for intimate or large and formal by simply adding or removing leaves. An good option for this dining room would be something like this from Christie’s coming up for auction in a month’s time.
I’ve seen people try to get around this with reproductions or improvised attempts. The result is almost universally a resounding failure. The solidity of the floors and window frames, the thickness of the walls — they put into evidence anything where the quality doesn’t actually match. Cute and whimsical is great in an Ikea catalogue, not so in a period luxury home. Currently the impression when you walk in to this room is what’s I Love Lucy’s kitchen furniture doing here?
Then you have to think chairs. Based on experience I’d say get at least eight, preferably 10 or 12. A great option is 20th century design like Maison Jansen. I know I mention them too often but it’s because their work is so easy to use and quality.
Then you’ll have to consider a wallpaper, a chandelier, a large amount of fabric for curtains. To do any of this properly you need a substantial budget. A quality wallpaper like Cole & Son will run at prices starting at 150€ per roll. Multiply that by 12 to 14 rolls for a room that size, add 450€ for the wallpaper fitter (we just had a room done so this is an up-to-date price). If you go for a panoramic by de Gournay, prices start at 500 per roll. Then you get an effect like in our dining room.
See what I’m getting at? Doing a room properly at Villa Ermo is going to easily cost you over 25000 euros. In a perfect world I’d also suggest a budget for artwork on top of that.
The people in that house now, and many others like it, make an effort to buy the place without any real sense or plan of what comes next. This risks serious financial peril. If your biggest asset/investment is one where you can’t maintain or increase its value by making it the best it can be, the opposite will happen. A downward spiral begins. Every year that goes by, the decay increases a little bit more, the equipment gets more and more obsolete, cracks get larger, damp patches get bigger. And the more the new owner is going to have to invest to repair it, the less they’ll want to pay you for your miscalculation.
This is where lies the danger with misleading real-estate advertisements. The note at the end of the ad in this case says: “nécessite une importante remise à niveau pour lui apporter un confort moderne”. That translates to it needs a major upgrade to make it comfortable. In my mind an upgrade is when you go from business to first class. It’s major if you were in economy. Or when you ask to be moved to a room with a view. If you have to tear a metal stairlift out of a wall, break apart a bathroom to start from scratch, or hire an engineer to figure out how to keep an iron structure from cracking your kitchen walls — that’s a bit more than an upgrade.
The agent should, at the very least, include some pictures to give a sense of the reality of the place. I can’t tell you the amount of time we wasted visiting homes that turned out to be nothing like the advertisement. It used to make me furious. Nobody told us the views were to a sewage plant. They forgot to tell us there’s a train that goes through the garden. I’ll never forget, visiting one of my absolute favourite houses, only to discover the strange building backing onto it with a lot of little windows was a penitentiary. No, thank you.
I sincerely hope people looking at Villa Ermo have a long hard think because a period property is by no means solely about the buyer. It’s a responsibility you take on as a caretaker, a custodian. There were generations before us at number 42 and there will be generations after us, so everything we do impacts on the house’s survival. That’s preservation, conservation. Not respecting that model can mean utter destruction. The work and effort of many artisans and creators down the drain, gone forever. A period property is not for everyone. And certainly not one that needs major work. If you want a lesson in how to do it right, I highly recommend Fool for France. Lynn took on a project like Villa Ermo and is doing it beautifully by making an old Maison de Maitre relevant (and beautiful) in the 21st century.