I was charmed and could not resist asking 'La Castellanne' proud owner a few questions.
I received Kathryn's answers to my interview 2 days before leaving for Copenhagen.
I did not know at the time that my 17 hour layover in Paris on way back would become a 5 and a half day stay in France due to hurricane Irene.
During this short French visit, I came relatively close to La Castellane on 2 occasions. On my way down to Toulouse and on my way up to Nantes before returning to Paris, my trains stopped in the Montauban train station.
It would have been a nice twist to post this interview with Kathryn as passengers got off or climbed aboard. It was not to be as there was no internet connection I could use to make it possible.
After this digression, here's my exchange with Kathryn.
Q: Kathryn, is 'Summers in France' conceived as much on the idea of time, place, friendship than as a design effort?
Very much so. The book is about everything but design; it’s really about a twenty year love affair with a house and my friends and family, all of whom donated their time and effort in La Castellane’s creation. Anyone who came to stay inevitably helped lay a floor, plaster a wall, or plant the garden. “Summers in France” is my way of giving back to everyone who has been both influential and a joy in my life.
Q: The heart of your book, La Castellane is now the image of the picture perfect summer house, how many years did it take you to get there? What were the worst bumps in the road and the Eureka moments along the way?
La Castellane was a twenty year labor of love and like all love affairs, there was a lot of screaming and yelling, mostly by me. I had trouble keeping the workers focused on the job at hand, especially when lunch time rolled around and they’d take off for hours! We started the pool in March with a June deadline to coincide with our arrival for the summer. Well, by the beginning May it was not looking good; there was barely a hole in a ground. I had to threaten to withhold wages in order to incentivize my crew. On May 31, literally, I was surprised to see fire trucks coming up the driveway. But they were there to fill the pool in order to make the deadline! They had brought the whole town’s water supply. I asked them, “But, wait, what if there’s a fire?” The fireman shrugged and responded, “Tough luck.”
My big Eureka moment was turning the cow barn into the kitchen. That changed the dynamic of the house and it was a real inspiration. By comparison, restoring the pigeonniere and converting it into a guest house was math. Buying the horses was also a great idea. I now travel by horse.
But anytime you endeavor to make a statement or to do good work, you always encounter hurdles . But as the book describes, the whole effort of reclaiming the house from ruin became a baptism by fire and gave me the confidence to pursue a career as a professional interior designer. La Castellane is my laboratory to try things out, things I’ve gone on to recreate for clients in my interior design work. I’m also lucky enough to have an extraordinary group of friends from all over the world and summers in France is when and where we congregate and catch up.
Q: Did your background as an interior designer prepare you for the task at hand?
I didn’t have a background as an interior designer when I bought the house. Converting this rundown farm house into a “picture perfect summer house” with a “wow” factor taught me how to be an interior designer.
Q: I live in Montclair. When I lived in Toulouse. I did visit Rabastens and Gaillac. I cannot remember visiting Montclar, the town nearest to your house, what makes it special to you?
Montclar is completely untouched and not ruined by contemporary western culture. You still see the old deux cheuvux and old women in house smocks, things you’ll never in Provence. Its unglamorous-ness is what makes it so real and attractive to me. It’s also off the beaten track and not clogged with tourists – there’s a hardware store in Montclar instead of a L’Occitane boutique.
Q: Can you tell us a bit more about the literature professor turned baker of 'Le Pain Rustique'? Did his prior occupation influence his bread making?
I don’t know that much about him except for to say he’s a colorful character and makes incredible bread. Which just goes to show you can switch careers at any time in your life as long as you’re ready to excel.
Q: Cordes is more of an arts and crafts town, why were you not attracted to it at first?
Well, to me it’s more of a tourist town. For years I never bothered to go to the top of the hill. I had no idea what everyone was gushing about since I only dipped in and out of a few gift shops when I was there. But one day I climbed 2000 feet up to the summit of the town and it’s absolutely ravishing. Of course, you also hear very loud English voices saying, “Isn’t this lovely?” So I prefer places more off the beaten track.
Q: Is the 'office' room as much an oasis, a place to be away from friends and family for a bit, rather than just a place to work?
Yes. And people respect that it’s my room and they kind of know it’s the one room you need an invitation to.
Q: How much do you let work encroach on your 'Summers in France'? Are there set times or days for work duties?
Every morning, very early, I retreat into my office and check my e-mails and take care of business for three hours or so and then it’s over. Then I am able to entertain, relax , organize meal and enjoy my sons and my guests. But later, at night after dinner I have to check my e-mails and make important business calls because of the time difference between the States. All in all, I cobble together a good solid day of work, but at odd hours.
Q: When you bought La Castellane, I guess you were involved in fewer ventures than now (TV Show, One Kings Lane). Has success/ exposure limited your ability to spend time there?
Yes. Obviously. One’s time becomes more and more limited. Last year I couldn’t come to France for my usual long break because I was shooting the TV show. There are more demands on my time now; I find myself pulled in all directions so I have to be very discerning with who I talk to.
Q: The long tables, dim lights and the whole atmosphere in dining area (Le Pigeonnier) makes it feel like it could be a wine country restaurant? What was your source of inspiration if any?
In the long barn I wasn’t inspired. I took the space and did what I thought was right. The barn commanded a long table and because I always have a lot of guests, I didn’t need a genie to tell me what to do. Certain spaces tell you what to do.
Q: The etiquette pages in your book remind me of times when I shared a house with 'friends' and some people tended to appear only when meals were ready and disappear as soon as they were done. Did you ever ask such guests to leave?
I’ve never asked anyone to leave. You know, everyone changes when they get there. Good wine, good food, good scenery makes everyone a better person.
Q: Since 'Summers in France' came out, have you been asked by clients to give their house the 'La Castellane' look?
Absolutely. When the house was featured in Elle Décor, a lot of people hired me because they wanted the undecorated look that I created at La Castellane.
Maybe next time I am in the Toulouse area, I will have the time and opportunity to take a close look at your slice of heaven.
(All photos by Alexandre Bailhache, from 'Summers in France' by Kathryn M. Ireland, Gibbs-Smith 2011, courtesy of the publisher, all rights reserved)