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JOIE DE VIVRE

French interior designer Frédéric Méchiche likes to indulge in a favorite pleasure — perusing realestate advertisements in Provence. This time he ended up with a new home. The newspaper notice simply stated: “19th-century Moorish house for sale.” No photo accompanied it.

“When I see a notice at an agent’s or on the Internet, I dream each time,” he confesses. “I see a film unroll in my head. Even if the place is abominable, my imagination conjures up what it could become. I adore that. There are several Orientalist houses in the South of France. I knew them all,” he says. “But I didn’t know this one. I took a rendezvous immediately.”

When he arrived at the house, nestled in the wild landscape of the Mont des Maures about nine miles up in the hills from Hyères, “the sky was black with clouds and it was pouring rain,” he recalls. “The terrace was as big as a football field, but with nothing on it, not a tree. The coupole — almost eight meters high — was covered in leaves and the Moorish arches had all been filled in. The house itself, built in 1894, was modern, a perfect cube like the Arabic architecture of tombs, but the façade was nineteenth-century Orientalist.”   

He was intrigued by the coupole, a graceful dome that had been built of brick and covered in plaster. Méchiche recognized that the structure’s Swiss architect, who had designed buildings in Istanbul and France, knew how to replicate the style. “It was astonishing. The base and the coupole were perfect, but the interiors were terrible, the garden was a forest of bamboo. There was too much cement everywhere and sliding plastic windows, but that all helped save the rather fragile house.”

The designer was smitten. “I suddenly had a flash of the Algerian house of my childhood, a background that is pure and simple,” he says. “My father was a doctor, he admired architecture and collected antique ceramics. And there was an English colony there, so I knew several English houses.”

He looked at the house with his professional eye. “I don’t pay attention to the ugly, the nightmare of horrible tiles and plastic,” he explains. “The interior décor can be changed.” Instead, he looked at the house carefully — its location, how it was positioned on the site, how the light comes into the salon, the volumes, height of the ceilings, shape of the windows.

And what he found pleased him. “In some houses you can see in three seconds from the exterior what you will find inside, as if you had already visited it,” he says. “Here, it is a little labyrinth. When friends first come they get lost inside.”

Even though it is small in measure, the house is not small in esprit. Volumes zoom from low ceilings in the library and small sitting room, sited in the former stables, which he incorporated into the layout, to the soaring dome in the grand salon. “It’s a mini-palace, full of different corners, ups and downs, large and small spaces, an architecture in miniature with different ambiances,” he says.

The winter garden, the pièce de résistance, demonstrates the eye of an artist.  Walls gleam with an exotic shade of green mixed by Méchiche himself from gouache paints to which he added “a point of blue or a touch of umber until I got the color of Matisse’s painting when he was in Tangiers.”

“People are afraid of color,” says this master of daring and extravagant hues.  “I found this green in only three places: the Moroccan paintings of Matisse, in simple Moroccan homes, and in certain English castles from the nineteenth century. Like the blue sky and the perfumes of Provence, this saturated color is a sort of nostalgia for all my childhood.”

Rare velvets, emblazoned above the mirror on the wall and covering cushions on the white banquettes, contrast with a simple cotton throw in his signature black and white stripes. “Black and white stripes go as well with the eighteenth century as with contemporary art,” he says. “But they should be used with parsimony.”

Florid modern murals on the grand salon walls were whitewashed into pristine perfection and provide an almost minimalist backdrop for the crowded Oriental ambiance of Napoleon III furniture and Méchiche’s own art collection. He restored all the Moorish arches in the Ottoman Empire style that dominated Algiers from the sixteenth century to 1830. A small staircase leads up to the master suite, which in the Arab tradition has a small interior window into the Grand Salon.

The cement black and white tiles were commissioned and manufactured  in Marrakech. They go from inside to outside forming an exterior “salon.” Two independent guest suites with private gardens were established in a former agricultural building.

Méchiche’s inimitable mélange of luminous Orientalist colors is revealed from room to room: vivid rose cushions in the sitting room are covered with fabric of an antique Iranian gown. Blue glass from Syria glows on the ceiling suspension light fixture. A thin painted band of aubergine between ceiling and wall in the winter garden acts as a frame. The “very nineteenth-century Napoleon III” tone is expanded in the brown and aubergine shades of wooden doors and paneling. And turquoise terracotta tiles beguile on the roof. “That is how I imagine my colors,” he notes.

Méchiche brought in a rock smasher to deal with the garden’s excess concrete. Now the desolation he first encountered has vanished under a plantation of trees. “I started with nothing, now it is like a garden in Provence or North Africa.” Trees and more trees, arbousiers (strawberry), lentisques (mastic), all very scented, cypress, palms and medlars, eucalyptus, and massive plantings of reeds from the gate to the house. “They look like they’ve been there for a century, but I planted them all.”

Roses — the fragrant Orient rose, in particular — have taken over the terrace with an enormous cypress and jasmine. “When we arrive in May, there is a corner of the garden where you can hardly breathe the perfume is so violent, “he recounts. “The fragrance goes through the entire house.”

Pavilions in the garden are teatime rendezvous. Thé sur la Nile (hot tea poured over ice cubes) is served with lemon cookies. Meals are taken under a shady canopy of wisterias, while linden trees provide more shade in front of the house “like the vault of a cathedral,” Méchiche says.

All these elements blend together to provide the real inspiration for the house.  “It is why I liked it from the start, why I bought it, and why I feel so well here.” 

INTERIOR DESIGN BY FRÉDÉRIC MÉCHICHE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JEAN FRANCOIS JAUSSAUD
WRITTEN BY JEAN BOND RAFFERTY

This story appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of MILIEU.

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