How to renovate an old building

French interior designer, Catherine-Hélène Frei Von Auffenberg shares her love of antiques and some useful tips for renovating ancient buildings

If you've already picked up a copy of our July issue, you'll have seen Catherine-Hélène Frei Von Auffenberg's extraordinary renovated chateau in south-west France. Found overgrown with brambles and close to collapse, Catherine-Hélène had no qualms about the work required to bring the chateau back to life. Here, she shares with us her love of antiques and offers some useful tips for renovating ancient buildings. 

I have always loved antiques. From a very early age, around seven or eight, my grandparents would take me to visit their older friends who lived in lovely houses with beautiful furniture, paintings and gardens. These visits were wonderful and made a lasting impression on me.

I bought my first antique around this time with my own pocket money. My grandparents had taken me to an antiques fair where I saw a little brooch for my doll. The doll is long gone, but I still have the brooch.

These days, my favourite possession is an 18th-century armchair. It was given to me one Christmas around 30 years ago. It was actually wrapped up under the tree as a present. It is French and the kind of chair that would have belonged to a young girl; dainty and quite small. It is just the right size for the cat to sleep in!

I’m naturally very curious and go to a lot of flea markets, which I find are better suited to my budget when I’m working on a personal project. I also love the antiques shops in London and Paris, but these days they are expensive and generally way above the budgets for my own restoration work. But it’s a different matter, of course, when I’m working for a client, as their budgets are often a bit bigger. I also love the antiques fairs in Avignon and Montpellier, which are incredible. They are for professional trade only, and take place every other month. People come from all over the world to buy and sell there.

My golden rule for interior design and restoration is: if it’s old, reveal its age and do not over-restore; leave some decay. Many old houses have magnificent front doors, but over the centuries they have become weathered and can leak badly. I’d never want to remove the door as it is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship and was made to suit the property. My solution is to add a second, inner door, which can be made windproof and watertight. By fitting one behind the other you not only retain the original door, but you create a small anteroom that acts as insulation. 

Another way to overcome the problem of damp and drafts is to use triple-layered drapes. I take two antique kilims back-to-back and add a thick layer of insulation between them, like a sandwich, and then hang them behind the door. It’s a really effective way to keep the interior of the house warm and watertight without sacrificing a wonderful old front door.  

I always try to find clever solutions to the problems thrown up by restoration. During one of my restoration projects at a chateau, I didn’t want any wires or pipes showing, so I asked my stonemason to remove the original stonework so that he could make channels behind. The electricians and plumbers were then able to run their wires and pipes invisibly.

I love every project I work on, but I particularly remember renovating an 18th-century shepherd’s hut. It was in the French Pyrenees at an elevation of 1,400m, with no water, no electricity or access from the start. I had to take materials up in a cart, which I used to pull myself – until I got a donkey! I eventually sold the renovated house to an English couple.  

To look inside Catherine-Hélène's renovated French chateaux, pick up a copy of our July issue - on sale now. For more information on her renovation projects, visit cathfrei.com 

Interview: Amanda Robinson
Photographs: Jan Baldwin

Homes & Antiques' July issue is out today!
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