Renovating and decorating an ancient French farmhouse

Michelle Opperman’s childhood dream to return to France led to a lengthy search for a home and the sensitive renovation of this ancient farmhouse. Feature Karola Woll. Photographs Renée Frinking. Production & Styling Wilma Custers.

The traditionally furnished dining area has a more intimate feel.

A French Love Story

Michelle Opperman’s love affair with France, its architecture and culture, began when she visited Europe for the first time. As an 11-year-old from South Africa via California, whose French ancestry was evident in her surname, La Roux, she felt what she describes as an ‘incredible connection’ to the country when she passed through France on a family holiday to visit relatives in Germany.

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Over the years Michelle, an interiors architect, has lived all over the world – Tokyo, New York and Amsterdam – but her dream was to settle in France. However the opportunity never arose. Then, on her 45th birthday, while still living in California, her husband Craig presented her with a leather-bound journal in which he had listed two different house-hunting itineraries in France. The journal was to serve as a record of their property search, which was to begin in Paris and around the Loire Valley.

A look towards the South

Michelle knew from living in Amsterdam that the northern European climate was not for her. So the family’s focus swiftly moved southward towards Montpellier. Multiple trips to France ensued, says Michelle, ‘but we couldn’t find a place that really spoke to our souls’. Even if the requirements on the family’s list of ‘must-haves’ could be ticked off, a certain something was always missing. And then finally, four years into their search, they stumbled upon an extraordinary ruin, which is now their home-from-home in France. Set in an idyllic location with several vineyards, an olive grove and an oak forest, not to mention outbuildings and a garden, the house itself was in a terrible state, says Michelle. ‘It had been badly neglected, but we could feel there was a soul waiting to come back.’

Built from local stone, parts of the house have been standing since the Middle Ages and it experienced its last major renovation during the French Revolution. In the courtyard stands a European oak tree, brought from the Netherlands, and planted using a 60-tonne crane.
Built from local stone, parts of the house have been standing since the Middle Ages and it experienced its last major renovation during the French Revolution. In the courtyard stands a European oak tree, brought from the Netherlands, and planted using a 60-tonne crane.

A Blank Slate

For Michelle, the dilapidated building was a blank slate and an exciting challenge. Though the next two years required real stamina and for most of the time the house was uninhabitable. One room was rat-infested, pigeons lived in the attic, and there was very little electricity. Some parts were so rotten, they had to be entirely removed and rebuilt. The aim of the renovation was to respect the history of the property as much as possible, while introducing  21st-century modern conveniences. In many areas this meant taking the building back to the bare bones. Wherever possible original building material was reused, so, as Michelle explains, the actual history of the structure remains, ‘but sometimes it’s in a different location’.

When elements had to be built from scratch, the couple used local craftsmen familiar with the traditional techniques in order to remain true to the spirit of the house, even to the extent the stone walls still crumble a bit in places. ‘We’re always vacuuming up bits of sand, but that’s part of the character,’ laughs Michelle.

Decorating with Local Antiques

When it came to decorating and furnishing the house, Michelle’s design philosophy was to ‘establish a conversation between the architecture and the interior design’. This didn’t mean replicating a 17th-century room replete with 17th-century furniture, it was about strategically placing antiques ‘that reference the history of the building, whilst mixing in modern comforts, such as comfortable sofas’. Craig and Michelle have acquired an eclectic mix of art and furniture over the years. ‘We don’t stick to one period or one country,’ says Michelle. ‘There are light fixtures by the Dutch artist Pieter Adam that add a pop of modernity to the old farmhouse.’ But in the last year they have begun to collect antiques that come specifically from the Languedoc region.

The original stone staircase remained intact and was the first thing Michelle and Craig saw on entering the house. A specialist upholsterer in Montpellier renovated the Louis XIII chairs following traditional methods using horsehair and dried grass.
The original stone staircase remained intact and was the first thing Michelle and Craig saw on entering the house. A specialist upholsterer in Montpellier renovated the Louis XIII chairs following traditional methods using horsehair and dried grass.
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The couple split their time between busy working life in California and the south of France, so it was important to Michelle that the house was a space that allowed visitors to ‘breathe a sigh of relief and completely relax the minute they walk in’. To this end she restricted herself to a harmonious palette of soft neutral shades throughout the house. Renovation complete, Michelle feels incredibly fortunate. ‘I feel so privileged to have this dual life between Silicon Valley and everything that it has to offer from its natural beauty to being at the forefront of technology; and then a life in France, at a completely different pace. It’s another world. You live differently, you eat differently, you just slow down. And, of course, you’ve got the lovely French culture.’