Located off its west coast and linked to the mainland by a bridge, the Ile de Ré is one of France’s most sought-after seaside destinations. Renowned for its picture-perfect villages and 60 miles of sandy coastline, it has, over the years, attracted a well-heeled, essentially bourgeois crowd, as well as celebrities such as Vanessa Paradis, the late designer Christian Liaigre, Orlando Bloom and Katy Perry. Another fan is Virginie Deniot, who has managed her brother Jean-Louis’s Paris-based interior design firm for the past two decades.
Virginie still clearly recalls her first visit to the island in 2008. “I fell in love with it,” she says. “The light is incredible and it has such charm. There are vineyards, tractors and fields, and at the same time ports, sailing boats and beaches.”
With her husband, she initially purchased a house in one of its villages, La Couarde-sur-Mer, which had just one drawback. “The outdoor space was not big enough to install a pool,” she explains. “I really wanted one because it can get very hot in the summer.” So, when another, more spacious property in a parallel street came up for sale, they decided to jump at the chance.
Wrapped around a generous courtyard, the house was built in the 1940s by a Bordeaux-based family and had remained in their possession ever since. Rather serendipitously, Virginie’s husband was already acquainted with it. “He knew the grandchildren and had played inside the house when he was young,” she explains. Little work had been done since. There were problems with humidity, the fireplace no longer worked and there was just one bathroom. “They had individual washbasins and bidets in each bedroom,” she recalls. The interiors were also rather gloomy, with wooden walls and terracotta floors, and the kitchen only had one tiny window.
Still, the property was not without its appeal. It had wooden ceilings, including the one in the living room that incorporates an old boat mast, as well as a graceful turret. Plus, the challenge of renovating it was not really an issue for Virginie, given that her brother is one of France’s leading decorators.
With the Ile de Ré house, he decided to anchor the interiors in the past. He replicated existing doors, mouldings and other architectural details and installed a stone floor in a traditional chequerboard pattern in the entry hall. He also integrated a number of more classical-looking pieces of furniture, including a sofa from his collection for the English manufacturer George Smith in the sitting room and a pair of 1940s wrought-iron curule chairs by the front door.
“The idea was to give the impression that the house belonged to one of our aunts,” says Virginie. “We wanted it to look dated. The last thing I wished for was that you could guess it belonged to someone of my age.” That is not to say they didn’t have fun. Part of their inspiration came from the Belgian comic strip hero Tintin, which resulted in the use of lots of bright blue colours, the most striking of which can be found in the bathroom of her three children – Montaine, Axel and Inès.
Virginie and Jean-Louis also played around with pattern and prints, especially those created by the midcentury Swedish designer Josef Frank. “There’s a kind of eccentricity to his style,” notes Jean-Louis, who also decided to commission the Paris-based decorative painter Florence Girette to paint the walls of one of the guest bedrooms on the ground floor to resemble a sandstorm. In the same room, a white bed cover was installed with a blue stripe down either side decorated with red pompoms. “It’s like a landing strip for sailors,” quips Jean-Louis. “After seeing the blue of the sea for so long, they’re happy to find themselves in the middle of a desert storm”.
It is only one of a number of nautical references that run throughout the house. Others include the doorways framed by rope, a fish sculpture in the sitting room and a model of the 19th-century racing yacht, America, in the entry hall, a gift from the house’s former owners.
The sea may not be far away, but that did not stop Virginie from finally getting her swimming pool, despite the initial disparagement of certain neighbours. “They considered it rather vulgar to have one in the centre of the village,” she admits. It would, however, seem like they’re starting to change their minds, especially after this summer’s heatwave. As Virginie says: “When it’s low tide and over 35C in the middle of August, a pool is not such a bad idea after all.”
Destinations by Jean-Louis Deniot is published by Rizzoli at £47.95