A British interior designer has transformed her traditional farmhouse in southwest France into a contemporary home
When the British interior designer Kate Hume and her Dutch husband, Frans van der Heijden, decided to relocate from New York to Europe 25 years ago (she had been working as a consultant and a stylist for Bergdorf Goodman, he as a successful advertising photographer), they headed to Quercy in southwest France on the recommendation of a friend who had a holiday home there. “It’s a little-known paradise, very ancient,” says Hume. “We bought a property on the first day we arrived. It was probably the most stupid thing to do, but it gave us a chance to learn our way around.”
The house that they bought was a 1760 maison du maître (“master’s house”), complete with a detached animal barn that stored the village bread oven. The property had lain unloved and unlived in for years. Having heard a rumour that it was going up for sale, she took her two young sons for a sneaky ramble over the high garden walls to look around. “Everyone said, ‘No, you’re mad’, but Frans was adamant that we do it – I guess that’s why I married him,” she says. They lived very simply for a long time, “because we couldn’t afford to do it up, its four roofs alone had to come off”. A decade later, however, and the gamble has definitely paid off.
The fact that the main house had been “abominably restored in the mid-Seventies, when everything of interest had been taken out” was a blessing in disguise, as the husband-and-wife design team could strip it back and rebuild it precisely how they wanted. Its whitewashed walls were like a blank canvas, allowing the extraordinary oak-beamed ceilings to take centre stage.
Against this, as well as the soothing slate-tiled floors, simple yet luxurious bathrooms and a serious cook’s kitchen, “I just added layers of furniture, fabrics and art that could be interchanged to make it feel personal,” Hume says. Whether it’s creating a space for herself or for her clients – which include hotels, private houses in London and Moscow and Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie development – comfort, good lighting and an intimate atmosphere are the key to the designer’s work.
Her juxtaposition of rough and smooth, matt and shiny, printed and woven creates an overall effect that’s welcoming, rather than overwhelming. “It’s less about things feeling polished and more about pieces with a bit of a story and a handmade feeling that will age well with you,” she says. Console tables or chairs are often repainted in her “go-to” black to lend depth, old bedspreads are transformed into cushions and linen sheets into curtains. Rugs bought on frequent trips to Morocco help to tie the colour palettes together, from the watery blues and greens in the open-plan living, cooking and dining area to the black and red of the cosy sitting room.
For years the barn sat like a ruin. It had no running water or electricity, and was often flooded. Hume says that she and her friends would “sit drinking cocktails, and look at it summer after summer, declaring what an eyesore it was, but we simply couldn’t face doing anything with it”. Then in 2015 they decided to bite the bullet and turn it into a guesthouse – re-rendering the walls and laying floors created from boards left over from a trade fair, which they found online for a song.
The challenge that they set themselves, says Hume, was not to buy too much new, but to rely on what they already had, so they used leftover bathroom tiles from the main house and reupholstered sofas dug out of storage.
Everywhere you look there’s something unexpected, from a framed vintage Chanel dress to a wall of overfired travertine tiles. There are also pieces from the couple’s Heijden Hume furniture and lighting collection, “with shapes inspired by simple architectural elements, like motorway underpasses and weird Sixties buttresses”, which she now custom-makes for clients.
A self-confessed hunter-gatherer, Hume loves nothing better than whisking off early in the morning in her sleek Eighties Mercedes 300SL, with the top down, to seek out a great vintage bargain. It’s how she unearthed an enviable stash of Sixties Vallauris pottery (designed by one of Picasso’s contemporaries, Robert Picault) hidden away in an armoire at a brocante, now used daily for dinner.
When not busy with “markets to go to, things to prep and food to get”, she might disappear with a good book to a terrace shaded by olive, fig and apple trees, or to the private pool with its slick wooden deck. Alternatively, she says, the house is kept cool throughout the day thanks to its two metre-thick walls, so “you can siesta anywhere”.
By four o’clock in the afternoon they’re usually ready for a swim and a game of Scrabble on the terrace with G&Ts, made with delicious Sarabande gin from southern France, and an all-herb pasta made by Frans using homegrown vegetables, walnuts and oil. Big pink sunsets often sink behind the guesthouse, and as night descends “a zillion stars come out overhead, and it’s so quiet that you don’t hear a thing. It’s a very simple life here,” she enthuses. “Basically, we don’t do very much at all, which is the whole point of being here.”