Inspiration

Meet the designer: A Provençal winery restored to an elegant home from home by Ségolène de Valbray

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Nicky deBouille

Sawday's Expert

5 min read

When the rare chance to buy an old winery in the South of France appeared, Ségolène and her husband Charles-Henri took on a huge project of restoration, design and self-expression. I travelled the few hours down to the south coast to find out how, while it caused many more over the months of work, it all began with a sleepless night. Nicky de Bouille is our Loire-based France expert.

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“A house should tell your story”, Ségolène told me. “You have to listen to what you love.” As we discuss the nine-month renovation process, it occurs to me that she’s selling herself and Mas Saint Martin a little short. This place is far more than a restoration. What began with a personal dream and a sleepless night has become a temple to the history and culture of the South of France, as well as a fabulous place to stay.   

Charles-Henri de Valbray grew up in the South of France, which gave him a firm grasp of two important facts for this story. Firstly, extensive development has meant that there aren’t as many old buildings as in some parts of the country. Secondly, the ones that remain very rarely come up for sale. This made Charles-Henri and his wife Ségolène’s dream of owning and restoring a piece of history seem like it would never become reality. Inspired by a nearby house they searched property listings for years, never seeing anything that was quite right or within their budget. 

One night in 2018, during a bout of insomnia, Charles-Henri spotted Mas Saint Martin on a cheap trading website. It seemed too good to be true, but anyone who’s tried house-hunting knows the feeling when you realise you’ve found the right place and you can still see the light in his eyes as he remembers the excitement of the moment. He leapt onto a train first thing in the morning and within hours was sending Ségolène videos of what would soon become their home and lives.  

Although the house was definitely the right place, Charles-Henri and Ségolène still had their work cut out. The interiors were in a decent state but terrible taste, dominated by garish tiles and stucco walls. It was clear that nothing had been done since the 80s, so they quickly abandoned the money-saving mantra of “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” and tore it all out, then set about creating something that paid homage to the building’s past but, just as importantly, had its own personality. 

While they brought their own passion to the project, the deliberate involvement of local craftspeople and the use of traditional methods and materials mean that the house actually tells the story of the whole area, past and present. A specialist in beton cire laid the floors, a Moroccan mason worked with old Provençal tiles and a local ironmonger was cajoled out of retirement to do some of the metalwork. 

Where possible, Charles-Henri and Ségolène pitched in themselves too, loading trucks, limewashing and scouring the area for things like the chimney that they could reuse and recycle. Their real influence, however, was in the design. Both hoteliers by trade, they knew exactly what they wanted to do with the rooms and what guests would respond to.  

They love the simplicity of white but Ségolène steers clear of minimalism, saying that while she loves it as an aesthetic, it doesn’t create a space she could live in. Instead they have tinted the rooms with fabrics and subtle colour choices – a rose-hued room called Camargue, a Greek room and one called Frieda that’s a rainbow of colours.  

Each room is different, but they’re united by the fact that they’re filled with things that Charles-Henri and Ségolène genuinely love. Their two lives form the main thread of the narrative, with colour and depth provided by all the guests who step in and out for a page or two. Every addition to the plate collection, every new find, even the breakages and replacements, are part of a story that’s still being written.   

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Nicky deBouille

Sawday's Expert

Nicky has gone from roots in the mountains of New Zealand to her home in an 18th century merchant's house on the banks of the Loire. Armed with an eccentric soundtrack from Bach to Radiohead via Beirut and Herbie Hancock, she goes on the road for weeks at a time, in search of new special places. What matters most to her is connecting with the owner, because it's the person that creates the place. She loves that she can give them an alternative to booking.com, and they love the fact that she's "gone native".
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