October 17, 2019

NBBJ’s Rysia Suchecka Talks About How She Reinvented a French Farmhouse

A former barn, one of three on the property, was converted into a salon used for entertaining and for hosting concerts. A Krzysztof Krzywoblodzki artwork sits on the fireplace mantle. Photography by Eric Laignel.

Interior Design Hall of Fame member and NBBJ consulting partner Rysia Suchecka recounts how she and her husband reinvented a centuries-old farm in Larroque-Saint-Sernan, France, as a modern private residence and cultural compound for art and music. (As told to Jen Renzi.)

My first introduction to Gers, a province in the South of France, was via a fellow architect with very discriminating taste. He told me about the unspoiled, authentic working farms there, with amazing stone structures dating from the 15th century. So, my husband, John Warburton, and I checked it out and…yes, it was all that.

We visited the area in the early ’90s to house hunt. Most important for me was that my future residence have abundant trees and a traditional pigeonnier—a pigeon-roosting tower—which was designed to collect droppings for use as fertilizer in the fields. (The homeowners also ate the eggs and, in lean times, the pigeons themselves!) We looked at probably
20 properties and ended up purchasing the one that was in the worst condition,
but that had intact trees, five acres of surrounding fields, and a panoramic view of the Pyrénées. It also had a smattering of limestone structures: a main house, a farmhouse, three barns, a small wine-pressing facility, and my coveted pigeon tower, which I intended to use as a studio. The 17th-century buildings had sat unoccupied for 50 years and were totally dilapidated, with leaking roofs, missing windows, and no electricity or plumbing. Some had dirt floors, and the pigeonnier was covered in bird droppings.

A hay loft was removed to gain ceiling height for the salon, crisscrossed in centuries-old hand-carved oak beams that were painstakingly restored. Photography by Eric Laignel.

We restored the maison de maître and attended to the landscaping.
We planted 200 bushes and 380 trees, from fig and fruit varieties to oak and maples, as well as almond and walnut orchards. Some 80 plane trees alone line the half-kilometer allée leading to our house. I think we supported every nursery that existed within the surrounding villages!

Called Nautucat, the property was primarily a vacation place until 2015, when we started to spend seven months a year there (and the other five on Orcas Island in Washington state). At that point, we decided to restore the remaining structures, with the intention of giving them back to the community in some form. 

Supporting the local community has in fact been a driving force at all stages of the now completed restoration. All interior elements were custom designed by me and made within 10 miles of the property, and every subcontractor—from the stonemason to the ébéniste—was local. Our ambition was to avoid going to Paris, Bordeaux, or Toulouse to source anything: We live in the countryside and wanted to support the life of the people here.

The custom dark-stained oak dining table in the grand salon spans 16 feet. Photography by Eric Laignel.

When we fixed up the main house in 1997 we’d used a general contractor, but for this phase, we were the general contractor, with John, an environmental engineer, playing the role of project manager. It was a challenge! Here we are in a foreign country, trying to do everything in a foreign language. John and I both speak better technical French than “normal” French—although the uniform language of drawings is how we get on the same page and make sure nothing is lost in translation.

First, we redid all the barn roofs, which were in such bad condition that the walls were in danger of collapse. Then we ran out of money. Later, we made structural openings to connect the farmhouse and the barn. Then we ran out of money again. Finally, a few years ago we said, “Let’s do it all!”

Around the same time, I decided I needed a new challenge: to learn to play the piano. So, I bought a Pleyel—the type of instrument Chopin used—and hired a teacher. I started at zero! I love listening to music, but I’d never read or played it before. I’m not a quick study, but I am determined, and I practice three hours daily. I went completely cuckoo for piano! Next, I bought a beautiful old concert Steinway, and basically built another house for it: We rebirthed the old farmhouse as guest quarters and as a venue for chamber music concerts, produced in collaboration with a local association, TerrOpera. The texture of the stone walls and the room’s high volume make for superb acoustics. 

In the farmhouse guest bedroom, as in all rooms throughout the property, Tolomeo lights serve as reading lamps. Photography by Eric Laignel.

I also had an opportunity to take a drawing class in Italy—and fell in love with that art form, too. Music freed me to draw more lyrically, liberating me from constipated little architectural renderings. I had the best teacher, so I invited her to come to France: “We have
a great space that we’re refurbishing; bring your students here!” We restored the cow barn for public use as an art center. People come for a week to take classes in drawing, painting, and sketching. The course culminates in a vernissage to share the work produced with the local residents.

In your mature age, you want to give back, and to follow your passions for as long as you live. It was so nice to combine those two aims with this project, an offering to our beloved community.

Keep scrolling to view more images from the project >

The exterior of the farmhouse, which was connected to the adjacent cow barn during the renovation. Photography by Eric Laignel.
Works by a student artist Suchecka discovered in a Seattle gallery hang above an antique Chinese chest in the farmhouse main bedroom. Photography by Eric Laignel.

As in all the structures, the 30-inch-thick stone walls in the farmhouse corridor were restored and re-rendered using lime-based mortar (which expands more consistently with stone than does typical cement). Photography by Eric Laignel.
Custom steel and oak shelves house and display essentials in the farmhouse kitchen. Suchecka designed the custom mirror and stone-top console in the master bathroom. Photography by Eric Laignel.
The cow barn was converted into a gallery for hosting art classes and exhibitions. Photography by Eric Laignel.

The farmhouse kitchen has a view of the verdant five-acre property, once a working farm. Photography by Eric Laignel.
Near the main house, the terrace garden has a custom stone fountain modeled on a horse’s trough. Photography by Eric Laignel.
A custom steel staircase—crafted by a metalworker who more typically restores combines and farm equipment—ascends form Suchecka’s ground-floor studio to the sitting area. Photography by Eric Laignel.
Drawings and aquarelles hang in Suchecka’s studio. Photography by Eric Laignel.
A Christian Werner Prado sofa and secondhand Marcel Breuer Cesca chairs furnish the pigeonnier lounge. Photography by Eric Laignel.
An exterior view of the pigeonnier, a fixture of area estates, which once housed pigeons used to generate fertilizer for crops. Photography by Eric Laignel.
A Karim Rashid chair and a desk by Danish designer ARDE carve out a cozy workplace in the main house’s library. Photography by Eric Laignel.
A custom oak bed and cabinetry fabricated by menuiserie Jean-Francois Laporte garnish the main house master bedroom. Photography by Eric Laignel.
Oil paintings by Adele Sypesteyn hang in a hallway of the main house. Photography by Eric Laignel.
The exterior of the main house, which dates to the 17th century. Photography by Eric Laignel.
In the main house living room, a wool rug anchors a pair of Nomade 2 sofas by Didier Gomez. Photography by Eric Laignel. 

Project Team: John Warburton: Project Engineer. Audrey Maurens; Ordan Larroque: French Authorities Liaisons. Andrzej Wilk: Stonemason. Christophe Deberdt: Metal Artisan. Russell Hewitt: Custom Woodwork. Bernard Cadeillan: Electrical/Lighting. Sebastien Duchamps: Solar/Thermal Consultant. Frederick Vilas: Stone Openings. Jean-Pierre Drevit: Stone Cutter. Xavier Couffignal: Fireplace and Fountain (Main House). Franck Movia: Audio/Communications Consultant. Luis Cunha: Windows and Exterior Doors. Sarda: General Contractor (Main House, Pigeon Tower).

Product Sources: From Top: Ligne Roset: Sofas (Salon, Living Room, Pigeon Tower), Gray Side Chairs (Salon). Nancy Corzine: Easy Chairs (Salon). Peter David: Custom Coffee Table. Beautiful Halo: Sconces (Gallery, Pigeon Tower). Scarabeo: Sink (Bathroom). Aquarine: Bathtub. Ondyna: Bath Fittings. Cedeo: Sink (Kitchen). Grohe: Faucet. Phillippe Micheletti: Custom Stair (Pigeon Tower); Custom Bedside Tables (Master Bedroom). Jonathon Loop: Custom Stool (Pigeon Tower). Bo Concepts: Bar Stool (Pigeon Tower); Desk, Chair (Library). Jean Francois Laporte: Custom Closet, Custom Bed (Master Bedroom). B&B Italia: Easy Chair. Throughout: Artemide: Task Lights. Saint Maclou: Rugs. Robert S.A.: Spotlights. SIDV: Bath Supplier. Jean-Pierre Drevet Through Gran De Pierre: Fireplace and Kitchen Countertop Stone, Fountain. Meubles Cerezo, Andiamo: Local Showrooms.

> See more from the Fall 2019 issue of Interior Design Homes

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