French Flair Sonoma Style
by Jeanne Winnick Brennen
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It starts with the land itself. Rolling hills scattered with vineyards undulate across the valley floor, and deep woods of oak trees rise gently to the very top of the property. An 18th century French bell tower of dense limestone graces the promontory. Is this France, or is it California wine country? It’s a bit of both, and it serves as an inspiration for Sarah Anderson, an importer of French antiques that fit as neatly into Northern California’s landscape as they do in their point of origin.
Anderson’s bell tower marks the location where she and her husband, Darius, plan to build a new home on a lush, 75-acre property in the Sonoma Valley. The hillsides are dotted with young vines that will soon produce Cabernet Sauvignon for the Andersons’ private cellar. Nestled in the woods is their recently finished, ample country retreat – a lodge built from rustic American and French architectural salvage and filled with many impressive artifacts that Anderson acquired on her travels from Paris to Bordeaux. As proprietor of her antiques store, Chateau Sonoma (ChateauSonoma.com), located just off the town’s square, Anderson makes several seasonal jaunts to France to outfit her shop with chandeliers, vintage linens, artwork, furniture, Astier de Villatte tableware and architectural salvage pieces. With her finds in high demand from designers, she now sells several of her pieces at Past Perfect on Lombard Street in San Francisco. For Anderson, the marriage of French antiques to California’s wine country is a perfect blend, especially given that she is smitten with French history and culture. Last summer, she studied the language at the Sorbonne in Paris for a month.
“In Northern California, our landscape looks similar to the Loire Valley. We have the grapes and the lavender you’ll see there, but in France, you’ll turn the corner in the road and see an amazing castle,” says Anderson. “That’s the tremendous ancient history we’re missing here. When I go on a buying trip to the big antique fairs in Avignon or Montpelier, there is so much history in the things you see.”
The elegant, two-story lodge that Anderson refers to as “the barn” represents the combination of her artistic attraction to large, historical French artifacts and her husband’s love of the California Craftsman style and all things pertaining to author Jack London. The result is a stunning country retreat with a timeless patina of old wood, plaster and stone that seamlessly interplays with unique, comfortable furnishings for an inspired signature look.
“In Dordogne, there is a family’s 17th century country home that has been converted into a small inn called Le Chaufourg that I was fortunate to discover,” says Anderson. “The owner who inherited his childhood home is Georges Dambier, a well-known Paris photographer and artist, and what he has done with his property and the look he has achieved has inspired me. I’m in awe.”
To build their country retreat, Anderson and her husband hired Norm Oliver, a Glen Ellen architect. Their goal was to build an over-scale structure that would facilitate entertaining large groups of family and friends as well as create space for bulky French artifacts. Oliver reviewed the design aspects of Jack London’s Glen Ellen home and the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite.
Consequently, the Anderson lodge mirrors those Arts and Crafts-style buildings with its own version of old-growth redwood and Sonoma fieldstone composition. The ground floor entertainment area provides a club-like ambiance. It features a 15-foot-long dining table with 20 rush-seat chairs and an Art Deco pewter-topped bar that Anderson located in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, near Avignon, France. At the opposite end of the room, other statement pieces offer substantial casual seating. An 18th century, industrialsize wooden clock once used in a French train station is mounted on the wall above a low-level bar with vintage swivel chairs. Large figurines of pétanque players from a court in the south of France are now arranged on the Anderson’s own court just outside the entertainment area.
Anderson credits Stéphane Olivier, the owner of La Petite Maison (an antiques shop in Paris), as a designer/mentor whom she calls “the best of the best,” and under whom she has honed her skills as she roams the countryside.
“When I’m buying things in France, there are some days when I see nothing interesting, and then there are times when I can fill half of a container,” says Anderson. “I’m not really looking for any one thing. The piece finds me, and I just know it when I see it.”
Apparently, her husband has the same gift. An ample-sized fire pit on the adjoining patio provides another welcoming spot where friends and family can gather, but it’s purely California-inspired. The pit is fashioned from an old boiler once used at the Hearst estate in San Simeon that Anderson’s husband saw. When removed, several boilers were cut in half to make warming pits, and some are now used by Hearst ranch hands to keep warm on cold winter nights.
The banister and railing on the stairway that leads to the second floor is pure joy to touch. Made from rough-hewn timbers brought from Brittany, the wood was carefully waxed and polished by Sonoma craftsman Pascal Faivre (of A L’Ancienne Imports) to evoke an Old World feel. The Andersons make an annual antiques pilgrimage to a shop in Cuba, where they discovered old sconces which now illuminate the California artwork on the stairwell.
At the head of the stairs perches a unique industrial work table from the early 1800s that features a combined wooden base and metal top with numerous drawers that once held hardware and tools. The living room’s spaciousness, light-colored plaster walls, oversized hearth from Provence and exposed beams of Douglas fir enhance the feeling of an elegant old inn. Mike Capp of Sonoma Details International used reclaimed barn wood from the East Coast for the window sills and the wide planks for the flooring.
In the master bedroom are early 19th century French wall sconces over two demi-lune tables from Belgium on either side of the bed. The walls of waxed plaster are painted a whisper-soft, French blue-green color that is also found in the guest room, where a 19th century multi-paned door has been converted to a mirror. Two late-19th century French doors have been fashioned into an alcove, creating a closet. A miniature traveling puppet show with carved wood figurines from that same period is displayed above it.
Whether entering her French country retreat or her Chateau Sonoma shop, the message remains the same: Gracious living here. That’s no mistake with Anderson, a former Merrill Lynch financial planner who has let her design eye come out to play.