Raiders of the Lost Tiles

As some of you might know, I had a summary of my modular kitchen-post published by ApartmentTherapy and as a direct result, the traffic on Chez Nous N° 21 has increased a fair bit.  It has been amazing to read AT community’s comments on our temporary kitchen solution, but it was our century old cement tiles, a detail that really sold us on this old house, that stole the show on the discussion-forum.  Having engaged in a conversation with one tile-connoisseur in particular, I was tipped of about the endless possibilities of Le Bon Coin, a local flea market site, with links to a couple of offers for antique cement tiles.  One of these happened to be advertising a lump of reclaimed tiles, not similar but identical to ours, and mere three hours away from Mazamet. 
 
Long story short, we went and got them.  We had to.
 
I was going to write about pictures and framing this week, but as this kind stranger pointed us to the direction of the best possible tiles for our future kitchen, you are getting Raiders of the Lost Tiles instead – a story about road tripping to an old Roman settlement and the perilous journey back with a boot full of cement tiles.
 
This was supposed to be a weekend of 6 Nations rugby and some serious gardening, but my husband wasted no time contacting the seller and organising a rendez-vous.  Until now every material we considered for the floor of our future kitchen had felt like a compromise.  This was really a once in a life time opportunity to replace the current 80’s porcelain tiles with something more courteous to the age and style of this house.  As we were already travelling over 200 kilometres to see these tiles, we decided to make a night of it and stay in a nearby city of Arles, an ancient Roman settlement on the river Rhône.  James hunted down a nice pet-friendly hotel close to the centre so we were able to take our dog Rusty with us too.   
 
 
Shut-Up Rusty, or just Rusty for short, is our third family member, adopted in January.  To fill you in, he is an Alsatian-cross who likes long walks on the beach, ham and plenty of belly rubs.  This was quite likely his first ever stay in a hotel and oh boy he was ever so well behaved.  Lucky us, he also loves riding in the car.  And speaking of cars… here’s a word of caution for any of those looking to pick up over 15m² of cement tiles.  They are heavy as hell; heavy enough to seriously damage your vehicles suspension or the axel if not balanced properly.  You’d be a proper bell-end not to hire a van. 
 
Naturally, we headed on our way in our humble Laguna estate.
 
The seller of these tiles was asking a “fair offer” for his reclaimed tiles and he accepted ours after a little haggle.  Each deal made on Le Bon Coin is different, but so far we had nothing but great luck with the things we bought and the people we have dealt with.  I kid you not, we found our house on Le Bon Coin!  The guy who showed us the tiles on behalf of his wife was very professional and really helpful to the point of coming to meet us in a traffic stop after their address turned out not to be on the navigator.  He even helped us loading up the Laguna.  Without trying to be disrespectful, (our offer was pretty damn close to what they were thinking about anyway)  I have seen these types of tiles go for nearly ten times that on dedicated salvage websites.  Driving three hours to view something you saw online may seem excessive, but for a deal like this, we would have done twice miles. 
 
 
And besides, Arles turned out to be beautiful!  We had the weather on our side, a high of 25 that day and not a single cloud on the sky.  Having packed up our new purchase we checked in to the Hôtel Le Rodin, a tidy little place that was more than happy to accept dogs as big as our Rusty.  The service was wonderful and the hotel was situated within walking distance of the city centre – our next stop as by the time we had fed our pupper it was pretty much beer a clock.  So we had a pit stop of dark craft beer and local cheese + a small plate of charcuterie, seated at the terrace of Picador, a bar with their own deli, near the old amphitheatre.
 
 
After checking out few of the main attractions, being hurried along by Rusty who was frantically looking for a grassy spot to do his business, we found a little restaurant called l’Autruche – the ostrich, which had just re-opened.  They, like most businesses in France to be honest, were happy to have a dog lounging in our feet as we tucked into their daily-changing set menu of locally sourced produce.  James and I both chose fresh asparagus, served with a soft boiled egg, a small salad and pureed greens.  A superb starter to go with our chosen bottle of organic wine, which James followed up with a combo of a lamb chop & tatties, and I with flaky white fish, steamed and seasoned, on a bed of green lentils.  Not normally a huge fan of the bio wines, I enjoyed this red – it was a lot lighter than expected, almost like the new season’s stuff, apparently due to the lack of sulphites that help to preserve the flavour in wine produced using the traditional methods.  The tipple came warmly recommended by the owner, who was really damn nice.  For a Friday night, it was pretty quiet everywhere.  We felt a bit like crashing a private party – everyone here was clearly pretty well acquainted…
 
 
 But hey-ho.  We did stay for a second plate of cheese that day to end the evening. 
 
In the morning we were faced with a task of redistributing yesterday’s loot in a manner that our Laguna wouldn’t brake in half during the hard drive home.  That meant fitting as many tiles as it was safely possible into the front passenger seat, thus seating myself in the back with Rusty.  DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, folks.  Just because we and our vehicle survived, it doesn’t mean it was a good idea.  As the bottom of our estate was nearly scraping ground all the way to Mazamet, we chose to favour the motorway.  Pity, as otherwise we would have taken a detour to see where the couple that built our house came from.
 
Based on the details they left behind, we have a reason to believe the original owners had a connection to a village called Blauvac an hour and half away from Arles.  Down to the design and colour, the tiles of our kitchen and the ones we just purchased are identical indicating they came from the same factory.  These types of encaustic cement tiles are still being manufactured by hand, using the traditional colours and patterns, most prominently in Marocco.  Our motif is pretty rare and typical to these parts of the South of France, so it is reasonable to assume there might have been a factory manufacturing them in the region. 
 
 
 
I couldn’t resist digging around online and it seems, indeed, that the biggest cement works producing encaustic cement tiles, Cimenterie Lafarge, was based in the village of Viviers in the department of Ardèche since 1850.  Their tiles were initially reserved for the bourgeoisie but soon became popular everywhere.  Sadly the production was ceased in France by the 1970’s; colourful cement tiles featuring intricate geometric- or stylised floral motifs, had fallen out of vogue in favour of ceramic tiles which were a lot cheaper to manufacture.  In 1910, however, when our house was built, encaustic designs were still all the rage.  It may be relevant to mention that Viviers, the centre of cement works in the South of France, is situated an hour and a bit from Blauvac as well as hour and a half away from Arles. 
 
I present my case: our tiles are made in France, not so far from where the builders of my house might have come from. 
 
They rest safely in out cellar now, waiting to be cleaned and re-sealed before being installed into the room downstairs that is to be our new kitchen.  It will not be any time soon – perhaps the summer next year, but I am glad we did not let this opportunity to slip through our fingers.
 
Random stranger from the Apartment Therapy forum – thank you a million times for finding out about this seller and his wonderful tiles!  We couldn’t have done it without you.  And an honourable mention for our Renault Laguna, you are the best. 

Les Nouveaux Bohémiens

82592-bohemians

 

Rant warning! The following content may not be suitable for hipsters or anybody who wants to be a modern bohemian.

Bohemian style, rescued from obscurity by Coachella going fashionable millennials and the pesky bike-riding hipsters of this world*, has been mainstream for a while now.  Despite of, in principle, being a movement of unconventionality, today the bohemian decor is available to buy in any home store near you.

And frankly I think this is a bit of a pity.

Bohemian interiors are layered, casual and quirky.  I stumbled on an old Buzzfeed piece on boho style whilst researching (procrastinating) for this blog and I think the writer, Peggy Wang, sums up the feel of typical bohemian homes better than I ever could:

“Lush exotic fabrics, perfectly disheveled pillows, and overgrown foliage – these are the trademarks of the cozy yet eclectic bohemian aesthetic.”

Being a visual artist as well as a walking talking stereotype, I have been invited to a few rather bohemian households and I can concur, this is pretty much true – aesthetically anyway.  These spaces, thinking about a beautiful home of a couple that traveled the world in love, a shared flat of young and curious individuals, or a conventional house full of un-conventional memories in the middle of the “Middle-England”, were not decorated to be bohemian – they grew around their owners like a well maintained garden would, with care and time.
Bohemian interiors from Buzzfeed

Sure, you can take Ms. Wangs advice and hit the charity shops and the flea markets for your own piece of eclectic cool, or you could wait and see what life brings your way.  The boho style has been hot enough for several years that all sorts of bohemian goods are available to be consumed, from the high end boho chic brands such as anthropologie to the offerings of the trusted opium for the masses-giant IKEA.  Lets look at the example of Moroccan wedding blankets, the readers of popular design blogs will know exactly what I am talking about, the ultimate bedding accessory of 2015 – I would be lying if I said I did not like them.  They are beautiful objects, trendy, expensive.. proper showcases, but there is just one problem: I already have a good blanket.

My blankie, as scruffy as they come, has multicoloured spots on a white background and I paid 3.99£ for it in Pound Stretcher right next to the Meadowbank Sainsbury’s in Edinburgh about seven years ago.  It’s made or 100% polyester and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

My “incidentally” bohemian bedroom.

My relationship with decor has always been complicated: When I moved to my first flat back in 2006, still living in Finland, I had practically no furniture beyond my childhood bed.  My mum stepped in, teamed up with a few relatives and collected everything a young person could need to set up their first home.  I was almost sixteen and in my head a fully grown adult.  Four years later I moved to Edinburgh to study painting and my sister, in turn just about to move into her first apartment, inherited all of my furniture and the nick-nacks I used as decoration.

Like most students, I moved several times whilst in uni, sometimes living on my own, sometimes sharing with friends or befriending the strangers I moved in with.  Although I carried a suitcase full of things back from Finland to Scotland on each of my visits, I always purged away twice the amount when I moved house. By the time I moved in with my future husband I had two suitcases full of clothes and three IKEA bags of other stuff and this was roughly the sum of my worldly belongings.

Thankfully, he did have furniture of his own; very nice furniture, things that he had collected in good time, with pride and love.  He is a maximalist with more clothes than I have, a brilliant taste regarding antique pieces and he shares my appetite for drifting.  We have, successfully may I add, bought furniture together; done the IKEA relationship test, haggled in a depot vente (a sort of a flea market), and replaced some of our old things with new, some of which were expensive and some on a budget.  Our decor is an eclectic mix of old and new, high and low-end – a bit… bohemian.

Interior details from our little old house, with raw plaster walls and pealing wallpaper.

 

I never thought of myself as a bohemian before. Never. Not even in the middle of my art studies with the evenings spent in pubs discussing painting and sex with other fashionably artistic millenials.  Bohemians, for me, don’t shop at Lidl and they certainly don’t store their H&M undies in a MALM dresser and enjoy watching the Embarrassing Bodies or the Jeremy Kyle Show.  To be honest, I think the culprit is this house – there is nothing more romantic than the idea of a creative couple living in a crumbling old house with charming period detail in the middle of the most picturesque France.

With a dog.

We did not set ourselves out to become cliches of bohemian living, it merely crept up on us and I guess this is how most interiors loved by the people who live in them are born. Just like all good gardens, with care and time.  Once we get going with the plaster work in this house, paint the walls and patch a few not-so-discrete holes on our ceilings, our dwelling will start looking more conventional again.  I like the rustic boho look we got going for the time being, but I would never pay a designer to recreate it.  Just as one might walk to Anthropologie today and pick up a piece of exotic old world chic to crown their eclectic lives, I imagine it could never feel the same as haggling for it in the bazaars of North Africa.

Avocados growing on an IKEA stepstool – is this what hipsters are made of?

I feel immensely privileged to be able to live where I do and it works for us well.  Part of our choice to live in the South of France is to do with the relatively cheap cost of living, especially the price of property.  Like many, we would have not stood a change in owning our home in the UK where the system does not exactly favour the self employed, especially those working in arts.  Just like the bohemian artists that flooded the quarters of the poor in Paris at the end of the 19th century – we are part of the cycle of gentrification that is more relevant today than never before.

This is why I am cynical about the boho-craze: nothing is ever as simple as it looks.  Les Bohémiens of the golden age of Paris were mostly an ideal constructed by themselves; Henry Toulouse-Lautrec, the epitome of a poor bohemian artist, came from a wealthy aristocratic family who supported their son financially enabling him to pursue his artistic merits and live the jolly good la Vie de Bohéme.  To appreciate the bohemian aesthetic is fine as is living the bohemian life, I am not trying to point the finger on anybody, but this style, like any trend, is also a gargantuan business venture.  Boho-chic enterprises such as Coachella in the States, to use an obvious example, look like great fun, but let’s not forget the fact that the cost of tickets for the weekend is more than most people pay in rent each month.

The cozy, laid back bohemian feel of these types of events and products is often just an illusion.  Using the undying words of Dolly Parton: “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.”

Raw plaster wall in our bedroom

 

An quick search of bohemian interiors on Pinterest reveals a never ending stream of beautifully curated eclectic interiors from all around the world.  On a lot of cases replicating a look like that would be a choice between a new decor or a new car.  A few of us can afford to complete a process such as furnishing a home in one blast, but worry not – the process can be just as rewarding when you take, yes I am going to repeat the punch line one more time, time and care with your choices.

Want to live like a new bohemian? Hit the flee market, anthro or your local asda – and get only the things that you need.  Focus on the stuff that reminds you of good times and good people or what you really, really love.  With this set of guidelines you can’t go wrong.  Trends, they come and go, so you might as well do you.  This is what visiting other peoples delightfully eclectic, cozy and totally bohemian homes has thought me.

*Drops mike – rant over*

*Disclamer: You might meet me driving around on my vintage Motobecane bike, rocking a sundress-winter-scarf-combo.  I grow avocados on my lounge, like craft beer and I have a degree in fine art.. So dear hipsters – don’t hate me, I’m one of you.