Le Grand Balcon – Setting up outdoor space for the summer

It all started with a catalogue.  You know, one of those supermarket add-magazines soliciting variety packs of Walkers and the best deals on Birds Eye frozen macaroni bites.  We get a fair bit of those here in France, in fact they drop semiregularly into our mailbox, once or twice a week, from all of the major supermarkets in the area.  First I thought about putting a stop to it by attaching a small “pas de pub” note on the door like before, but as a homeowner, I thought why not give the catalogues a try.

Who knows, they may even have coupons, I remember thinking.
 
Little did I know that a mag from Casino was going to change the way we would use our balcony, a leaky, smelly and callous place, which at that juncture mostly served as a place to dump smelly bin bags.  Like a good little wife I browsed through each leaflet full of special offers and multi-buys, occasionally setting a few aside featuring decent beer offerings or a tasty coupon.  From this pile of domestic misery, James spotted a set of patio furniture, a modular sofa, armchair and a tea-table-combo, for a price too good to miss.  As the weather was warming up, we wanted somewhere nice to sit outside with our G&T’s and made a trip to the Géant Casino in Castres the very next weekend.

The near impossible-to-assemble patio set with our riggity old table and chairs.

As you would expect, the furniture was a real bitch to put together.  Made of composite plastic in charcoal-black and casted to look woven in, these sets are fairly commonplace.  We were attracted to this particular combination, not just for its price, but because of the modular nature of it.  The furniture is lightweight and can be made to suit various situations: it’s not ridiculously opulent for the two of us and in the fair occasions we have company, you can seat up to five people comfortably.  The detail I was not expecting to be pleased about were the cushions, which turned out to be nice and fluffy, machine washable and moisture repellent.

 
While James was putting the pieces together in a drunken rage, I contributed by removing the cushions from their protective film and complained about certain men’s inability to read instructions.  Happy times.
 
Having sorted out the seating as well as a pesky hole in the fugly-but-functional fiberglass roofing, our little terrace was coming together nicely.  We chose to prioritise other projects for the summer to come, therefore it made sense to repair rather than remove the corrugated fiberglass sheets keeping the balcony dry from the rain.  You see, the water had previously found its way through the concrete base of the terrace, all the way to downstairs and the only way to start managing this was to make sure the floor was staying dry.  Installed sometime over ten years ago, the fiberglass sheets were in a proper state, but seemed to be holding on fine enough.  After James replaced a missing sheet and bolted it in place, this issue was solved. 
 
 
This corrigated fiberglass had weathered so badly that on the first glimpse James and I both thought it was asbestos.
With relatively little direct sunlight filtering thought the dirty fiberglass into this north facing sitting area, we get to enjoy our stunning view without being burned to crisp – something I truly appreciate as a perma-pale Finn.  Sure, the roofing will go as early as we have the time and the money to replace it properly, but in the meantime, the situation could be a lot grimmer.
Our current collection of herbs and flowers.

The concrete base will also get dug up and replaced.  For the time being we are thinking about terracotta tiles, perhaps re-using some already in this house, but in the interim the cracked concrete was covered up with a “rug” of synthetic grass.  We used to have this stuff covering a few problem areas in our old gallery-rental and we both liked the playful nature of the material.  Our garden, still a bit of a project, as is everything else in this house, does not have any grass and likely never will, so putting down a piece of artificial lawn felt like a fun thing to do.

 
Rest of the apparent décor, the little table and chairs, the herbs and the accessories migrated into this place almost on their own.  A north facing balcony is not the best place to grow herbs, I know, but so far so good.  They add a certain je ne sais quoi to the place and grow close to the kitchen where they are needed.  My favourite of all things in the balcony is probably the large ceramic statue of a stork, given to us as a wedding present by a friend and made by her elderly mother who was quite of an artist back in her day.  The garland of LEF-bulbs is also wedding related: it was bought from a Scandinavian household-all-rounder Class Uhlson to light up the stage in our wedding venue.



 



Setting all things and furnishings aside, I am in love with that view.  How could you not!  In a clear day you can see the rooftops of Mazamet, over the valley and all the way to the forests of Sidobre.  You can sit comfortably under a blanket and spy how the weather here changes in seconds and when the night comes, you may sit back and admire the stars.  It never stops to amaze me how one view alone can be so engaging.  Hopefully we will manage to extend this panorama even further by opening up the left side of the patio by reducing the height of the concrete wall that luckily is not part of the supporting structure for the roof. 

 
 
A room with a view…
Having a balcony that functions as it should has improved our social life too as here in France, it seems, everybody smokes.  Now, even when it rains, our friends can enjoy their fag-brakes without having to trek downstairs to the garden.  And of course, eating out in our place really means eating out now.  Even with the occasional bats, wasps and ants, it’s a great place so sit down and relax with a hearty G&T.
 
There is a one last person in the family that is yet to embrace the transformation of our terrace: Rusty the pupper.  He seems to find the confined outdoors a bit of a drag and much prefers the comfort of his own bed.  Well, you can’t please everyone they say… but at least the humans of our unit love the transformation. 

  

The Great Curtain Cover-Up

In these few short months I have had the privilege to live in this charming old house, I learned a few practical lessons in restoration work, but most valuably, gained some patience to help me cope with the fact that we cannot start putting everything right all at once
 
As our beloved N°21 had been empty for over a decade, the first steps in restoring this house to its former glory were intended simply to make it habitable again.  Coming to the end of February, we have succeeded in crafting ourselves an adorably bohemian bedroom where there used to be nothing but dirt and dead bats, a dinky but functional modular kitchen and a two unfinished but comfortable rooms of living and dining space.  Not to mention the little loo of horrors we turned into the clean and functional bathroom it is now.
 
But after all of the absolutely necessary work is done – where do you go next? 
 
There is some structural work to be done in the next few years including patching up parts of the roof and insulating the entire attic floor as well as re-framing spaces to accommodate a few toilets and a large kitchen-diner.  All the plasterwork can be assessed and fixed once the frame of the building dries, most likely during next summer and the shutters, window sills and doors need to be painted before next year’s winter storms.
 
 
 
This is not a weekend project – we would love to be able to finish bulk of it in five years, but you never know.  Old houses are like hen-dos in Vegas; if you don’t keep your cool they can drain all your money, soon followed by your will to live.  So as we are still getting used to living Chez Nous, we are taking it easy, for now, assessing our priorities and harbouring an uncomfortably close relationship with Pinterest.
 
Don’t get me wrong, understanding our priorities won’t make me hate the rough edges of our dwelling any less!  On the contrary.  But before the time comes to start hammering out the crap, I must be creative in hiding what I can’t change in the interim.  From the long list of complaints, the time has come for the raw concrete scarring in our current dining room.  I can’t start plastering it out yet, nor is it sensible as we have plans to extend the existing French doors with a panoramic window.  The next best thing, naturally, is to hide the problem and pretend it does not exist – and this is exactly what I set out to do when I started sewing curtains for an imaginary window.
 
Our dining room before we moved in and after some light touch-ups, including partial wallpaper removal.  The bare patch of concrete sticks out like a sore thumb. 
Luckily I had plenty of fabric to cover up the whole mess.  While looking for décor for our wedding in Finland last December, we raided a Finlayson Outlet Store in my old home town in Forssa and picked up over 10 meters of their Kihla-fabric from a bargain bin of off-cuts.  Designed by Sami Vulli, the pattern is inspired by Finlayson’s graphic motifs from the 60’s and 70’s, and features stylised wedding rings*.  Although we needed to cut some of the cotton we bought in order to have enough table runners for the wedding, I managed to sew two sets of narrow panel curtains, one wider curtain and a new doggy bed cover for our Rusty with a good couple of meters still remaining.
 
*Although we did not know it at the time. I literally just googled the name of the pattern for this blog.
The happy nuptials: These snaps are from our very hand crafted wedding. We needed to cut some of the fabric for the table runners, but no-sewing was required, merely a creative hand wielding an iron.   
I have always been a fan of Finlayson.  To be honest it could not be avoided growing up in a city like Forssa where a large selection of their fabrics used to be made.  Comparing Finlayson textiles to other better known Finnish producers such as Marimekko, theirs were always the working horse of fabrics and soft furnishings, durable and affordable, but no less iconic from their rivals.  In the recent years they have re-introduced a load of their old classics, from retro patterns to the Moomins, and launched new lines that turned out to be amazingly popular such as the Tom of Finland collection.  As Finlayson Co is getting increasingly known overseas, especially in East-Asia, the prices have increased too.  We were able to rummage through their bargains and buy our Kihla-fabric for 15€ a kilo, but I would have happily dished out the full price (approx. 20-25€ per metre) for this lovely piece of thick cotton – in my experience it is hard wearing and washes well without losing colour.
 
But going back to the task at hand:  sewing curtains can be just as easy or as hard as you want and I made mine super simple.
 
I will be adding a white liner when these are hanging on an actual window, but for the minute I left the back side blank to enable me to adjust the length easily if needed.  Having zig-zagged all the rough edges to avoid fraying I pressed my seams before sewing them to make everything run as smoothly as possible.  Not really being a sewing-wizard myself, these curtains turned out surprisingly nicely.  
 
The most difficult part was to get the pattern match between both double panels, especially when most of these bits I used for the curtains had been half-arsedly ripped to size for the wedding.  The whole project took me around a day from ironing the properly ruffled up fabric to finishing the hems.  One of the panels is a tiny bit shorten than its peers and another still bears a faint ghost of red wine spilled at the merriment of our marriage ceremony, but hey, they’ll do fine for the job. The two picked our for this project were roughly the cleanest and just wide enough to cover that fugly wall.  So bye bye nasty concrete – hello retro vibes!

After: finished curtains in situ

I had the whole 6’6 of James helping me with the rods, thankfully.  Getting them somewhat levelled on my own would have been a mission impossible, especially as the ceiling in this room sags just enough to make everything look crooked regardless.  In fact, we had to fix them in place twice, perfectly level at first and then crooked to match the profile of the ceiling – now the end result appears somewhat straight.   


Tackling this little eye sore really came to show that putting things out of sight does get them off your mind.  Or I am just pretty good avoiding life’s little pitfalls!  Either way, this dining room is slowly but surely starting to feel like home. 

 

Sorry what… A G&T? Don’t mind if I do! 

DIY Lightbox

I am about to take all the credit for it, but this DIY is really a creation of my darling James’ gadget oriented imagination.  In fact, it was he who salvaged this long forgotten print screen of mine when visiting family in Finland and thought about turning it into a light box.  The pattern, or more accurately, a negative of a pattern the screen was made for, would have looked nice enough on our wall without additional fiddling, but fixing an LED-system behind the frame really helped to bring out the beauty of this relic from my teenage past.
 
And making one yourself is dead easy; all you need is a frame of some description, covered with a material that lets light through and a strip of LED-lights.  We used a self-adhesive kit, but other kind of lights would do just fine.  
 
The light box in situ in our boho bedroom.
Screens such as these are most commonly used in all sorts of printing from artist books to textiles such as T-shirts and tote bags.  This one, however, was a tool in producing large scale custom-patterned linen as a part of my Textiles and Printed Fabrics-course in the School of Visual Arts for Children in Forssaback in 2005.  My group was one of the first to use their brand new textile classroom and our mission was to design patterns inspired by the history of the area the school was based in – the grounds of an old Finlayson textile mill.
 
My pattern, depicting circular details found around the old spinning mill, manhole covers, factory lights and drains, was printed on linen in two variants; olive- and lime green.  I ended up selling some of the fabric, made a few tote-bags and, as most fifteen year olds would, forgot all about it until my mother dug out the last of it and turned it into a duvet cover set.  That turned out to be one of the most thoughtful gifts me and James received on our wedding day last December.
 
Our DIY lightbox made of a screen used in textile printing and our bed, made with textiles I printed as a teenager with this very same screen.
The screen in its wooden frame, however, was forgotten a long time ago.  My mother did not want to throw it away – after all, it was rather expensive gizmo to buy for a fifteen year old at the time, and I am glad she did not!  Having finally found its home with us in France, we set out to find the best way to display it in our new home.  James thought we would have the best contrast of the blue (the medium used to transfer the negative of the desired image onto the screen) and white areas (the bare mesh where the ink would be able to transfer through) if we would light it up, thus he promptly went and bought a remote control LED-strip, normally meant to illuminate telly stands and the underbellies of cabinets.
 
As mentioned, the light strip was self-adhesive and attached easily to the back side of my wooden frame.  Although the strip could be shortened to length, I chose to wrap the whole 5 meters of it around the frame giving me almost 3 full laps of lighting power behind the screen.  For additional durability, I finished the job with a few staples on the corners and along the sides where the lights could come loose with time.  The kit set us back 15 euros at our local ACTION store, but you could find similar LED-strips either at a homeware store or online.  This model came with a dimmer and a remote controller which is a pretty nifty detail, especially as we both are proper lazy, but most importantly, so that I could hide the manual control panel, similar to those on common Christmas lights, permanently on the back of the frame.
 
The light box comes with a remote dimmer and an off switch – lazy sleepers dream!
I am aware that printing screens are not that common to come by when searching for materials for your own lightbox, but a wooden frame covered with a loosely knit fabric such as lace would look pretty amazing too.  Holiday lights can be used as a substitute for the adhesive strip that I chose to use, but make sure you stick with the LED’s – old style bulbs, although tiny, heat up and can be a dangerous when installed too close to fabrics. 

 

Happy crafting! 

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.