Tucked away in the woods of Westover, close to the meandering path of the Mianus River, a U-shaped home wrapped around an open courtyard reminded interior designer Francine Gardner of her childhood in southwestern France.
At the start of her quest a couple of decades ago for a Connecticut home for her family of four, her instructions to the real estate broker had been simple. “I wanted her to show me places that no one else wanted,” recalls Gardner, who eschewed classic Colonials and stately brick Federals in search of a place that would be a bit removed from the beaten path. “We have always had interesting homes, wherever we lived, and we’ve had places with character in the old part of Boston and in Georgetown.” Her first glimpse of the former stable-turned-residence, sited deep in woodland at the end of a long narrow driveway, touched her emotional and aesthetic instincts.
Her childhood home on a vineyard in Clermont-Dessous had been constructed around a central courtyard, and that pattern resonated with Gardner when she saw this house. It had been lived in by an older couple, and the interiors hadn’t really been touched since it was converted from a stable to a home in the 1950s; the landscape was completely overgrown. Despite its deficits, Gardner was convinced that this indeed was the place she’d been seeking, and a deal was quickly made. “My husband wasn’t quite so convinced,” she remembers.
Then the work began. Gardner’s first priority was a rebuild of the interiors, which feature native stone taken from the property, and floors of primitive terra cotta tile, laid in a diamond pattern. The overgrown landscape was peeled back, replaced by a series of private, outdoor rooms that include a bluestone-paved pool area. The entire property became a perfect counterbalance to working life in the city. The furnishings, decorative art and objects reflect her talents for combining her own comfortable, beautifully made furniture and upholstery with personal treasures found everywhere from Paris to New Guinea.
Gardner’s flagship business, Interieurs—located first in Tribeca, then in Midtown Manhattan after 2001—has been a magnet for sophisticated urban dwellers, who then became her clients. Seeing her skill for merging elegant contemporary furnishings with large industrial-look pieces for storage and display, they sought her out for designing their residential and commercial interiors. Many a Manhattan loft and city pied-a-terre have benefited from her talents.
These days, Gardner has closed the Manhattan showrooms, but continues to take commissions through her website and Interieurs’ design studio in Cos Cob; clients seek out her thoughtful eye and dramatic sensibility for carefully crafting their homes. Most of her clients are still city people with rather minimalist leanings, and their needs and wishes sometimes diverge from her own personal preferences. “My task is to satisfy the client, and that comes first in my business, so frequently theirs are different requirements than my own,” she notes. “My clients like perfection and I like things as they are.”
She adds: “In my home, everything has a story.”
All the living space chez Gardner is on a single level, with many of its rooms off of a long interior hall that provides wall space for décor, as well as a view to the courtyard. She happily recalls its earlier function when her sons were young. “It was a wonderful long play space for them and our dogs to run, and the many bedrooms off the hall were filled with their friends sleeping over on the weekends.” Now that her children are grown, this path has become a gallery for art and objects she has collected over years of travel to exotic locales; she and the members of her extended family have covered the globe.
While the placement of many cherished objects will change with the season, with an occasion, or just a change in mood, she works with an always-eclectic mix. Just past the front entry is the living room, situated at the heart of the U-shaped house. Within are relaxed seating arrangements and a pastoral view of the back of the property, with its garden rooms and generous plantings. A staircase leads to the hayloft above—part of the old stable configuration. Multiple sizes of decorative stars grace many of the room’s surfaces. “I have always loved stars,” says Gardner. “One of our Christmas trees was decorated with them from top to bottom. I liked them so much that I keep them around.”
Her kitchen is a sleek culinary laboratory, softened by the warmth of wood and natural light; the generous island prep surface has an easy care quartz top, replacing a fussier surface of sandstone. “It’s all designed for good function,” says Gardner, whose collection of serving ware of many shapes, colors and sizes fills a large portion of the shelves of the oak cabinets she designed. “I don’t really cook,” says Gardner. “My husband is an excellent chef, and I just make bouillabaisse and paella,” she confesses. Nonetheless her specialties are crowd pleasers, perfect for the dinners she hosts for groups of friends and family visits.
Outside, there are many cozy spots for curling up with a book, a pool surrounded by greenery, and even a secluded space for sleeping outdoors on beautiful summer evenings. “We’re close to the river, and embraced on all sides by nature. It’s a beautiful place to come home to after a day of work,” says Gardner.
Embracing is the perfect word to describe this house a comfort zone that its owner detected even before she pared the house to a simple structure, and tamed the immediate landscape. “In the evenings, our dogs are waiting at the door, ready to hang out with us in the library. It’s chill time for us all.”