hen interior designer Benji Lewis first visited the crumbling farmhouse in rural France that he’d seen advertised in the local paper, it was in a bad way.
Outside, the farmhouse was almost obscured by sprawling undergrowth which had begun to climb the back walls of the house.
Inside, trees were growing through the kitchen floor, and rainwater was seeping through the roof, rotting the original timber and causing damp.
Benji had been in France for the past 23 years, and had moved from Bordeaux to Les Landes, inland from Biarritz in the southwest corner of France for his partner’s work.
The house had first caught Benji’s attention six months earlier, but to his dismay, he’d been told that it had already been sold. Now, by chance, the estate agent had brought him back on a gloomy February day in 2016 – the sale, it transpired, had fallen through.
The house’s hallway runs from front to back, letting in the light
/ Benji Lewis
“It was in a really bad state,” says Benji. “The thing that appealed to me about the property was that, even on a dark, February day, once the shutters had been opened and the light had been allowed in, you just went: woah! This light just went front to back through the house.”
A four up, four down with a barn at each side, the property is intersected by a hallway running from the front to the back of the house. “I love the simplicity of this house. It is an uncomplicated structure and I really liked that,” says Benji.
The house, called Maison Noe – meaning place of safety or shelter – was built in 1806, and had belonged to the same family since. Its owner, who lived in Paris, had left the house unoccupied; when she died, the family decided to sell. After viewing it, Benji put an offer on the house, and the sale went through quickly.
Benji had his work cut out. Was he apprehensive about taking it on? “No. The point of buying an old French house is that the charm is in its dilapidation,” says Benji. “It’s not for the faint-hearted.”
Benji bought the house six years ago, and splits his time between France and Berkshire
Benji’s first port of call was to fix the roof in the main building. Next, he had the house’s cement façade stripped, leaving the stones exposed, with a render still to be redone.
“If you want a healthy home, as I like to call it, you’ve got to get rid of the blinking cement,” says Benji.
“Old houses respond incredibly badly to cement, because it locks in humidity. Once moisture is locked into old stone, when the temperature drops and it freezes, the stone can’t breathe and it kind of bursts. It dilapidates very quickly and rots.”
Benji’s plan, once he has approval from the mairie, is to apply a soft lime-based mortar to the inner and outer walls, to allow the stone to breathe. Although the property’s old timber windows have suffered, Benji intends to salvage them by insulating them with hemp.
“My goal with the property is to end up with a healthy old home. I don’t want to lose the character of the property or to live in a museum, but I also like the idea that elements and materials that would have been used when the house was built are reinstated.”
In the kitchen, for example, Benji has replaced the white, 1970s porcelain floor tiles with reclaimed 18th century terracotta ones, excavating the floor and building it back up with pebbles, air bricks, slate tiles and new pipework to remove the damp.
“A floor like that would have been in the house, but it had all been replaced,” says Benji. “The tiles are terribly pretty, but they’re not original to the house…it’s all storytelling.”
Maison Noe’s sitting room, with one of Benji’s Indian textiles on the right
/ Benji Lewis
Restoring the house is a time-consuming – and costly – process, with Benji keen to find the right people to conduct the work, and to use artisans. Since buying the house six years ago, Benji anticipates that it may take a further two years to complete.
“The interiors are delightful – it’s nicely decorated for sure – but I still need to do quite a lot to it,” says Benji. This is not surprising: as an interior designer who started his own company in 2003, Benji also gives interior advice online, via Zoom That Room.
Inside, he says the house has “eclectic, timeless” décor. “I don’t want to get frozen in a time capsule where I live in a museum and the furnishings are all authentic to the period of the property, because I love mid-century; I love contemporary; I love 18th century,” says Benji.
“It’s a cocktail of all sorts of things that I enjoy. I decorate the way I enjoy it.”
Benji’s Spanish sideboard and champagne glasses
/ Benji Lewis
Accordingly, Benji’s furniture mostly comes from local flea markets; being close to the Spanish border allows him to cast a wider net with old French, Spanish and Basque items.
His treasures include blue Basque chairs from a junk shop on the west coast; a pink cardboard column decorated with white flowers and two large Indian textiles occupying an entire wall of his sitting room, picturing colourful birds atop the blue branches of a tree. “I love big, decorative statements like that.”
Opposite, in the dining room, there is an attractive, orange-painted Spanish sideboard, covered in vintage champagne glasses. “I don’t really drink alcohol, but I love old champagne coups – the ones they say are based on Marie Antoinette’s left breast. I try and buy crystal glass – I love that,” says Benji.
He adds: “I like things that tell a story. I buy things that remind me of good times – if I’ve got a friend staying and we’re having a good time or enjoying life and we go to a junk shop, I’ll probably buy something to remind me of them.”
Benji’s furniture comes from local flea markets
/ Benji Lewis
Benji’s favourite room in the house is the rustic, terracotta-tiled kitchen, with its wooden beamed ceiling, dark wooden table and sideboard (complete with more glasses) and door leading to the garden. It makes, he says, a perfect space for dancing, music booming, with his three dogs. “It feels like a really good space to be.”
Along with his partner David and dogs, Benji splits his time between Maison Noe and his home in Berkshire, working on projects in both the UK and France. This has become increasingly complicated since Brexit, only being able to spend 90 days at a time in France as a UK resident.
“I don’t like being denied access to my own home,” says Benji. “I really don’t like to leave the house for three months.” And with a home like Maison Noe, we’re not surprised.
Benji’s top tips for interiors:
After advising more than 100 people about their interiors over lockdown, here are some of the issues that cropped up most frequently – and Benji’s tips for perfecting the furnishings of any home.
During lockdown, one of the most common questions Benji received during his Zoom That Room sessions was how to create a comfortable work from home space. Lighting, he insists, is key.
“Position your desk so that you’ve got natural light coming onto it – you don’t want to sit with the light behind you,” says Benji. “If that isn’t possible, [try] to get two desk lamps onto your work station, one on the left and one on the right.”
This will bring washes of light onto your desk, allowing you to see properly. Which leads us onto the next point:
“Comfort is key,” says Benji. An ergonomic set up is important, so look for a chair with proper back and arm support, and position your desk at the correct height.
Measure your space
If you’re shopping for furniture, know what your space availability is. Measure the space before you leave, take a tape measure with you, and know exactly what you’re looking for before you leave the house. There’s no use buying an enormous sofa if it’s too big for your living room.
When shopping at flea markets, Benji will have a clear idea of what he’s looking for. “I go with a purpose – I know what I’m after. Engage that approach – don’t just go: ‘that’ll do’. That’s hopeless,” he says.
Buy according to the way you live
Choose furniture that will fit in with your lifestyle, Benji says. In short, if you can’t see yourself arranging and plumping cushions, don’t buy a sofa with a thousand cushions.
Buy according to your needs and preferences – and choose furniture that will suit the way you live.
Think outside the box
If you’re short on space, get creative. Instead of a coffee table, for example, Benji recommends an upholstered ottoman, which can function as additional seating – or, with a tray on top, can be used as a hard surface for drinks.