Design for life
The quest for a dream family home and renovation project led Anglo-French couple Alexandra and Bertrand Sliosberg back across the Channel, as Anna McKittrick discovers
For furniture restorer Alexandra Sliosberg, working in the studio of her renovated farmhouse in Île-de-France is a dream come true. It’s been eight years since Alexandra, who’s half English and half French, and her French husband, Bertrand, moved from the UK to France. The couple and their three sons, Benjamin, 12, Elliot, nine, and Basile, six, are enjoying life in the quiet town of Ecquevilly in the department of Yvelines that they now call home.
With a French father and an English mother, Alexandra has always had an affinity for both countries. But when it came to settling down with her young family, her French roots pulled her back across the Channel from London where she had spent nearly a decade since finishing her degree at Middlesex University. “One of the reasons we decided to move back is that we wanted to buy a house. I really wanted to invest myself physically into the house and wanted to take part in the renovation and decoration. And we just couldn’t afford to buy the type of house we wanted in London,” reflects Alexandra.
The couple initially moved to St-Germain-en-Laye, to the west of Paris, where Bertrand’s family live, and began their house hunt. They discovered a property that ticked all the boxes but it took them further west than originally planned, out into the countryside of Yvelines.
“We finally found this house which wasn’t in the area we had dreamt of but the property was exactly what we were looking for. Coming from London, we were hoping to be closer to a large town or city but in the end it’s been eight years now and I’ve never regretted where we live,” says Alexandra.
For the Sliosbergs, buying a property that they could adapt to their needs was paramount, especially as Alexandra wanted to have a workshop and plenty of space to develop her burgeoning business restoring vintage furniture.
The old farmhouse they bought provided just that. “There’s a castle in the town that’s 400 years old and part of the castle is the farm that we bought. It’s very old and when we found the house, it had been bought by a couple a few years earlier who had removed all the old wallpaper and taken out the false ceilings so it was almost like a blank canvas because all the dirty work had been done,” remembers Alexandra, before adding that it still needed a lot of hard graft but it was an exciting project for them to take on.
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When the couple bought the property, it was spread over two floors with only two bedrooms but, since moving in, they have converted the previously unused loft area into a separate level for the children, which now benefits from three bedrooms and a bathroom. On the first floor there’s a master bedroom while the second bedroom has been transformed into an office.
Alexandra describes the open, plan ground floor kitchen and dining room space as relatively small and says they are in the process of increasing their downstairs living area by enclosing the vast outside terrace. “We used to spend about six months of the year out there but the summers seem to be getting shorter and shorter so we’ve decided to close up the space. There’s going to be a big glass front, which is 10m by 4m, and that’s going to be our sitting room,” enthuses Alexandra.
When it came to deciding on the decor of the house, Alexandra knew she wanted the property to stay true to its original form. “The feeling we had when we came into the house is that it’s a bit like a holiday home and we really wanted to keep it as such. We’ve left it very much in its authentic way so all the stone floors have stayed as they are and we haven’t changed the structure of the house,” says Alexandra who has always been interested in interiors.
It was while they were living in London that Alexandra, who studied for a degree in business and then went on to work in advertising, decided she wanted to make a career out of interiors. While on maternity leave with her first son, Benjamin, she did a distance learning interior design course which she loved. “My baby was three months old when I decided to do it. I’d been passionate about it for so many years and I realised I’d never been going to go back to work in advertising. I did the course over two years and it gave me the basis of interior design and then, when I came back to France, I worked with an interior designer in Paris and that gave me a lot of knowledge,” says Alexandra.
With a blank canvas to work with, she put her design skills to good use and set about creating a welcoming home for her family. “I’m quite instinctive in what I want and like so when I walked into the house I had a very clear image of what it was going to be like and it’s exactly like that,” says Alexandra, whose style is rooted in minimalism.
“I like simplicity and raw materials so the house is very vintage-looking I suppose. We just made it comfortable and used colours that are quite soft so there are a lot of greys. I learnt an old-fashioned technique of plastering and did all the plaster work in the house because I didn’t want it to be straight and new. I wanted to keep that feeling of a 400-year-old house.
“Having lived in so many different countries, I’m inspired by all sorts of cultures. What is important to me is that I don’t like a lot of things or a lot of colour and I’m always seeking a certain minimalism. I don’t know if that necessarily comes from England or France or maybe it’s just because I’ve been exposed to so many different cultures that I find myself going back to very simple design.”
Little by little, by doing up her own house, Alexandra realised that her favourite aspect of interior design was the creativity and that’s how Petite Belette, her vintage furniture restoration business began more than three years ago. She loves scouring brocantes, second-hand shops and even skips for vintage finds to restore and she says that she’s bought very few items of furniture that are brand new.
“I love the fact that they’re unique pieces and they’re often better quality as they’ve lived through the years. I like a piece of furniture that has a crack in it. I don’t see it as an imperfection. On the contrary, I often emphasise the flaws in the furniture I restore and use wax and pigments that emphasise the defects but beautifies them,” enthuses Alexandra who sells her creations online.
The move back to France not only enabled Alexandra to turn her passion for design into a business opportunity but it also brought the Sliosbergs closer to their families. Alexandra’s parents, who travelled extensively for work when she was a child, have been settled in Normandy for 20 years now and Alexandra is keen to encourage her sons to be aware of both their French and English heritages.
Alexandra always speaks English with her mum, who was born in Kent, and with her boys, the eldest of whom, Benjamin, was born in London and is bilingual. For Elliot, who was also born in London but was tiny when they moved, and Basile, born in France, Alexandra says they are still confused as to why she speaks English to them but she’s persevering so that they will become fluent in both languages eventually.
While some might find it strange to return to living in a country after nearly a 10-year hiatus, Alexandra says it was a natural progression for the family: “I’m half English, half French and it’s funny because when I go back to London, it feels like home and is so familiar but equally when I come back to France, I also feel completely at home so it didn’t feel strange.
“We weren’t sad to leave because we went into this new project very quickly and found this house, which was one of the reasons why we left, so it just felt right.”
And although Alexandra admits that she does occasionally miss a full English breakfast, she knows that she only needs to hop on the train to London for a taste of England. LF