Moving from London to the French countryside gave one creative family the space they craved, as Anna McKittrick discovers
It’s hard to believe that Anglo/French couple Simon Summerscales and Julie Marabelle’s family home in the village of Marly-le-Roi is a rental property as it looks every inch as if it was made for them. It’s testament to the couple’s creative streak, who as the founders of Famille Summerbelle, an online shop selling colourfully designed paper cuts and prints along with accessories for the home, know how to bring life to a blank canvas. And that, Julie says, is just what the house was like when they found it in 2009.
“The house is from the 1900s and we’re lucky because at the time it had been completely refurbished and was brand new. We didn’t want to do any work in the house we were renting so it was perfect. I really love interiors and decorating so it was nice to move into this place where we had lots of space to experiment,” says Julie, who grew up in Le Vésinet in the department of Yvelines.
Having lived in the heart of London for over a decade, space was something that Simon, 41, and Julie, 36, craved, especially after their daughter Ophelia was born in 2006. In 2008, they embarked upon an eight-month trip to Japan, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and the States. It was while they were in New Zealand that they truly appreciated how important it was for them to have the space to raise their family. And while they loved London life they had found themselves spending every weekend in search of countryside outside of the capital.
When the family returned from their globetrotting trip they decided to go in search of that elusive space they so desired in Julie’s homeland.
Moving to France was always a possibility as Julie’s family are still in Île-de-France and the couple both enjoy the French way of life. “When we got back from our trip we’d sold our flat in central London and had no real ties there so it was the perfect opportunity to try living in France, especially as we had the support of Julie’s family,” says Simon, who’s from Brighton. “I was also really keen to try something different.” While the couple both love Paris they decided that they didn’t want to trade living in an apartment in one capital city for another so they moved to the outskirts of Paris instead to find their family home.
The village house they rent is in a perfect location, with the centre of Paris only a 20-minute train journey from the station opposite their house. This gives them the peaceful setting they desired but with the city lights on their doorstep. “I love this time of year when spring arrives and you get those lovely Parisian evenings where it’s sunny and quite warm. We often leave the children with a babysitter and take the train to Paris and then hire a bike and cycle round before finding a restaurant, sitting outside and having drinks. It’s just the greatest thing,” enthuses Simon.
Living in the countryside did take a bit of time to get used to but four years on the couple are delighted with their choice. “It took me a while to adapt back to the French way of life because, after 10 years in the UK I felt like a Londoner,” says Julie. “We lived by London Bridge so it was a very urban environment. We had to adjust to the calmer environment in France, which is very pleasant, but to begin with we missed the vibe you get in London. Now we find ourselves very lucky to be able to do both. We’ve got more space, we’re in a house, the forest is five minutes from us, the school is next door and my family are here to help with the children,” adds Julie who gave birth to their son Lucien in November 2009.
Being able to get back to London easily was paramount when choosing where they settled in France because initially Simon continued to work for an advertising agency in London and was commuting back to the UK twice a week. But it wasn’t just Simon’s job that was linked to the English capital as the couple’s business, Famille Summerbelle, which they established in 2008, continued to run from their studio in north London. “The decision to move to France was to move as a family but we left the business in London because we’d incorporated the business in the UK. At that point at least 50% of the total custom base was in the UK. Now it’s more like 30%, but it’s still our biggest market so there was no reason to move it,” says Simon, who adds: “We love our life in France but it’s not like we’ve fallen out of love with the UK. For us it’s a huge pleasure to come back to London every couple of weeks and spend some time on the business.”
After four years of twice-weekly commuting Simon decided to concentrate fully on Famille Summerbelle which has gone from strength to strength since its inception. Simon runs the business and web side of things while Julie is the creative talent who designs all of the products. Julie’s background is fine art and theatre set design which took her to London where she studied at Central St Martins. “In my work as a set designer I used scalpels to make models and played with paper. I always did illustration as well as set design. I started decorating Ophelia’s room with paper cuts using vintage wallpapers and Famille Summerbelle began from there really.”
Family is at the heart of the business and the first piece that Julie created, a delightful family tree print, was for Ophelia. “Our family is spread a bit everywhere so I designed the family tree so she could look at the images and recognise all of the family members to have more of a connection,” says Julie. Even the name of the business, which combines the surnames of Simon and Julie, has a family connection.
From starting with a single product, Famille Summerbelle now creates wallpapers, paper cut maps, cushions, mugs, trays, tea towels and tote bags, all featuring Julie’s bold and colourful designs. The paper cut maps have proved to be a big hit and are frequently featured on design blogs and in interior magazines across the world. Julie says that the idea for the maps came about during their travels. “When we were travelling we were constantly looking at maps. I’ve always liked the graphics of maps and it was a way to relive our travels. The Paris map was the first one we did followed by London, New York and San Francisco. They’re all places we’ve either lived in, visited or know really well.” It takes a lot of research to create and draw the maps and then the cutting for each map takes between 20 and 25 hours but for Julie it’s a pleasure not a chore.
Julie’s flair for design isn’t limited to illustrations and paper cuts and has rubbed off on the eclectic interior of the property. “It’s a very personal house in the way it’s decorated. We’ve got loads of Famille Summerbelle prints and wallpaper. I don’t know whether you would describe it as French or English style but it’s the furniture, which is a mix of vintage and contemporary, that we had when we were living in London,” says Julie who works from home in her studio. Ophelia, who has inherited her mum’s creative streak, loves drawing and has her own desk in Julie’s studio. “Ophelia’s always been next to me because I’ve been working since she was born. It’s natural for her to come up to the studio and draw and do creative things whereas Lucien is much more of a young boy,” says Julie.
With their French and English backgrounds the couple are raising their children to be bilingual. In addition to attending French school Ophelia, now six, goes to the British section of the Lycée International twice a week and is fluent in both languages. “Having children growing up bilingually puts a huge pressure on me to speak French, but in a good way. It can be a little bit embarrassing when Ophelia corrects my French though,” laughs Simon who spent many family holidays as a child in France.
Since meeting Julie, Simon has worked hard to improve his French, which he’d not used, ski trips aside, since he was at school. “When I met Julie my French was appalling. I had real luck meeting Julie’s family who, although everyone speaks English, didn’t speak to me in English so there was no choice about having to use my French,” says Simon. “I really don’t like the idea of people having to make an effort for me in France and I always speak French when I can. Every year it gets more and more comfortable for me.”
With French and English, both linguistically and culturally, an important part of the family it’s clear that by living in France and running the business in the UK that they have the best of both worlds. LF