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Interviews  |  18 August 2023

French Country Style: An interview with Sara Silm of Chateau Montfort

If, like us, you are a fan of French interiors then you may have been stopped in your tracks by the renovation story of Chateau Montfort and the elegant, understated style of Sara Silm. With her book ‘How To French Country’ offering a fascinating guide on how to introduce elements of French style to our homes, we talk to Sara about why she chose our Mila Indigo runner for her home, and dive into the story of Chateau Montfort.

Hi Sara, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. You’ve led a fascinating life, experiencing many different cultures and places – from South Africa to Kazakhstan, and many more. What drew you to France as a place to put down roots and inspired you to take on Chateau Montfort as a project?

Initially we only intended to live in the chateau as a holiday home, but as the project took hold and we fell in love with the lifestyle, the decision was made to move to Montfort permanently. It offers us a lifestyle we’ve not found elsewhere in the many countries we’ve lived. In winter we have a bowl of porridge before sunrise and head up to the local resorts to ski for the day, in summer it’s all about buying produce at the village markets, day trips to the beach at St-Jean-de-Luz and hiking the magnificent GR10 trails in the Pyrenees.

Having lived in and travelled to many different countries, have you introduced reminders of these places into Chateau Montfort and how do they sit alongside the classic French elements?

Yes, there are Kilim rugs from our time living in Central Asia, an old Australian wool sorting table we dine on outdoors from our farm in Australia and various other bits and pieces from Russia, Europe, Africa and the UK. I’ve always maintained the mantra that every piece in a home, no matter how big or small, should tell a story about your life.

For your home you chose Mila Indigo from ‘A Journey in Colour’, a creative collaboration between ourselves and A Rum Fellow, where global pattern and colour escapism collide. Can you tell us a bit more about your decision process; were there any other designs or colourways from our collection that you considered?

I have a lot of floral wallpaper in the house so given there is already a lot of pattern, I tend to go for stripes and checks as a counterbalance. Geometric pattern is a little more ridged and masculine in my mind, so it offers a bit of reassuring structure. It’s a bit like a pair of Converse high-tops with a very feminine floral sundress. Sometimes opposites attract.

There were a few other contenders for the stair runner. Chatham, Westport and Avon were all excellent choices for my French Country aesthetic.

For over thirty years the Roger Oates name has been synonymous with Venetian Flatweave, what first brought you to us and made you choose one of our runners for your home?

Because I’m a designer, I’m always very discerning when it comes to the materials I choose for my home. It’s important that they are artisanal, made of natural materials, durable, functional for their purpose and of course, beautiful. Roger Oates stair runners of course are all these things, so it was a clear choice for our beautiful old staircase.

Chateau Montfort has been beautifully and sensitively renovated – with pattern, colour and texture embraced throughout. Did your vision evolve naturally within the space, or was there a clear interior goal from the offset?

The renovation was very much informed by the many pieces of furniture that were left in the house when we bought it. There were also old curtains I managed to salvage from the cobwebs as well as some very old rugs, so I worked around what I had and created a colour palette based on the local landscape and flora. There’s very much a sense of the exterior flowing through to the interior, cementing the house in its culture, history and geography.

The chateau had been empty for around three decades when we bought it so as the process evolved, it seemed to wake like a sleeping beauty, imparting its own character and often announcing with a squeak of a floorboard or the lazy yawn of an opening shutter that my choices were met with contented approval.

It’s a family home, set deep in the lush foothills of the Pyrenees so despite imparting a little bit of our story, I wanted it to continue to feel like a French country house. There’s lots of linen, hemp, vintage-inspired wallpaper, wool and sisal rugs and always plenty of fresh flowers from the fields and garden. It’s a very laid back and fuss-free interior, much the same as our rather relaxed lifestyle. It’s the kind of house where you can kick off your shoes, sink into a soft feather sofa with a glass of wine and forget about your worries. We don’t stand on ceremony here.

Do you have a favourite space within your home and why?

My kitchen. It’s where I spend the bulk of my time. I even wrote my book How To French Country at my kitchen table. There’s a cosy duck-egg blue AGA, generally with two dogs snoring alongside it, lots of light and the constant sound of birdsong from the garden. It’s a hard place to leave most days.

The interior style of Chateau Montfort is a masterclass in using pattern and texture in a relaxed and sophisticated way. What tips would you give to someone looking to introduce these elements into their homes?

I think it’s important to embrace the concept of layering texture in the home, much as you do with clothing. For a French Country aesthetic it’s all about natural fibres that speak back to the raw materials synonymous with the countryside: wool, cotton, leather, hemp, linen, repurposed grain sacks, relaxed prints such as French floral les Indiennes, or simple wood-block prints, durable canvas or French denim slip covered upholstery… Mixed with architectural elements such as stone walls, oak beams and terracotta tiles you end up with a result that’s not only earthy and grounding, but extremely welcoming and warm.

Here at Roger Oates Design we are famous for our love of stripes. Can you give us an example of where you have combined contrasting patterns within your home and why it works so well?

As I type this, I’m literally just having a break from hanging striped wallpaper in a sunroom that adjoins my daughter’s bedroom. It’s wallpapered in a design I named after her, Annabelle. It’s a rhythmic, feminine and bold floral that is beautiful but rather a diva. The bold striped wallpaper in the adjoining room gives the eye somewhere to rest, it’s a bit like a stop sign on the road. There’s a lot of pattern on pattern in my home but I use stripes to slow things down and give the interior flow a bit of structure and some much needed boundaries. Striped floor rugs can do the same thing as my adjoining room with striped wallpaper. They’re a pattern’s best friend.

France is known for its picturesque villages, beautiful countryside, and stunning architecture. How did the region of Béarn, where you live, influence your choices, and shape your home?

The house is very much a Béarnaise country home. The materials: the stone, oak and slate roof are all local but the colour scheme is very much something I borrowed. I used to teach colour theory, so for the first few years I went around the local villages collecting colours; scanning old shutters and doors with my little spectrometer to capture years of patina: the perfect French blue, the most divine shade of sage green, my favourite powdery pink. It’s these colours that I wove into Le Village, a collection of wallpapers with Sandberg of Sweden that celebrate the chateau and village of Montfort. It’s also a homage to the connection between the Béarn region and the Swedish royal family. They originate from Pau, the capital of the Béarn, so it was an honour to be asked to collaborate on such a prestigious collection. Sandberg are purveyors to the Royal Court of Sweden.

Your book ‘How To French Country’ offers a guide on how to introduce French style and character into our homes. What is the most important piece of your own advice that you have followed in your home?

In the chapter that follows the renovation of our barn, I talk about one of the greatest building materials of all—time. These days people are in such a rush; a rush to finish on time with every element perfectly in place. But a great interior is a space that evolves over time, and adapts to your budget. Nothing is ever really finished because elements come and go. We need to accept this as part of life rather than a fault on our part. As we change over time, so too do our homes but one of the greatest joys, I think, is the thrill of the chase. The discipline of waiting and ‘minding the gaps’ as I like to say. The joy of finding that illusive vintage arm chair in a charming brocante after years of searching. The elation that follows years of hard-earned savings in order to buy something of quality that you’ve dreamt about for the longest time but haven’t quite had the means to purchase. There are many gaps in my home and one of them, until quite recently, was in my stairwell. I’m thrilled to say that after quite a bit of saving, my patience paid off. There’s nothing quite like that beautiful soft pitter-pat up the stairs to bed each night on our beautiful Mila stair runner. It was so worth the wait!

Images were provided via Sara Silm, visit her website to find out more about Sara, Chateau Montfort and all things French country.

Take a closer look at our Mila runner and view the rest of the collection here.



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