Continental Drift

April 15, 2014

Inside a classic New England farmhouse, a clean aesthetic and plenty of French accents create an aura of timeless elegance.

Text by Megan Fulweiler    Photography by John Gruen    Produced by Stacy Kunstel


So many of us have a vision of the kind of house we’d like to build. It may be big or small, shingle or stucco, one level or turreted—the dream can take any shape. Then the planning begins, and reality sets in. Each decision seems to lead to a new set of questions, each choice opens (or closes) some other avenue. Before we know it, the original concept has morphed into something far more elaborate or much more modest, but in any case quite different.

That was never going to be the scenario for Anne-Laure and Sean Martyn. They had definite ideas for the house they wanted to build on their New Canaan property, a lovely chunk of land ribboned with old stone walls. From France and Ireland, respectively, the couple, who have made the U.S. their home for the past decade, envisioned a cedar-roofed white farmhouse, perfectly in keeping with the New England vernacular. The interior architecture was to be modern and uncluttered, and the furnishings would incorporate reclaimed materials and salvaged architectural features. Anne-Laure, a designer who heads up her own firm, says her aim was “to create an atmosphere of timeless elegance.” Oh, and another thing: they wanted a memorable staircase, such as you’d find in a French country house.

Fortunately, the Martyns’ collaborators, New Canaan architect Kevin Quinlan and builder John Williams of Harbor Property Development in Wilton, understood their vision. The splendid 5,500-square-foot home Quinlan designed and Williams built is spot-on. “If the triangular relationship of client, architect, and builder is good, you have a team that really works,” explains Quinlan. “Every idea that’s brought forward is worth considering.”

To prevent the house from looking too tall and colonial, Quinlan increased its horizontality by adding a wrap-around porch.

In step with the Martyns’ wishes, the interior millwork is simple, with flat baseboards and no extraneous moldings. But then there’s the staircase—perfectly Parisian with custom-fabricated wrought-iron balustrades—winding its way from the entry hall to the finished attic.

Additional drama and a strong sense of character are derived from the couple’s collected treasures. A pair of grand European courtyard doors frames the generous opening between the family room and hall, for example. A space adjoining the sitting room was included to showcase a stunning 1930s pewter bar discovered in a Paris flea market. Guests who pull up one of the fittingly distressed metal stools need only a glass of pastis to feel transported across the Atlantic.

That sense of being somewhere unique takes over the moment the front door swings open. Reclaimed French-oak plank flooring and pale walls make for a luminous introduction. The eye is drawn down the hall to the conservatory, which also happens to be the breakfast area. A one-of-a-kind Italian chandelier from Lillian August casts a glow on a distressed zinc table ringed with vintage metal chairs. In contrast, a cache of contemporary stools stands at the marble-topped kitchen counter nearby. A gleaming, sculptural vent hood is flanked by open shelves on steel brackets. And ultra-modern cable lighting threads between rustic, 300-year-old barn beams. Such skillful contrasting of old and new is one of Anne-Laure’s trademarks. That and an ability to raise the charm factor of every room—or every piece of furniture—that comes her way.

The designer, who is also an accomplished furniture refinisher, has filled the house with beautiful pieces she has painstakingly transformed. The sitting room, for instance, holds one of her many successful projects: a reborn French provincial settee. “It’s a lengthy process,” she admits. “After sanding and painting the piece, I apply a wax patina using pigments I bring back from France.” The settee’s soft color speaks to the snowy hue of a prized antique Swedish pine desk sitting across the way.

The mood is consistently harmonious. The palette shifts subtly in the dining room, where warm gray walls envelop a rustic farm table surrounded by a medley of colorful chairs, but the stylish spirit never wavers. Rather than hang an antique clock face on the wall, Anne-Laure, with her usual flair, displays it like a standing sculpture, turning it into a notable work of art.

Neutral tones dominate in the master bedroom and bath as well, but once again there are numerous chic details. The couple’s custom-upholstered bed sports playful Union Jack pillows (“I hope my family doesn’t notice them,” jokes Sean), while lacy-looking wrought-iron sconces provide ambient light. Their adjoining bath is outfitted with Restoration Hardware cabinets and—could there be any fixture more romantic?—a claw-foot tub. Still, true to the owners’ initial premise of melding past and present, there’s also a modern glass-walled shower.

The children’s lairs are as sophisticated as that of their parents. But ten-year-old Ciara’s suite—a snug nest that incorporates a sitting area and a private bath—is far daintier than those of brothers Marius, eight, and Gaspard, six. Her bed cozies up against a wall clad in barn-siding. “We didn’t want to overdo the siding so we kept it to just one area,” Anne-Laure says. For greater interest, the siding is installed horizontally, too. A coverlet in a color reminiscent of a Gallica rose pops in a dash of girlie pink.

Clients hoping to mimic the Martyns’ decor tour Anne-Laure’s studio over the three-bay garage, where they can choose among a number of the designer’s stellar makeovers, from benches and chairs to ­mantelpieces. Guest quarters are also located up here, separated from the light-filled studio by a beefy barn door.

With the approach of spring, the graveled patio and pergola come into use. Not just any outdoor shelter, though, the rectangular pergola is bamboo-draped and wisteria-wrapped. “We wanted something contemporary to go with the classical house,” says Anne-Laure.

Not surprisingly, the spare shelter and the ­handsome building—just like the inside and outside of this carefully conceived house—make a wonderful ­marriage. •

Architecture: Kevin Quinlan, Kevin Quinlan Architecture
Interior Design: Anne-Laure Martyn, Cote Est Decor
Builder: John Williams,  Harbor Property Development

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