“I’m not a star,” insists French decorator Jean-Louis Raynaud. “I’m unknown.”
Not to the kind of international clients who send their planes for him. Nor to such renowned French arbiters of taste as Liliane de Rothschild, who calls him “a genius,” and to the late, legendary Vicomte Charles de Noailles, who made a special trip to Provence just to view the exquisite 18th-century gem of a house that Raynaud conjured up out of a wheat field between Aix and Avignon some thirty years ago.
Raynaud is a Provencal secret shared among a South of France elite that includes former Ambassador Anne Cox Chambers, film director Ridley Scott and former Global Asset Management CEO Gilbert de Botton and his witty, contemporary-art-collector wife Janet. But the word is getting out. Perspicacious financial consultants Alexander and Gabrielle Sheshunoff discovered Raynaud and his Connecticut-born design partner Kenyon Kramer six years ago on a Friends of French Art tour and have since had the two redo their house in Maine, invent interiors for a belvedere in Austin and decorate a ski chalet in Aspen.
“Jean-Louis is the epitome of the French refinement I’ve always dreamed of, and Kenyon adds youth and a fresh American spirit,” maintains Rose Tarlow, the Los Angeles designer whose own take on decorative excellence has made her one of America’s most influential tastemakers. She met the duo two years ago while house hunting in Provence. “No one else is doing anything like them in Europe or America. It’s something we need.”
Recognition of the “superb and unique” decorators’ work comes even from the avant-garde. Tarlow’s companion, celebrated contemporary architect Richard Meier, became a fan and a friend on his visits to Provence. “What they do is totally different from what I do, but I can appreciate the extraordinary quality,” he says. “Jean-Louis’ home is a marvel, a wondrous place. I never swam in a pool that made me feel so good. The scale and detailing of the whole environment is so luxurious–being there makes you feel like royalty.”
It’s easy to fall under the spell of Raynaud’s Pavilion de Victoire, hidden at the end of a tiny private lane that winds through country woodland. A grand iron gate opens to reveal a sweep of lawn divided by a gravel alle framed with clipped cones of yew. In the distance, the classical stone house bears a facade of such perfection it might have been dropped from the sky; in a way it was, rescued from near ruin in the town of Carpentras and transported stone by stone eighty miles south by Raynaud and his wife Dominique to their newly acquired land next to her family’s chateau. A set of sanguine project drawings, commissioned before work began, is witness to how Raynaud carried through his singular vision and added two symmetrical wings, which now house a kitchen and a second living room.
The interior, a ravishing–and light-handed–reflection of grand French style, matches the perfection of the architecture. French royal portraits and glimmering landscapes, furniture with a Versailles provenance by famed French cabinetmakers, Savonnerie carpets, aristocratic bergeres and breathtaking baldachins are alluringly arranged in the light-filled rooms. The connoisseur collection had been amassed from the 1930s to the 1950s by his wife’s grandmother, the Countess of Niel, a descendant of the American Pratt family and the Victoire of the pavilion’s name. Then it languished in storage. “By a miracle, we opened the crates and placed every article within four days, as in a fairy tale,” Raynaud marvels. “It was magic.”
In the formal garden, Raynaud demonstrates equal mastery of nature. An elegant geometry is plotted using allees of lime trees, “crew-cut” olive groves that are clipped flat, and rectangles of grass that surround a pool. In one area are symmetrical grids of sixteen squares each, splashed with pink Cosmos, blue Agapanthus and lavender; the vivid colors stand out against a white-and-green scheme that includes preening white peacocks, doves and cockatoos. Scattered benches offer shady repose, while scented squares of Santolina, thyme and rosemary surprise in garden rooms bordered by hedges of Viburnum tinus. Throughout the landscape are myriad fountains and ponds nourished by a natural spring.
Taking his inspiration from a visit to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Raynaud added several outbuildings to the property, including an office for planning landscape projects and East and West guest pavilions. His grown-up son Aurelien, a talented painter, lives in one; Kramer lives in the other.
An intrinsic part of all this absolute beauty is the man himself. With blazing blue eyes, blond hair and a slim physique, Raynaud, at 61, could be a stand-in for a moviedom Angel Gabriel. His otherworldly air and conversation–never about decoration–make him seem more philosopher/poet than decorator.
“I’ve never had the impression that I’ve become a decorator. I like neither the title nor the function,” he states unequivocally. Growing up an only child in Limoges, Raynaud studied art but admits that he never trained in landscaping, architecture or decoration, apart from a short apprenticeship with a Toulouse decorator. And yet he excels in all three fields. “I was born dreaming of houses,” is his explanation. “It seems to have been my first fantasy.” Indeed, he says his first childhood memory is of the windows of an antiques shop the day before Christmas. “There was a baldachin bed covered in a fabric that resembled pale blue gauze. I was very, very young. I didn’t know what an antique was, but I was fascinated. It began the dream–all that floated into my head.”
His dreams, he underlines, are always in symmetry. It seems man-meets-pavilion was predestined. “When I was young, I couldn’t draw,” he explains. “So when I drew a house, it was always this one, always symmetrical, two windows by two windows. What I adore in my house, and what I’ve kept in the decoration of every house I’ve done, is balance and harmony. I don’t like disorder; I need equilibrium to live.”
Today he is dreaming in tandem with his clients, and his partnership with Kramer has allowed him to bring those dreams to reality with new confidence. When Kramer, a successful television executive in Los Angeles with an art history background, decided to move to France ten years ago, the decorator, who had seen the American’s Bauhaus-furnished residence in Santa Monica canyon, termed him a natural designer and invited him to work with him. The result has been a striking success. Kramer has become an inimitable “ambassador” to their growing international clientele, a born optimist with insouciant American charm who plays perfect foil to the shy, ultraperfectionist French artist. Raynaud also praises Kramer for his tempering influence and fresh eye: “Without realizing it, he can put his finger on a problem that torments me.”
Kramer also oversees the unusual shop, Antiquites and Decoration, that Raynaud opened in Aix thirty years ago. There, on the charming Place des Trois Ormeaux, a Mario Fortuny chandelier might keep company with Lithuanian linens and 18th-century paintings from Peru. “I don’t know of another shop like it,” says Anne Cox Chambers, who has been a longtime client.
Although Raynaud made his reputation among Chambers and others with his peerless evocations of 18th-century art de vivre, his sensibility is increasingly being translated into spaces whose aesthetic is much more timeless. Les Pradelles, the estate he’s put together with Janet and Gilbert de Botton, has everyone calling it his modern masterpiece. Inspired in part by the graceful restraint of a 17th-century French country manor, he has invented an entire domain that includes a 21,500-square-foot house, lush gardens and a Provencal chapel. His creed of light, volume and space is carried out in a sublime enfilade of sunny rooms that seem to be just what the 21st-century Provencal chateau should be: strikingly simple, but with unmistakable style. The drawing room, for instance, is a memorably marvelous space, with stone floors, furniture painted in pale grays and blues, and flowing curtains in Janet’s inspired choice of amethyst glazed linen. The secret to its success? “Unity of materials, light everywhere, symmetry and perspective,” the decorator responds. And, of course, what Anne Cox Chambers calls “his boundless imagination.”
For the de Bottons’ first Christmas in the house, Raynaud and Kramer orchestrated a surprise dinner for them in the kitchen, with its monumental sinks carved from stone blocks and a bank of cupboards hidden behind salvaged 18th-century doors. Janet de Botton was completely enchanted.
“When most decorators come up with ideas, you say, `Very nice, but it’s not what I want.’ With Jean-Louis’ ideas, I always thought, `Oh, brilliant! That’s just what I want and I didn’t even know it!’ I’m fantastically grateful to him.”
From the terrace there are astonishing panoramas, all shaped by Raynaud: a new allee of plane trees, bassins in the style of Pompeii, and a stunning labyrinth inspired by the Minotaur (we’re in bull-breeding country) that elegantly spirals down the slope. And after Gilbert de Botton mentioned that he liked olive trees, he found, on his next visit, that the small road leading to the house was now bordered by groves of 400-year-old trees, with a “river” of lavender flowing downhill like lava.
To Janet de Botton, one of Raynaud’s most valuable assets is his sensitivity to his clients’ taste. “There are very few people who could do as much as Jean-Louis has done in our house and let it remain our house,” she says. “That’s very important, isn’t it? Jean-Louis really adores giving you the freedom you need, yet he creates from nothing this fantastic paradise.”
Raynaud’s real secret lies not only in the look he creates but in the atmosphere he instills in a house. “Surpass and surprise” are his bywords. So when he and Kramer present a finished project, there’s always an unexpected touch they might work all night to accomplish. Anne Cox Chambers and her most recent Christmas guests are still talking about the pair’s sleight of hand on her property: razing the former orangery and building a stone entertaining pavilion in a roadrunner-rapid two-and-a-half months. Last November, the floors were mud, the roof half on. When Chambers arrived three weeks later, she marvels, “not only was the pavilion completely finished, but in front there was a lovely paved courtyard, a fountain on each side, and a gate at the entrance. We walked in and they had music playing, fires in both fireplaces, lovely seating and candles. Really, it was absolute magic. No one could believe it.” Now, she adds, “I told them, You just have to find a big, beautiful canopy bed, install a tub behind the loo, and I’m going to move in.”
For his clients Alexander and Gabrielle Sheshunoff, Raynaud has proved to be nothing less than “a Renaissance man for style and living,” says Alexander. “It’s a continual learning experience just being with him,” he adds, on the heels of three consecutive American projects. “It’s almost as though Jean-Louis were directing a movie. He listens to us, brings his own vision to it, then writes the script and the music and also directs.”
And finally–music to the ears of any client–”it comes in on budget and ahead of schedule, and it’s a totally pleasant experience.”