Summer In Provence: The House That Dior Built

BY Harper's Bazaar Arabia / Jun 6 2016 / 18:31 PM

Creating a haven of peace amid fields of roses, Bazaar travels to the French countryside for a summer in Provence to take a step back in time to discover the house that Christian Dior built, lived in and loved

Summer In Provence: The House That Dior Built

Christian Dior in the privacy of Le Château de La Colle Noire in 1957

Summer In Provence: The House That Dior Built

The south-east façade of Le Château de La Colle Noire in Montauroux, home to Christian Dior from 1951 to 1957

Summer In Provence: The House That Dior Built

The beautiful Château de La Colle Noire in full view, taken in 1957

Summer In Provence: The House That Dior Built

Christian Dior's grand bathroom inspired by the Directoire and Empire styles, with a Carrare marble bath and swan-neck taps, a symbol of youth and rebirth

Summer In Provence: The House That Dior Built

The 'cool room' on the ground floor of the south-east façade of Le Château de La Colle Noire, 1955

Summer In Provence: The House That Dior Built

Christian Dior and his landing net along the ornamental pond in the garden of Le Château de La Colle Noire in 1956. The designer enjoyed maintaing the 40-metre-long "mirror of water"

Summer In Provence: The House That Dior Built

Christian Dior's bedroom, inspired by the 18th century, with Louis XV grey lacquered bed, in a velvet-lined alcove topped by the couturier's lucky charm, the star, 1956

Summer In Provence: The House That Dior Built

Inspired by the 18th century, the simple space of the stairway hall is decorated with Louis XVI console tables and large Chinese vases, with the wrought iron staircase leading to Christian Dior's apartment and the seven "rooms to give" upstairs

Summer In Provence: The House That Dior Built


The ornamental pond designed by Christian Dior - courtesy Dior 

From Paul Cézanne’s post-impressionist lyrical landscapes to the award-winning 1986 film Jean de Florette and Peter Mayle’s best-selling 1989 novel, A Year in Provence, much has been made of the bucolic countryside of the Provençal region in the south-east of France. Its olive groves, vineyards and lavender fields, sun-drenched skies and crystal blue coastline, a paradisiacal backdrop for everyone from artists to auteurs. Catnip for tourists from then until now, the region’s diversity to this day ensures a vacation to span all predilections.

For Bazaar, this summer brings an altogether more intriguing reason to visit – the re-opening of Le Château de La Colle Noire, a striking, imposing residence, just outside the village of Montauroux, that once belonged to Christian Dior. Bought in 1951 by the French couturier as a pastoral retreat from the frenzied pace of Paris, the château was renovated between 1953 and 1956 before the designer moved in early 1954, taking up residence until his death in 1957. Since then, and following several decades of varying ownership, the château is now back where it belongs.

Having been acquired by Christian Dior Parfums in 2013, it has been respectfully restored, redecorated and preserved over two years by the maison’s patrimony team in keeping with Christian Dior’s original wishes, using musings, drawings and photographs by Christian Dior, a pictorial feature in Connaissance des Arts magazine in the early 1950s, and actual pieces of furniture from the house taken by his sister Catherine upon the designer’s death and later sold by her family at auction (of which the patrimony team bought 99 per cent of pieces), to create a château that is once again the heartbeat of Provence, and a beautiful visual tribute to one of the world’s greatest couturiers.

Having lived close by in Callian with Catherine and his father during the Second World War, this rundown château overlooking the Montauroux plains (named after Mons Auros – windswept or golden mountain) had Christian Dior utterly spellbound for its rustic elegance, the striking Mediterranean light, and its promise as a haven of peace. Undergoing colossal renovations to make the house habitable, that included bringing water down from the village, laying electricity cables and installing Montauroux’s first ever telephone line (connecting him to Catherine in Callian), Dior was incredibly respectful of the property and the village’s 900 inhabitants. So much so that he bought the nearby Saint-Barthélemy chapel, and undertook a two-year restoration, before donating it to the village of Montauroux in 1953 on the proviso that the villagers maintain it. To this day, the villagers still attend a mass held in honour of Christian Dior on August 24th, Saint-Barthélemy’s day and the day of the annual village fête of which he was the honorary president of the festival committee.

“I think of this house now as my real home, the home where perhaps I will one day forget Christian Dior, couturier, and become the neglected private individual again”

In awe of his masterful neo-Provençal designs, Christian Dior employed André Svetchine to oversee the renovations, and the architect reinstated the fundamentals of the Southern French aesthetic, transforming what amounted to little more than wine cellars and barns, into salons and suites. Once habitable, the renovations carried on around Monsieur Dior as he took up residence, yet were sadly never fully completed before he died. But from 1954, he began to call Le Château de La Colle Noire home, writing in his diary, “I think of this house now as my real home, the home to which, God willing, I shall one day retire, the home where perhaps I will one day forget Christian Dior, couturier, and become the neglected private individual again.”

From the intricately-designed interiors to the sweeping grounds, the château beautifully reflected the couturier’s epicurean lifestyle. He was a bon vivant, someone who entertained passionately, hosting friends under the pergola beneath the stunning Provençal skies; the perfect antidote from hurried city living. Meals were long and copious with no more than 12 guests, and certainly never 13 – Christian Dior was, after all, very superstitious. To serve, he chose a Provençal dinner service with blown glass and Baccarat decanters, CD-monogrammed linen atop a large oak table with Louis Quinze chairs, with the dining room, that overlooked the ornamental pond, decorated with fresh flowers from the garden arranged in big earthenware baskets.

He would spend time each morning in the kitchen with his chef, Georges Huilier, choosing the lunch and dinner menu when he had guests, tasting dishes – in particular desserts – as preparations were under way, sharing recipes and creating new sauces with ingredients, such as oil, fruits and vegetables, borrowed straight from his gardens. In fact, the then ultra-modern zinc gas oven that Christian Dior had installed in 1956, still works in situ today.

Testament to his warm hospitality, the pages of the château’s guest book, kept on the Regency desk in the inner hall, are filled with autographs and drawings by Christian Dior’s guests, a combination of artists such as Marc Chagall, prominent women including Jeanne Lanvin’s daughter Blanche de Polignac, and close colleagues from his cultural social circle.

Christian Dior at home at La Château de La Colle Noire, sitting under his pergola in front of his ornamental pond in 1956 - courtesy Dior

Inside, the spirit of the château was that of a neo-Provençal house, showcasing the couturier’s liberal art de vivre tastes, from 18th-century to romantic interiors and 19th-century English style to French tradition. The aesthetic was at once sophisticated and rustic, playing on a certain blend of eclecticism. Whilst writing his Dior by Dior autobiography at the château, he noted, “As I finish this book, I am in the process of finishing the decoration of my house in Provence, at Montauroux, near Callian. I cannot describe this new house fully, since it is still not completed. It is simple, ancient and dignified: I hope its dignity conveys the period of life which I am entering.”

Travelling often from Paris to Provence, on each arrival to the château, he would immediately change into a large navy blue shirt with cotton trousers or shorts and a straw hat in the summer, or a velvet suit in winter, before going to see the gardening and picking teams to investigate what had been cultivated. His favourite... the Moutot strawberries grown especially for him by one of the gardeners.

Much more than just a summer residence, the château, with its 50 hectares, was also an agricultural domain for the nature-loving couturier, on which he cultivated beautiful fragrant and decorative Centifolia and English roses, vines and jasmine, which were in turn delivered to his sister Catherine in Callian, and used as decoration or gifts for visiting guests, with one member of staff – the wife of Christian Dior’s chef – responsible solely for these bouquets. Like his couture creations, the garden had an illusion of simplicity yet masked a masterful approach to intricate designs. He also planted 14 Cypress trees along the driveway leading to the house, that today look like sentries guarding the property, and 150 almond trees in the grounds, with the knowledge that they are one of the first trees to flower in the winter and therefore brought a visual feast early in the year when he took a break from couture to visit the grounds and drink in the fragrances of the fields. Christian Dior truly loved the ground and the soil, and planted trees purely for the joy of seeing them bloom. It was the garden of a visionary genius, designed to reawaken childhood memories of ‘Les Rhumbs’, the beloved family home in Granville.

"I cannot describe this new house fully, since it is still not completed. It is simple, ancient and dignified: I hope its dignity conveys the period of life which I am entering”

Whilst being purely decorative, the 40-metre ornamental pond in the garden, put in by Christian Dior in 1953 and still a masterful centrepiece today, proved a pivotal focal point for the château, and also served as a reservoir used for watering the flower fields. Following a suggestion from his sister’s stepson, Hubert, Dior added goldfish and held a little ceremony with the staff’s children to welcome the new ‘inhabitants’. He was, in fact, incredibly welcoming of the young at the château, inviting the staff ’s children to watch shooting comets across the Provençal sky or swim in the pond during hot summer days. For Dior, however, the water feature remained purely a quiet spot, in the land of flowers and fragrance, around which the designer would sketch uninterrupted, looking for inspiration for new dresses and perfumes.

Inspiration, however, took hold everywhere. He would design collections and imagine future fragrances from his intimate, Empire-style office, with its mahogany tiered desk from the end of the Louis XVI period, and a Bakelite telephone from which he called Paris regularly for updates on his collections, noting in his memoirs, “The Avenue Montaigne is never far away.” He would also sketch in his little bedroom – the most authentically restored space in the château – that opened onto the terrace and overlooked the pond, with him saying, “The first stars have come out, and are reflected in the pond opposite my window.” Here he had an 18th-century alcove bed – cocooning with a sense of protection in its modest size and a safe space to allow him to create – above which Christian Dior’s lucky star was reproduced on the tympanum, the same star that he had found in Paris on April 18, 1946, and which prompted him to open his own design house.

Amid sketching and entertaining, Christian Dior spent hours and hours supervising the renovation works at the château – to create the impression of a house that had been lived in for a long time – spending time with employees over harvest, playing cards (his original deck of cards still sits in his office today) and spending long, lingering hours relaxing and dreaming in the bath, of which he said, “Bed and bath, where one is not conscious, so to speak, of one’s body, are particularly favourable to inspiration: here one’s spirit is at ease.”

This sense of overwhelming serenity that Christian Dior felt at the château is still palpable almost 60 years on, courtesy of the attentive and considerate restoration work at the hands of Dior’s patrimony team. To visit the couturier’s ancestral domain, as Bazaar was fortunate enough to do, to understand from the inside the personality of such an eminent cultural figure, and to transport yourself to a time and place when he was creating, is truly unique and one senses that the spirit of Monsieur Dior is still very much alive.

"Fate has brought me into the calm and peace of the Provençal countryside to put the finish to my work"

Today, the château acts as the most elegant of eternal eulogies; the garden is once again blossoming with Grasse roses; while the pergola hums with whispers of intimate dinners shared by the maison’s most auspicious guests. It is as Christian Dior would have wanted it –a house that is filled with creativity, friends, love and laughter.

Dior wrote in 1956, the year before his death, “I am in fact at Montauroux as I write these last lines: fate has brought me into the calm and peace of the Provençal countryside to put the finish to my work. Night is falling and, with it, infinite peace.”

As darkness descends and the stars cast an ethereal blanket of light over Le Château de La Colle Noire, it’s clear that Christian Dior’s dream has indeed finally been fulfilled.

The main entrance of Le Chateau de La Colle Noire bordered by Cypress tress planted by Christian Dior - courtesy Dior