Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Villa Demoiselle - Sleeping Beauty Awakes...

 When I arrived in Reims over twenty years ago, I came across a strange, imposing villa that looked as if it was straight out of an atmospheric 1920's mystery novel. It was all the more mysterious since despite its beauty and grandeur it had been abandoned, apparently for many years.
Main entrance with wrought iron verandah.

Whilst the blocked-up windows protected it from vandalism, there was nothing to offer protection from the elements and it seemed just a question of time before the roof would finally give in and the damage would be irreparable.

Little did I know then that the villa would remain in this state of decline for over a decade more.

Mysterious turrets looking over the domain...

  I knew nothing about the place other than it was said to belong to the Champagne house Pommery - whose estate is situated just opposite the villa in question.
The mock-Tudor style of the grandiose Pommery headquarters, built in the latter part of the 19th century, is said to be a replica of English chateaux. 


Whatever its inspiration I always found it a bit tacky-looking compared to the elegance of the neglected villa which itself dates back to the beginning of the 20th century.

  I did change my opinion on that when I learnt more about the remarkable Louise Pommery. On becoming a widow, Mme Pommery took the reins of the company and set about making revolutionary decisions on the production and commercialization of champagne. 
Villa Demoiselle, shining out on a grey afternoon.
 With an astute flair for concluding ground-breaking business deals she sensed the potential in the English market and went on to conquer the terrain; hence the references to English architectural heritage...
The Pommery domain with the Villa after the Great War 1914-1918.
  So, I just couldn't understand how the villa could belong to the affluent Pommery champagne house and simply remain in this willful state of disrepair. 

 After so many years, I thought nothing or nobody could ever wake this sad sleeping beauty...but finally from 2004, slowly but surely, it was born again as the Villa Demoiselle...

Sleeping Beauty awakens in her golden glory...
Against all odds, the villa rose from its dilapidated state to become again this beautiful example of Art Nouveau/ArtDéco which you can admire in all its glowing tones during a guided visit. It was truly radiant...

Stained glass entrance to reception rooms.
 In 2004, Nathalie and Paul-François Vranken acquired the abandoned villa and drew up the ambitious project whose miraculous results we can see today. Which is precisely what I did a few weeks ago. Unfortunately my camera decided that it was on its way out, and was thinking of 'dying' on me, which is precisely what it did, mid-visit! I had to go back around the grounds of Villa Demoiselle to get photos on a separate occasion...
The luminosity of the staircase - 'Grand escalier'.
 Although Belgian in origin, Vranken imposed his name and business savoir-faire in the Champagne region of France, taking his subsequent champagne empire , to the heights of international prestige.

Richly stencilled coupole at the top of the Grand Escalier...
 In the late 1970's the champagne house Vranken was a relatively modest affair, but grew in size and renown with the purchase of the champagne house Charles Lafitte, and more symbolically for this story at least, the creation of the champagne Demoiselle. 
Base of grand staircase with mosaics which recall the glowing tones of the coupole above...
 The Vranken portfolio grew significantly in the 1990's with the acquisition of the brand Heidsieck and Co Monopole and then in 2002 with the purchase of the champagne house Pommery. Wishing to create a showpiece to reflect the success of Demoiselle's creator and establish an official site to the Vranken champagne house in Reims, rather than in Epernay, the villa was resurrected by the Vrankens, husband and wife, to become La Villa Demoiselle. 

Spectrum of stained glass...

 However this project was far more than an ostentatious commercial stance. Indeed, this was to be an esthetic labour of love for the couple, both avid art-lovers and active supporters of the arts and artistic creation in general. During five years of extensive work, the Vrankens not only devoted themselves to re-creating the former beauty of the villa, but did so in manner that gave vigour and renown to local craftsmen and enterprises such as Les Métalliers Champenois and Les Compagnons du Devoir.

Stencilling materials

As their plan was to create a piece of living art, Villa Demoiselle is not a sterile edifice to past artistic splendour, but a lively setting to regular art exhibitions. Like Louise Pommery, who commissioned ambitious artistic and architectural projects to decorate the Pommery estate in the 19th century, the Vrankens fully support contemporary arts today. 

Madame Vranken is administrator to the FRAC (Fonds régional d'art contemporain) and several year ago she founded a circle of art patrons - Le Cercle des mécènes du musée des Beaux-Arts de Reims. 
Studies of entrance hall and staircase
I don't know if the Vrankens were aware of the full extent of the Demoiselle challenge when they initially took on the project with the purchase of the property. For the first two years they played an active role in the restoration proceedings, supervising the work undertaken and scouring auction houses, art galleries and antique shops to find pieces to furnish the villa - giving new life to the Art Nouveau/Art Déco theme of the building and its grounds. 

Champagne celler

An impressive champagne cellar was also created in order to house Demoiselle's illustrious bottles in a style that compliments the general tone of the villa. The patience and, no doubt, the finances required to back such a project were immeasurable.

The villa had not only suffered great damage over the years of dilapidation and vandalism, but also little remained of the original edifice to guide the Vrankens in the restoration.
Villa Cochet

Old photos of the villa's former glory remained to guide the artisans in their work, but virtually nothing had survived of the original pieces that had once furnished and decorated the building. 

The original dining room

The parquet flooring had largely been ripped out and used for bonfires by successive squatters, as had the wooden panels on the walls; the stained-glass windows and magnificent chandeliers had been shattered or stolen; the marble fireplaces themselves had long since disappeared, along with anything that attracted the unwanted visitors' attentions.

Original entrance hall, all of which was faithfully reproduced by the Vrankens.
 Apparently the Vrankens had to base a certain amount of their restoration work on mere scraps and fragments of the original decor, as was the case with the two-toned marble fireplace in the dining room of which just a few centimetres were left in 2004. The greatest threat over the barren years up to the Vrankens' intervention was less from the scavenging squatters than from the unscrupulous property developers.

Le Grand Escalier
With its highly desirable terrain of 5 600 m2, looking towards Reims cathedral, this plot would be a lucrative catch. The property was repeatedly sold and bought and numerous demolition projects were put forward from the 1980's onwards. 
 Fortunately an architect of the Bâtiments de France  declared the building to be of national importance due to its unique staircase which was duly classified. 

 In its 11th hour, the villa was thus saved, and the greedy developers found their prey snatched away from them. The villa was finally placed under the protection of the town of Reims in 1999.
Staircase with its imposing lampshades.

At the very end of the year, just as the 20th century gave way to the 21st, the city of Reims suffered the full impact of hurricane conditions that swept much of North-East France. 

 Miraculously the villa emerged relatively unscathed, just as it had pulled through the Great War of 1914-1918. The extensive bomb attacks that had devastated Reims cathedral and destroyed 90% of the city during that period seemed to have little effect on the villa. 

As seen from below...
 Its survival is testament to the avant-garde genius of the architect who designed and oversaw the construction of the villa at the beginning of the last century, exactly one hundred years before the Vrankens undertook their project. 

Magnificent double doors leading onto the receptions rooms on the ground floor.

The villa was commissioned in 1890 by Henry Vasnier, director of the champagne house Pommery, who wished to have a reception house to welcome his distinguished guest in due style. Himself a patron of the arts and an "enlightened collector" Vasnier entrusted the execution of the future villa to the architect Louis Sorel.

 Both men admired the Art Nouveau style, notably visible in the work of the Ecole de Nancy with artists such as Louis Majorelle and Emile Gallé. Sorel sought to recreate the vision of L'art en tout movement which was founded on an organic unity. 

Ornate motifs retraced throughout the villa...

Contrary to common structural practices at the time, Sorel chose to innovate. The villa was built over three floors on a metal frame, using a concrete structure topped by a pyramidal metallic roof. 

This ultimately enabled the edifice to withstand all that fate was to throw its way. The villa's grounds were equally impressive and were designed by a famous landscape artist, Edouard Redont, who undertook the work on the 5,800m2 gardens.

Thistle wall covering...

The villa demonstrated the intertwining of Art Nouveau and early Art Déco - as new materials and innovative techniques were employed in the pre-war years. The decoration and furnishing of the villa also followed the Art Nouveau principles so that the esthetic designs explore forms that were then repeated and echoed elsewhere. 

Vegetal shapes and patterns were developed and mirrored, in the mural decor, mosaics, glass and pieces of furniture alike. Geometrical lines were traced in parallel to create a whole that was based on a living harmony.
Reception area

 Flower clusters, umbels, pine cones, vine leaves and creepers and the Art Nouveau symbol of predilection, the dragonfly, glided together. Natural light was used to illuminate the stained glass windows, whilst magnificent crystal and blown glass chandeliers threw a play of light onto the structure and contents of each room. 

Stained glass detail...

On the staircase the imposing central light fixture with its massive globes and glass droplets weighed over three hundred kilos, was more than ten metres in height and was the showpiece of the (future listed) staircase. The rich light, passing through stained glass found itself repeated and reflected in the wealth of colours in the stenciled wall coverings, all brought to life by the extensive use of gold leaf.

 Little did the architect or his patron know that the golden finery of this Belle Epoque jewel was soon to be tarnished by the grand events of History and later almost lost to the petty vagaries of human nature...

Part of a majestic leather sofa.
Henri Vasnier died in 1907, just one year before the completion of the villa that he had commissioned. On becoming the new director of the Domaine Pommery, Louis Cochet decided to name the villa after himself, rather than in memory of his predecessor, Vasnier. The boulevard that separates the villa and the Pommery Domain opposite would receive that name, but sadly few people today probably know who he actually was, or what he contributed to this prestigious site.

Finally, in 1908, the Villa Cochet was completed. Despite the widespread ravages of the First World War, the Villa Cochet held firm, as did its owner, who inhabited it until the 1930's. From then on the villa's fate was chequered. It went from German occupation in the Second World War, being requisitioned by the Americans in the post-war years, used for housing Pommery VIPs up to the 1970's and finally ending up abandoned until the Vranken intervention .

Magnificent 'grande cheminée' in the main entrance hall...

The Vrankens wished to recreate the style and atmosphere of the original Villa Cochet, but to do so in a living manner which would be far from the strict, often sterile atmosphere of museums. The final result is truly like its namesake le demoiselle, that is to say bearing the delicate, vibrant beauty of the damsel-fly insect and the elegance of the Vranken champagne.

 Referring back to the Art Nouveau creations of Réné Lalique, which often featured the damsel fly, the nascent villa of the 21st century was to weave all these elements together. Thus the past and present were intertwined in the Vranken project as the relic of Villa Cochet of 1908 was resuscitated and renamed as the Villa Demoiselle exactly one hundred years later. 

Vegetal detail of the fireplace...

The original villa had been decorated with the works of Félix Aubert (mural decoration), Georges Picard (paintings), Auguste Laborde (stained-glass windows), Tony Selmerscheim (furniture), the atelier Baguès (chandeliers and light fixtures) and Camille Lefèvre (wood panelling). Needless to say, none of these had escaped the years of marauding and vandalism. 

The Vrankens went about finding pieces of Art Nouveau and Art Déco that would inhabit, invigorate and embellish this vast empty shell. The enormity of the mission was fortunately matched by their determination and resourcefulness. However, while missing parquet was replaced by planks of oak from old barrels that originated in the Listel domain in Camargue (part of the Pommery estate), other items were more difficult to find, but not impossible.

On the ground floor, the main entrance hall is dominated by a magnificent Art Nouveau fireplace designed by Paul-Alexandre Dumas, a pupil of Louis Majorelle (Ecole de Nancy). This had originally been exposed in the Exposition Universelle  at the turn of the century. To see it now, you would believe that it had been made specifically for Villa Demoiselle. 
Furniture on the great landing on the first floor...

Your eyes are soon caught by the detail of the mosaic floor inset, and then the stained-glass doors that lead onto the adjacent reception rooms. Here a mahogany bar designed by Majorelle finds its natural place, although it originally furnished a famous Parisian restaurant before being sold in an auction house, and snapped up by the Vrankens.

  The dining room is similarly decorated in a fashion that faithfully reproduces the villa in its previous life, and yet manages to maintain a living/lived-in feeling.

Chair detail from le Salon Cordoue...
 The dining table is set, the villa as a whole is pleasantly warm and the lighting sets off the beauty of the rooms without being intimidating. Unlike many of the old houses in Reims, large and small alike, the villa is not a succession of tiny rooms, with numerous doors, opening onto snaking corridors. Here, central halls and landings give a spacious, airy impression as they lead onto rooms. In the salon Cordoue on the first floor, you simply want to sit down in one of the armchairs to look at the photos that adorn the walls, all of which track the fortunes and misfortunes of the Villa Cochet.
'Ombelle' detail firm the great fireplace...

 Sadly the visitors are not allowed to take photos of each room on display, a rule that I followed obediently albeit very regretfully! Leaving the ground floor, your gaze is riveted on the majestic staircase with its rich windows and breath-taking glass lighting ordered from the Cristallerie Saint-Louis. This again is set off by the stained-glass windows that wind up the stair well. 

The harmony of glass and light is everywhere; Lalique globes decorate certain pieces of furniture, Emile Gallé lampshades adorn the bedroom suites and a large black Baccarat chandelier, designed by Philippe Starck (the only thing I didn't actually like) dominates the ground floor salon. 

 In the bedroom suites, the rooms take on unusual forms to accommodate the shape of the villa's structure. However comfort is far from excluded as the original bathrooms also offer all the modern facilities too. The feeling that these rooms are accessible to the elite 'Happy Few' adds to a certain homely feeling. You will have to discover these rooms for yourself as photos were strictly banned!

View of the Villa Demoiselle from the Visitors' reception area...
 You cannot imagine that the Villa Demoiselle is not simply a coloured reproduction of the villa seen in the old black and white photos from the early 1900's. TheVrankens have truly brought back to life a sleeping beauty, and thanks to their devotion a fairy tale dream has come true, as corny as that might sound! 

My glass of Champagne Demoiselle...
And it should be added that the glass of Demoiselle champagne that visitors receive at the end of their guided visit transports them back to the reality of the 21st century in the most pleasant manner possible! The Villa Demoiselle can be visited, on reservation, throughout the year.
Tel: 03 26 35 80 50

Réné Lalilique

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