Tuesday 18 December 2018

The French confection


Maria and Jonathan in the piano nobile of the apartment. It’s north facing, so there is no direct sunlight, and she painted the walls white to reflect as much light as possible. The sofa is from Ikea, and the rug is Asian. With her superb flair, Maria created a feature wall with a mix of flea-market finds, mementos of her Spanish heritage and even her own work; she painted the picture of bottles
Maria and Jonathan in the piano nobile of the apartment. It’s north facing, so there is no direct sunlight, and she painted the walls white to reflect as much light as possible. The sofa is from Ikea, and the rug is Asian. With her superb flair, Maria created a feature wall with a mix of flea-market finds, mementos of her Spanish heritage and even her own work; she painted the picture of bottles
The main living room has no fireplace, so interior designer Maria Duffy decided to make the area between the two magnificient sets of French doors the focal point. She has decorated it with an antique side table and a Baroque-style mirror which she bought from the French company Asiatides
Jonathan and Maria in the Jardin du Luxembourg; this famous garden was created in the early 17th Century by Marie de Medici, the widow of King Henry IV of France, and is used for Parisians to enjoy boating, pony rides, boules, tennis or just plain relaxing
The guest bedroom with its pristine bed linen is very inviting. Maria sourced the fabric for the curtains and the bedhead in the famous fabric market, Marche St Pierre, near Montmartre. She and Jonathan got the paintings, which date from 1920, in Bucharest
Maria got the hall table, mirror and chandelier in Faubourg St Antoine, and the 16 opaline glass vases in the flea market in Clignancourt
Maria Duffy on the flower-decked balcony of her Parisian apartment. Her enviable vue degagee - uninterrupted view - includes the wonderful Parisian architecture surrounding her apartment and the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg

Ever since they married, Jonathan Duff and his elegant Spanish wife Maria have moved many times, and we're not just talking moving house.

They've lived in London, Brussels, Provence and Paris, and regarded each place as an adventure, once even moving to the south of France on the basis of a book they read.

They've spent 10 years - one of their longest stints in the same place - in their apartment on Rue d'Assas, a stone's throw from the Jardin du Luxembourg, and a mere 20 minutes' walk from Notre Dame Cathedral. Here, they've created a stunning home full of French antiques and Mediterranean colour.

All this moving was no hardship for either of them; Maria, an interior designer, loves doing up new homes, while Jonathan, whose family hails originally from Ulster, has been on the move since he was born. "My mother is from Down, and my father from Antrim. My father was an electrical engineer and worked abroad all my young life, and my mother and I moved with him. He worked in Ghana, The Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Namibia," Jonathan recalls, adding, "Actually, by the age of eight, I was back in Northern Ireland, as my parents wanted me to have a good education, so I was sent off to boarding school."

Jonathan was educated at the prestigious Campbell College; the chill winds of Belfast in the 1970s can only have been a sharp contrast to the sunnier climes he was used to, but Jonathan harbours no bitterness about the fact that he was a small boy thousands of miles from his parents. "I loved it. I was one of the few who wasn't homesick. I think it was because I was an only child, and in Khartoum and the other places we lived, we would have had only a few expat friends, whereas at boarding school, I met all these boys with similar interests," Jonathan recalls, adding with a laugh, "I remember there were very few phone calls, but every Saturday afternoon, we were given one of those four-sided aerogramme letters to write to our parents. The master dictated most of it - who we beat at rugby that week, etc, as if our parents cared."

Jonathan left Campbell College when he was 18, and went to Cambridge to study economics and English literature, after which he headed to Paris for a year to learn French. On his return to England, he got a job in market research, which he loved. Soon after his return, he met Santander-born Maria, the eldest of three siblings, who having already studied at university in Madrid, was on track for a career in academia. "I went to England to do my PhD in philosophy," she says. "One weekend, I went to a very glamorous house party in the Cotswolds, and I saw Jonathan. Before Jonathan even saw me, I knew we were going to be together forever. It was love at first sight for me, but I was worried, as I was surrounded by my beautiful blonde Swedish friends," she explains rather dramatically, adding with a laugh, "It took Jonathan at least a quarter of an hour [to fall in love]. He told me later that my friends didn't have a chance, as he prefers brunettes."

The debonair Northerner and the effervescent Spaniard were soon smitten and they married the following year - 1988. Maria began to realise that there was no point in continuing with her PhD, as she would find it hard to get work lecturing in Britain with her Spanish accent, so instead she decided to train as an interior designer. "My mother was my inspiration to change career and study interiors. She wasn't a professional, but she loved decoration. When I was a child, she created a bedroom for me on a budget, which decided my future career. She gave it a sky-blue background and used all sorts of wonderful decorations," Maria enthuses. "She made lamps from biscuit tins covered in cretonne; she made curtains with wonderful trimmings. Sometimes there are moments that define your life, and, for me, that was one of them. Yesterday, there was nothing there, and now: this marvelous place. She had that talent; it was nothing sophisticated, she just always wanted to make things beautiful."

It's obvious Maria inherited that talent, and she honed it by studying interiors at Chelsea College the year she and Jonathan married. She also trained at Christie's, did work experience with top designer Nicky Haslam, and worked with Designers Guild before setting up her own business. She was immediately successful, and her many prestigious projects included a complete refurbishment of London's Royal College of Psychiatrists, a Regency building in Belgrave Square, as well as many other important heritage buildings. "I specialised in period refurbishments and I worked a lot with people involved in English Heritage. I was really lucky, and my work featured in a number magazines," the glamorous Spaniard enthuses.

After 22 years in London, Jonathan's work took them to Brussels for three years, and Maria, despite her successful London-based business, upped sticks and went with him. She found work teaching interiors, and they lived there quite happily for three years.

Then they both started reading Peter Mayle's book, A Year in Provence, and they were hooked.

As many will know, Peter Mayle was something of a publishing sensation back in the early 1990s. An English advertising executive, he moved to a hilltop village in Provence and wrote a memoir about his early days there; though he was quite dismissive of the local tradespeople, he painted a charming picture of a laid-back idyll, and many rushed to emulate him, including Jonathan and Maria. "We had been on holiday in the Luberon, the area where the book is set, and we had loved it. I knew I could work from anywhere, so why not there?" says Jonathan adding, "We sold our flat in Notting Hill, which we had kept while we were in Brussels, and moved to Provence."

It worked out well; Jonathan freelanced and Maria acquired British clients who had houses in the area. She also restored a beautiful house for herself and Jonathan, which featured in British and French interiors magazines. However, after two years, they felt they needed to move on. "Provence is very beautiful," says Jonathan, adding, "If you want work and to be active, it's a bit quiet."

Luckily, they got a great offer for their Provencal house, and, after selling up, they moved to Paris, where Jonathan ran the Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP) client magazine for five years, followed by a further five years as a corporate journalist with Kering, the international group that owns Gucci, Yves St Laurent, Alexander Mc Queen, Stella McCartney and Puma.

During this time, Maria and a friend decided to open an interiors shop, but fate was against her. "We opened on the 13th September, 2008. My colleague Pierre is very superstitious and he said, 'We shouldn't open on the 13th, it's bad luck'. I said, 'Ah, come on'. He was right. The day after we opened, Lehman Brothers collapsed. We knew the day after, it wasn't going to work. He was able to say, 'I told you so'," Maria says with a laugh, adding, "We kept going for six months. We never made any money, but we had great fun."

Many of the things which didn't sell from the shop made their way into the stunning home the couple have created in Paris.

A beautiful period apartment dating from 1850, it comprises a large salon with balconies off it overlooking the tree-lined street, with, as the French call it a vue degage: an uninterrupted view. There are also two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom.

"I think the key to decorating any space is letting the architecture tell you what to do," Maria says. She goes on to explain, "There is no chimney in this living room, so I had to create my own focal point. For me, it's the mirror with the side table beneath it. Also, I go for plain white walls here to reflect the light. And I went for almost-white silk curtains to keep that lovely light feeling. I love grey, but because the room faces north, I can't use it; it would be too dark. But white is right; it's bright."

With marvelous flair, she mixes colours, periods - contemporary pieces with antiques - and textures. Some things were wildly expensive, others very cheap, yet it all works, and the overall feel is of elegance and class.

They're moving again soon, this time to Dubai. Jonathan got an offer he couldn't refuse, and Maria is happy to go with him. And, no doubt, within months, they'll have created yet another lovely home-away-from-home. For each of them, home is where the other is.

See mariaduffinteriordesign.com

Edited by Mary O'Sullivan

Photography by Tony Gavin

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