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December 19, 2010

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Sustaining the soul in a lane house

YOU can often tell at a glance when somewhere has been "interior designed." It might be a little too perfect, with everything looking too new. A design project can sometimes lack that sense of history and of soul that makes a space feel like home.

William Plummer and Elisabeth de Gramont were determined to avoid this impression of soullessness in the lane house on Wuyi Road they purchased three years ago.

"The 1930s house definitely needed renovation, but we didn't want to move in and feel we were living in a brand new lane house. We wanted to preserve 'the interesting flavors' we recognized in the interior," Plummer said.

Plummer and de Gramont met in Shanghai four years ago and they had a beautiful wedding at de Gramont's family house outside Paris in the summer. For their Shanghai home, the newly wed couple's design brief was to create a warm, homey space for practical family life as well as entertaining.

"We're very much tempted by the romance of living in a traditional lane house, having our own relaxing retreat in the heart of the city," Plummer said. "We spent time walking around the city looking for a suitable house or apartment on the market, mostly in the former French concession area."

This three-and-a-half-floor house built in a peaceful lane just off Wuyi Road has a superior location as both of them can walk to their offices. "The lane has a very Shanghainese character and when we walked into this house the first time, we thought this was the place we could make home. It just felt right for us," de Gramont said.

The couple likes the house's clear division of space, distinct local neighborhood environment, high ceilings and historic elements.

Clean lines and simple designs provide the foundation of the couple's home concept. Cream has been chosen as the wall color throughout the apartment. "It is the base where we began. It is matched well with the old wooden floor and stairway. It is neutral and we can then add our own style," de Gramont said.

The couple kept everything as simple and plain as possible for the backdrop. They didn't change much of the original layout but only added Art Deco-style window bars, Mediterranean-style floor tiles for the kitchen, custom-made wooden furniture and accent light fixtures here and there. Their aim was to preserve the elements that were in keeping with the age and style of the house and decorated in a way that suits the building.

"A contemporary decor style with modern materials would have looked out of place. We never wanted the place to feel like a museum. Instead, we wanted our friends feeling relaxed and comfortable at our home," Plummer said. "We didn't have any furniture pieces before we got married. We've been creating our home together and the decoration process is ongoing, with pieces continually being added."

The first floor is used as a combination living/dining area and the kitchen. The furniture placement made the best use of the space because the couple tried to anticipate what will happen in the space and imagine how people will move, gather and be comfortable there because entertaining at home is their real pleasure.

Another consideration in creating the perfect ambience is lighting, according to the couple. There are a number of illumination tricks at play with the recessed downlights, ceiling lights and candles.

To make interesting wall arrangements that can become a dynamic focal point of a room, the pair hung paintings and posters in the living room, which added personality to the space.

"Family pictures and some artworks are key in the overall feeling of our home. However, we are careful not to add too many items which would just make a space look and feel cluttered," de Gramont said.

Plummer and de Gramont love to cook, so the kitchen is definitely the central hub of activity within their home. With a sliding door between the kitchen and the dining area, friends congregate at the dining table while the couple prepares food.

Flooring is the major component in the kitchen's design scheme so the Mediterranean-style tiles set the tone of the whole room. The atmosphere is relaxed, flexible and welcoming as well as hygienic and highly durable.

Q: What's the best thing about living in Shanghai?

A: Living in a dynamic, cosmopolitan city, but still having a small community feeling in our lane.

Q: Describe your home in three words.

A: Welcoming, warm, comfortable.

Q: What's the first thing you do when you get home?

A: Open a bottle of wine and start cooking.

Q: How do you unwind?

A: Inviting friends over for dinner parties.

Q: Where do you spend most of the time at home?

A: In our living room: reading, listening to music, entertaining, watching DVDs of the HBO series "The Wire."

Q: What's the best view outside your window?

A: Seeing the tops of other lane houses in the foreground with a background of skyscrapers on Yan'an Road.

Q: How do you scent your home?

A: Geodesis candles that we bring back from France.

Q: What's your favorite object at home?

A: A calligraphy painting done by a Japanese friend (whom we met in Shanghai) of the characters for double happiness ("shuangxi").

Q: Where do you source furniture in Shanghai?

A: Design MVW, Hu & Hu Furniture.


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