Last summer I met up with French designer Clarisse Demory in her Paris apartment during the only two days of the year that she happened to be in the city. Clarisse had been living deep in the flowery hills of Tuscany for the past year (she brought bunches of dried flora back with her), working on a complex and somewhat veiled project.
Villa Lena is, as the owners describe it, "a new kind of retreat"—an estate featuring a hotel, rental apartments and villas, and a not-for-profit art foundation surrounded by 1,200 acres of woodland, olive groves, and vineyards. The center was masterminded by the villa's three French owners: art consultant Lena Evstafieva, musician Jérôme Hadey, and restaurateur/night club owner Lionel Bensemoun. The main house and the surrounding buildings date to the 18th century and were renovated in the mid 1990s, but the property needed another update to turn it into a creative hub. Having hired Clarisse to design his three Nanashi bento restaurants in Paris, Lionel enlisted her as art director for the project. Clarisse's easy-chic aesthetic was the right fit for the undertaking, which required creative use of recycled and vintage furniture to stay within a tight budget.
Along the way, Clarisse ripped up old upholstery, sanded wooden floors to a matte finish, and chopped off bed legs. "When I did have to purchase furniture," she says, "I opted for reliable, vintage pieces by Danish designer Børge Mogensen along with vintage Italian designs from Superstudio, Ettore Sottsass, Vignelli, and Achille Castiglioni." The latter lot she sourced with great luck from Florence's secondhand stores. While Clarisse got creative with available materials, the owners made the decision to splurge on small luxuries: custom bed frames from Milan, high-quality mattresses, natural bedding, and a Santa Maria Novella terra cotta potpourri for each room.
Villa Lena fully opened in the spring. Accommodations consist of two rental houses, six self-contained apartments, and a converted stable, plus hotel rooms in the villa. The Villa Lena Foundation also hosts two-month artist residencies. Have a look around.
Photographs courtesy of Villa Lena, unless otherwise noted.
Above: At the heart of the property is the old villa built by the Ferrini del Frate family in the 18th century and now the Villa Lena hotel, which is where guest artists stay. French chef Hélène Bouchardaud and her team grow produce for the restaurant on the estate, which has an Italian-French menu.
Above: In her design of the rental apartments, Clarisse's first order of business was to bring light indoors: "The apartments had dark wood ceilings and fake ancient-looking pictures; the whole property had a gloomy atmosphere in a clichéd Tuscan agriturismo style."
Above: In Fattoria, an old stable remodeled into the reception building, the apartments have tall brick furnaces. Clarisse paired them with design classics like a tan leather Børge Mogensen sofa and a vintage Italian coffee table (designer unknown). Photograph by Frederik Vercruysse.
Above: Where space was tight in the apartments, Clarisse designed wall shelves as an alternative to armoires and fashioned clothing rails from black metallic plumbing pipe. Photograph by Coke Bartrina.
Above: In most of the apartment kitchens, Clarisse painted the cupboards a pale, dusty green (sourced from a local hardware store) and introduced floating shelves, recycled tables with painted tops, and a mishmash of vintage chairs. Photograph by Coke Bartrina.
Above: Donald Judd–style sofas and chairs were fashioned from wooden boards found in a warehouse on the property. "My designs can be recycled, but they should never look recycled," Clarisse says.
Above: À la Maria von Trapp, Clarisse made sofa cushion covers from old hotel curtains by bleaching the fabric to create interesting patterns before stitching it. Guests quickly began asking where to purchase the pillow covers, so she put together a collection that's available at the small Villa Lena store.
Above: Clarisse painted dark wood armoires in a wash of "superlight pink or bright, matte white."
Above: A candle holder found in the old villa is paired with a thrifted basket.
Above: The living areas in many of the apartments are furnished with vintage wicker. Photograph courtesy of Julie Ansiau, originally taken for Elle Decor.
Above: "This is a once-super-tacky sofa that I found in one of the houses," Clarisse says. "I removed its heavy upholstery, sanded the wooden frame, and added my own sofa cushions." Photograph courtesy of Julie Ansiau, originally taken for Elle Decor.
Above: Dried Tuscan flora (with a few leaves painted a cool blue) are displayed in ceramic jars. Photograph courtesy of Julie Ansiau, originally taken for Elle Decor.
Above: Artists in residence work in a group of converted farm buildings with individual studio spaces. Visitors so far have included paper artist and designer Julie Ho of Confetti System, lighting designer Ana Kraš, fashion designer Sophie Buhai of Vena Cava, and the creators of Calico Wallpaper.
Above: A map of the 1,200-plus acre estate; note that there are three swimming pools. For more information and reservations, visit Villa Lena.
Traveling to Italy? See our Florence City Guide for other design-worthy hotels, restaurants, and shops. Also have a look at Hipster Paradise: Hôtel du Temps in Montmartre, a Paris boutique hotel partly owned by the Villa Lena's Lionel Bensemoun. And tour Clarisse Demory's own rustic getaway in A Parisian's Pied-a-Terre in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Below: Villa Lena is in the Tuscan countryside, an hour west of Florence by car.