It is a long and grim drive from Paris to Lille on the Autoroute du Nord which also leads to Brussels and Calais. But if you are travelling with two very dear friends, an architect from Boston, and the daughter of the leading Texas architect Frank Welch, it is much more fun.
We arrived in Croix, a suburb of Lille, driving through Villeneuve d’Asq and its beautiful contemporary art museum, and felt like being in any wealthy suburb in America. Large lawns surrounding 20 th century villas, which were built with textile manufacturing wealth of the triangle Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing…
Paul Cavrois was especially avant-garde in choosing Robert Mallet-Stevens as the architect for the spacious house, where he and his wife (his brother’s war widow) raised seven children. He employed 700 people in the textile industry and wanted a place for his children to lead a healthy life. Conceived as a work of art, Villa Cavrois was built between 1929 and 1932 and Mallet Stevens included all the furniture and decors. It is a technical, as well as an aesthetic manifesto, and it was recently restored for 23 million euros, by Centre des Monuments français, after being vandalized in 1990.
The impression of happiness that one feels when entering the three acre grounds, cannot be shown on photographs. The yellow bricks covering the concrete building, make one believe that the sun is permanently shining. And light is one of the most important elements of this house with a North/South disposition. Terraces occupy a third of the general surface (830 sq meters of 1800 sq meters). Comfort and modernism create a rare feeling in this northern part of France with a climate similar to that of Belgium.
Very inspired by the Bauhaus and by Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Mallet-Stevens has achieved here one of his chef d’œuvre, after the completion of Villa Noailles in Hyères. And what I liked most about it, beside the fabulous 27 m long swimming pool hidden against the house, is the variety of stripes he used all around.
Stripes on the radiators, stripes on the staircase, stripes in the children‘s rooms, stripes in the kitchen and in the bathroom. This is as if Mallet-Stevens had used stripes as his motto, in every color and every material.
One of my companions, architect Brigid Williams, from Hickox Williams in Boston, explained how inspired the building was, by ships. The round portholes, the low ceiling wooden smoking room, the numerous terraces with handrails and even the pool, are all references to ocean liners. Including the building’s reflection in the long garden « mirror ».
The underground of the house is devoted to a wine cellar and heating rooms, where one can still see a drying cupboard for sheets. On the second floor is the linen room in the central part of the house between the children’s wing on the West with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, and the parent’s quarters on the East with two rooms and two bathrooms. On top, next to yet another terrace, the playroom is magnificent.
In the garden, what struck me was the reference to Versailles or to classical French gardens as Vincent Scully would have called them. The perspectives are drawn through the grounds, with emphasis on 17 th century type stellar lines. Hedges, cedar trees, are lined up along symmetrical lines and one can still imagine the grounds as they were in the thirties, with a vegetable garden.
The large living room and the master bedroom with its gigantic bathroom, are quite fascinating and thrilling. I thought I would find this house very dry and cold and it was the reverse. I left the place totally exhilarated, blessing my two American friends for making me drive them so far North.
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