photographs by hülya kolobas
Natalie Dunagan can’t help but giggle when she recalls the time her rental van grazed the car of a local resident in downtown Brussels. She was attempting to negotiate a narrow street in the city’s famously convoluted grid, her vehicle loaded with Belgian antiques, and her mother, Charlene, in the passenger seat. Though the damage was minimal, the man was agitated, cursing in French, and Natalie, flustered, vowed to use a local shipper to consolidate her purchases from that point forward.
The incident was par for the course on what would become a decade-long ritual of mother-daughter bonding: traveling to France, Belgium and elsewhere in Europe, in search of furniture, lamps and decorative objects that would later wind up either in Natalie’s well-edited Westport shop, Circa Antiques, which she owns with her husband, Didier Curvat (whom she found on a different trip, unaccompanied by her mother), or in her mother’s home on Sasco Hill in Fairfield.
The trips—and the treasures they yielded—nurtured a passion shared by the two women, the older an artist and gardener with a natural gift for enhancing a room, the younger a student of business who inherited a fervent interest in antiques and décor.
“Even though we didn’t always agree, we were good sounding boards for each other,” Natalie says, adding that her mother was her best friend.
Over the years, in roughly ten trips in all, they coaxed out sources that were shrouded in secrecy and earned their trust. With Natalie leading the charge in French, they ultimately negotiated the shipment of whole containers filled with chairs, chests, vases and sconces back to the States. In the process, Natalie absorbed her mother’s influence and appreciated her tasteful eye, and Charlene watched her daughter make successful bets on what was marketable back home.
“Americans have been buying heavily in France for the last ten years, but, recently, we’ve begun to see the Belgians emerge on the leading edge of design” says Natalie, whose shop, like her mother’s home, is awash in muted natural hues, bleached wood and objects such as iron garden ornaments and rose gypsum that have been repurposed into sculptural sconces and lamps.
After some consideration, last summer Natalie convinced her mother to have her house photographed for the magazine as a way of showcasing her mother’s legacy: the Belgian aesthetic, epitomized in the work of interior designer Axel Vervoordt, that they pioneered together over the last few years. She died last November.
When Charlene bought the house twelve years ago, her daughter says, “She saw the beauty of the spot and took it to where it is today.”
Built in 1880 in the style of the second Empire, the house possesses a dignified air, loftily presiding over a six-acre parcel of terraced gardens that tumble down to a finger-like cove of Long Island Sound. Charlene immediately went to work restoring its details and infusing it with what would become her signature style.
The formal living room, accessible through an archway off the foyer, is a study in cosmopolitan serenity. A beige Belgian sofa with relaxed lines sits with a pair of 1940s French slipper chairs in a robin’s egg blue from Circa Antiques. On the coffee table sits a sculptural piece of rose gypsum. The side tables are French pedestal tables dating to about 1910 with metal bases and marble tops. Lucite lamps from the 1940s are fitted with new linen shades. A rare nineteenth-century Chinese rubbing, made from stones engraved in about 1200, hangs above the fireplace, and other noteworthy pieces include a nineteenth-century Swedish clock with its original paint; a pair of Colombian portraits by different artists
Charlene bought in her twenties; and a large nineteenth-century Swedish chest with a pull-down desk. Everchanging in its design, the living room proves a testing ground for pieces that eventually end up in Natalie’s store.
The dining room, accessible through an archway opposite the one that leads to the living room, features pewter-leaf wallpaper on the ceiling and walls treated in Venetian plaster, which Charlene insisted on doing herself. A nineteenth-century French chandelier, made of iron and featuring flowers fitted with candles (Charlene chose not to electrify many of her antique fixtures, opting to use candles instead), hangs above a round, nineteenth-century English rosewood pedestal table surrounded by recovered turn-of-the-century Biedermeier chairs.
The fireplace, with a mantel painted a gun-metal gray, is accessorized with English andirons dating to the nineteenth century and features a pair of nineteenth-century wooden Italian urns Charlene found in Paris. On the walls hang nineteenth-century French rock crystal and iron sconces, and in the corners Charlene mounted marble-topped consoles carved in wood and treated in gesso and gilt. Each supports a copper finial. A French Empire mahogany table sits in a windowed alcove and displays a French iron female bust.
In the sunroom, partitioned off by two nineteenth-century French wooden doors with original hardware, a round English table is paired with four of Kartell’s Louis Ghost Lucite chairs and the floor is tiled with Portuguese limestone.
The heart of the home is the den bathed in shades of putty and taupe, that is situated at the rear of the house with stunning views of the Sound. Typical of Charlene’s approach to design and decorating, it mixes modern designs with ancient artifacts, juxtaposing upholstered Dutch and Belgian chairs and sofas from Circa Antiques with an eighteenth-century French mantelpiece and a painted Mongolian cabinet she had retrofitted with a remote-controlled flat-screen TV that emerges out of the top.
A built-in bookcase displays circular rings carved from the belly of a giant clam shell and used as currency in Papua New Guinea, an eighteenth-century roof tile from Afghanistan and an ammonite snail shell. Side stools are polished petrified wood, believed to be millions of years old.
The master bedroom is a sunny perch from which Charlene could survey her gardens and the water beyond. Black and white toile covers the French brass bed, and a Chinese altar table sits beneath the large windows, also dressed in toile. The room also contains a nineteenth-
century French armoire from Lyon with a burled elm face. Nineteenth-century French sconces, with crystals and mirrors, lend flair to the master bath.
When she wasn’t shopping overseas or mixing a new paint, Charlene found her bliss in a floppy hat and gardening clogs and gloves, tending to her rose bushes, trimming boxwoods or taming an ancient wisteria vine that embraces the rear half of the house with the help of a
Often, she retreated to her garden room, an area once part of the garage. With vaulted ceilings, exposed beams, brick floors and vast windows, it proves a versatile space for both potting plants and entertaining guests on summer nights. A huge marble table with veining like splatters of red paint dominates the room; Charlene and Natalie found it together in France. A nineteenth-century French clock face decorates the wall; an Italian chandelier from the late nineteenth century hangs above the table, and Italian plaster and iron sconces embellishes the walls. The bathroom features a nineteenth-century French tub, made of zinc and modernized with a wall-mounted early twentieth-century French showerhead and fittings.
French doors open to a knot garden, a source of pride for Charlene. Adjoining it is another garden where she spent time with her granddaughter, Natalie’s oldest child. They called it their secret garden.
“This was her hideaway,” Natalie says. “She loved to come here.”
Circa Antiques, Westport, 222-8642; circantiques.net
Elegant Effects in Floral Design, Southport, 255-6261; eleganteffectsfloral.com
Mandarin Collection, Westport, 454-4030