When you’re thinking about where to study art and design, one of the factors is definitely the environment on campus. Today we’d like to bring your attention to the beauty of this revitalization project from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) located in a converted French country farmhouse.
Located in Provence’s Luberon Valley between the villages of Lacoste and Bonnieux, La Maison Basse is a five building complex that is built on top of 13th century Roman ruins. The building has served many purposes over the past eight centuries; as a silkworm farm, a local inn, an overnight waylay for bear tamers, and even earning itself infamy as a place for aristocrat, politician and libertine Marquis de Sade to host his gambling den.
The architectural remnants have now been redesigned as a bucolic campus where nearly 400 SCAD students study photography, animation, weaving and other topics, among sweeping vistas of the lavender fields.
At the heart of the design was the adaptive reuse of eighteen properties — which had been donated by the Lacoste School of Arts in 2002. The main objective was to turn the buildings into one of the greatest creative institutions, with the chance to feature historic relics already found on the site alongside the modern amenities of electricity, WiFi, computer labs, classrooms, studios, a library, a dining hall and housing for students, professors and guests.
Insight Into Revitalization
We spoke to SCAD president and founder Paula Wallace to learn more about the revitalization and design of La Maison Basse.
NONAGON.style: What are the design inspirations for the project?
Paula Wallace: Like Van Gogh and Cézanne, our design team was profoundly inspired by the light and landscape of the Luberon valley. They combed through SCAD’s permanent collection — SCAD student and alumni paintings, furniture, sculpture, and light fixtures — choosing works to illuminate the gracious rooms of Maison Basse. I wanted an element of discovery and surprise around every corner, so every bedroom features a different SCAD artist. My goal was for each space to inspire students and other guests to create masterpieces of their own.
My husband Glenn and I worked on the reconstruction and architectural design of Maison Basse for several years. Finally, in 2012 we traveled to Lacoste to curate the final interior details. We studied local history. We chose furniture, fabrics, and unique décor from Provençal markets — including five-foot swans, which previously had adorned a carousel, to whimsically command the pool. We loaded the bookshelves with an enviable collection of art history and design books as well as accordions. We covered the twin beds with colorful quilts and adorned sofas and chairs with vibrant down pillows. Lastly, we added a number of sculptures and lamps designed by SCAD students. At Maison Basse every space is purposefully unique.
In a small corner enclave inside the reading room, for example, I created a battle scene with miniature soldiers and other toy figurines found at the antique market in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The enclave was the location of the original community stove, just large enough for one pot on a small fire. Beside this battle scene, I left a leather-bound journal and pen, and wrote the first few pages of a story inspired by the figurines. My hope was that residents would continue crafting the story of this scene — in the same way that the story of the Maison Basse has been shaped by those who have passed through.
What was the most interesting part of the project to work on?
The challenge and delight of resurrecting Maison Basse were to respect the place’s historical significance and make it functional for our students’ needs. As with all SCAD preservation designs from Savannah to Hong Kong, we worked within the established parameters of Maison Basse’s footprint.
I remember walking through the Maison Basse with the SCAD design team in 2004, talking through each room’s new function. We entered on the barn-side of the building — where the manger once was. I gazed at the stone trough, which had these curved indentions marking where horses placed their necks to sip water for hundreds and hundreds of years. The space was earmarked to become a conference room, but looking around, in the middle of dusty ruins, I saw an intimate dining nook for faculty, students, and visiting artists. We hadn’t even planned for a dining room, but I’ve always believed that some spaces just know what they need to be. You have to trust what the walls tell you.
I’ve also enjoyed the wealth of local history we’ve learned from exploring the site. Recent archeological excavations have discovered the foundational walls of a Knights Templar fifteenth-century commanderie, as well as a rendering of the now demolished building etched in stone.
What was the site like before the project started? Were there any points of note?
Maison Basse posed more serious challenges than properties SCAD restored in the upper village of Lacoste. When we first arrived, it was a hazard zone — dangerous even to walk through. The house had been abandoned for decades.
Most noticeably, the roof of the main building — once a hayloft — had caved in. In another room, so many doors and windows had been added over time that there was, essentially, no exterior wall. Another room had no foundation; instead, it was built directly on dirt. And in another area, a tree had pushed straight through the roof! The first time I scaled the heights of the second and third levels, it was by ladder.
Digging out rooms, unpacking stones, and scraping plaster from the walls, the SCAD team found that some stones starkly contrasted others — some shaped in a 17th century style, others of 12th century fashion. We eventually discovered that Maison Basse reflects the regional practice of incorporating pre-existing structures and materials, whether rough stones from nearby fields or finely carved stones from a Roman temple.
For example, on the wall that was part of the original 16th century space, there was a small and anomalous (especially for a farmhouse) ornate balcony element. This piece most likely came from an abandoned home of a privileged family in the upper village, and was reused here during one of the many additions.
What was the response of the clients on completion of the project? Which part of the house do you/did they love the most?
At SCAD, our students are our clients. Since the 15th century, artists have trekked to Lacoste, France, simply to witness the purity of its light. Today, over 400 students from all around the world study at SCAD Lacoste each year. They’re the beneficiaries of an incomparable opportunity to experience that same illumination while living and learning in Maison Basse.
We have beautifully renovated each historic space at SCAD Lacoste to include all of the high-end resources students need, such as a digitally connected library, printmaking and photography labs, and studio and lecture classrooms. But perhaps students’ favorite — or at least the place we see them the most often — is the Maison Basse pool and surrounding lawn.
Far below the towering château, a green space punctuated by swinging hammocks serves as an outdoor oasis for students, alumni, faculty, and guests hosting class discussions, presentations, film screenings, and fêtes en plein air. It’s a taste of the high-society atmosphere that Maison Basse boasted centuries prior. Visitors can’t help but rave over SCAD’s own perfect piece of Provence.
What advice would you give yourself looking back at the project?
Take heart. The end result will be worth the snail-like pace of progress to reconstruct and make beautiful a medieval building that lacked both roof and foundation. Today, Maison Basse sits in a teacup of a valley with luminous night views of Lacoste and Bonnieux, twinkling on neighboring hillsides. Daylight reveals 50 acres of surrounding lavender fields, cherry orchards, and vineyards.
Students arriving from SCAD Hong Kong first notice the expanse of airy openness. One such student, David Ma, spread his arms out wide to embrace the space. Next, they notice the quietude. It seeps into your bones. And sounds like singing, strumming on a guitar, or laughter travel crystal clear.
Have you graduated from any of these interior design schools? We’d love to hear your experience. Share with us in the comments below!