We find them on the bend of a cul-de-sac, after crossing a few ivy-clad passageways that line small vegetable gardens and low-roofed former workers’ cottages. From the outside, the home looks neither new nor old. Inside, however, it’s a small, intimate reflection of the lifestyle of Solène Lahitte, a designer specialising in knitwear, Balthazar Camus, an architect, and their eighteen-month-old daughter Paz. There’s light everywhere, it changes throughout the day and the seasons. The house opens onto a wide landscape of former factories and, in the distance, the hills of the Seine. It feels like we’re quietly sitting next to a factory worker in their cap, as we munch on our sandwich on the outskirts of Paris as it enters modern times and France’s “Glorious Thirty” epoch. And that’s just the view. The living space, on the other hand, is far less nostalgic and far more contemporary: careful use of materials, technical challenges and open spaces quickly define this house designed by young parents who, facing a choice between the city and the countryside, went for neither nor. The Socialite Family has crossed the Paris ring road to meet them.
Solène, Balthazar, please introduce yourselves.
I’ve been living in Paris for twelve years, but I’m originally from Bourg-en-Bresse. I studied fashion in Lyon. I’m a knitwear designer, I work for several ready-to-wear brands, and I’ve been sharing my life with Balthazar for ten years.
I grew up partly in Paris and partly in the countryside, in Champagne-Ardenne. I swapped back and forth between these two addresses quite a lot as my parents separated, living with one and then with the other… I studied geography initially before branching off into architecture. I work for the architecture firm Leclercq Associés. I also work on a freelance basis on smaller-scale projects, primarily residential or small offices. Eventually, I’d like to go into partnership.
Tell us about the style of your home when you were growing up.
I’ve always loved drawing, and my grandmother used to sew. She taught me to sew, and we practised a lot together. So it’s more the taste for creating, and for materials, that I remember. My grandmothers also kept clothes from the 1940s and 50s in big trunks. We’d handle them, dress up in them… I really remember the clothes from my childhood. Other than that, I grew up surrounded by nature, in the countryside and forests. This connection with nature is important to me.
My tastes have been influenced from childhood by the houses my parents and I lived in. They’ve always created unusual and distinctive spaces with half-levels and made-to-measure furniture. It made a huge impression on me.
It’s an aesthetic that you’ll find to some extent here in our home.
Yes. My father directed and produced documentaries, but he also made furniture, some of which we still have here: the shelves in front of the dining room are an example. When I was a child, I used to help my father a lot when he was making them, sanding the wood and doing the odd small task. My mother took a lot of photographs – we have a few of those here, too, particularly between the entrance and the living room.
Has your childhood influenced the way you occupy space today?
The idea of owning a home was important to me. When we wanted to become homeowners, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted: a small house with a little bit of garden. I could see myself having a cup of coffee and watching my child playing outside.
Yes, my choices were influenced by my family’s values; that’s true. Wood and steel, the staircase that divides the space… This house is perhaps also the culmination of all these influences: warmth from the wood, mineral and metallic touches, and a strong balance between the two materials. It’s the grown-up flavour of my childhood.
Tell us how you discovered this place.
As someone who grew up in Paris, the idea of the suburbs didn’t necessarily appeal to me…
But I wanted a house so much!
And we have lots of friends and family here. When we started looking for a place to buy, we wandered around several districts around Paris and fell in love with this one, perched on a hill. These were formerly 19th-century gypsum quarries and have now been filled in. From the 1920s onwards, workers moved onto the site and built their own homes. That’s why it feels like the 1950s here, with all these little workers’ houses. That’s how the neighbourhood was designed.
When we walked around here, we really liked the area with its leafy lanes, the little vegetable plots you pass on your way from the Metro and the car-free cul-de-sacs like ours… As nothing was available on the market, we simply thought we’d knock on the neighbours’ doors to see if anything was coming up for sale. A gentleman told us he was about to sell his house: it was this one.
You’ve redone the place completely.
Yes, we demolished it – the state of the house made it impossible to simply renovate it – and then, in agreement with the neighbours, we came up with a new house that would blend in with the neighbourhood but meet our expectations.
We gave a lot of thought to the constraints imposed by the town and the surrounding area: the house has to be set back on the plot, for example. Its context and environment also played a vital role in the way we structured and organised the space. The materials used were also essential to the progress of the project.
Can you explain in detail the thinking that went into the design of your home?
Firstly, the house has a dual-aspect design, which is a key feature of its layout. Every room is dual-aspect, which is rare: wherever you are – we face east on the street, west on the garden – you get light. So, the house opens up to the neighbourhood on the one hand and to the landscape on the other. Solène and I agreed from the outset that we didn’t want to turn our backs on the neighbourhood by organising the living spaces around the garden and the landscape. We wanted to be part of the neighbourhood, so we opened up the house with windows on the street side and designed a fence that wasn’t too high and didn’t hide us from the others. The inspiration here is really Belgian, Dutch or English architecture: you don’t hide anything; you live among and with other people. On the other side, to the west, we have this connection with the wider landscape of the Paris basin, with the hillsides of the Seine in the background. In a way, the house reflects this dual relationship with the world – inside and outside, local and global – which we’re constantly seeking to balance in our lives…
We've designed our house as a balance between the warmth of living materials and the minerality of inert materials!
Materials have been an important consideration in your work here.
I wanted to reflect the historical continuity of the area, both in the way the house was built and in its external appearance, with its banal, typically Parisian white rendering. But we thought about savings in materials and simplicity of construction and decided on using bricks for the walls. There is no insulation here: the bricks are insulating. The floorboards are visible, and you can see the underside of them on the ceiling when you’re on the ground floor. This is the modern version of the hourdi floor, where the structure is revealed and interspersed with concrete. This system is usually hidden by a false ceiling. But we loved its rugged quality.
Inside, I wanted to break away from the Nordic inspiration and bring in some warmth, but I also wanted to draw a bit of inspiration from Mediterranean culture: I was slightly nervous about the idea of living in a new house, to tell you the truth (laughs). I generally find that they lack soul… I needed something that was still charming and enveloping. Raw clay, tinted concrete on the upper floors, warm false whites and natural earth rendering on the walls all add warmth to the architecture as a whole. We also designed the beechwood and metal dining table.
We’ve designed our house as a balance between the warmth of living materials and the minerality of inert materials!
Is this place a reflection of you?
Yes, absolutely. For example, the very open spaces really suit us: we wanted a large space where we could cook, entertain and communicate wherever we were in the living areas.
There are no partitions here on the ground floor. Functionality is made visible, so you don’t hide everything in the kitchen, for example. The staircase acts as a divider between spaces yet is still lightweight. In fact, it was central to the design: it’s positioned in the same orientation as the house to distribute the spaces. Like many of the elements here, we designed it. Outside, in the garden, we created this wooden terrace that didn’t exist before.
Not all the bricks had been used during the building work, so we used them for these wide steps leading down to the garden. They create a seating area in the summer, where mattresses are slipped in, and all our friends can sit on them – it’s very convivial.
Like a little amphitheatre!
What was the greatest challenge in building this house?
The bathroom, without a doubt!
We put a lot of energy into that bathroom. The idea was to have something all-encompassing, with a single material that really envelops you: the floor, the walls, the basin, the bath, everything is in traditional tadelakt. It’s a coating that’s widely used in Morocco and doesn’t require any coating. It’s a very fine material, made from lime and various other minerals, which is sealed with black soap, making it not only waterproof but also incredibly soft to the touch, like polished stone. Technically speaking, it was a challenge. We had to add structural reinforcements to the house to support the load of the bath, which is approaching 500 litres.
All three of us can fit in our bathtub. It’s a genuine living space!
Tell us about a particular piece you like here.
We’ve replaced the caning on these Marcel Breuer dining chairs with beech. Well, it feels a lot better! (laughs).
We hunt around a lot for bargains for our home, often in Belgium, but we also reuse materials, quite frequently, actually! We like transforming things. Personally, I like the parquet floor on the first floor. It came from the Ministry of Defence in Paris, and it’s been completely restored and is made of solid oak.
We’ve put a piece of furniture from my childhood in Paz’s room, a piece I’ve always known, a multi-drawer glass-fronted cabinet from Djibouti.
We also like to own works that are dear to us, from friends, for example, like the paintings by our friend Jan Melka and the stool that Paz is playing with there, by another friend, designer Mathieu Merlet Briand.
What does The Socialite Family mean to you?
An inspiring and spontaneous media perfect for discovering rich, vibrant worlds.
Which piece from our collection is your favourite?
The Renato headboard for its elegant lines
Do you have any good places to recommend locally?
The magasin Vivant online store for its lovely garden furniture and kitchenware Les Fleurs Prat, for stunning locally-sourced flower bouquets, available online or at the Bagnolet market. Villa Neuf Trois, great food perfect for special occasions Neptune, a charity shop in Montreuil packed with interesting finds. Also Café Kaldi, an excellent local coffee house (8 Bd Chanzy, 93100 Montreuil). And Au bon Vingt for its amazing wines (52 Rue de Bagnolet, 75020 Paris).
Photographies © Jeanne Perrotte | Words by Elsa Cau for The Socialite Family