There is a common thread in the house hunting process that most buyers will tell you is intangible and usually inexplicable. For French-born Chantal Dussouchaud, architectural design maven and founder of the fashion and home accessories company Atelier de Chantal, it was just that element of je ne sais quoi that cinched the deal on the nearly two-acre Austen Pierpont-designed estate in Ojai she now shares with her husband, Harry Dolman, and their daughter, Sophie.
“It was the creaking sound the wood stairs make that did it,” she explains, practically skipping up them as she shows me through the house. And so began the nearly two-year restoration of her 1933 historic home and a love affair with the Ojai Valley.
“I just love, love, love houses,” Dussouchaud says, beaming as we drink a latte on the back porch overlooking a hillside of cypress, olive, and pepper trees. “I am so visual, when I walk into a house I can instantly see where walls need to be torn down to improve the flow of a room or create a view, or where doors should be moved or even removed.”
Except for several minor additions, the property with its main house, studio, and garage with attached chauffeur quarters still had most of its structural bones, plus the original woodwork, plumbing, lighting fixtures, and windows. But years of neglect, incoherent landscape, uncertain paths between buildings, and two unattractive, massive screened porches begged for attention.
“I am not an architect per se, but rather a designer of architecture whose style brings uncluttered and open spaces, geometry and asymmetry to a space. I pair the unusual and unexpected, mix and match to create stylish and eye-catching looks: such as antique or vintage pieces with modern and sleek lines,” she explains.
The finished home—modernized to meet today’s standards—is stunning. In essence, she created a typical French property, complete with a farmhouse linked to the atelier, or workshop, the guesthouse, pool, and the tennis court. Walls built with local rocks create privacy from the road and lead to humble wooden entry gates. The courtyard is given new life with a decades-old look, using a combination of local river rocks and gravel with random sprigs of thyme as ground cover. Lavender, olive trees, and a 200-year-old family of oaks enhance the property.
The living room underwent one of the biggest metamorphoses. Dussouchaud moved the original fireplace from an end to a side wall to create a view, and fitted the vaulted ceiling with rough-hewn, exposed trusses, adding character and diminishing the visual vastness. To lose the room’s bowling alley feel, she added a temperature-controlled wine “cellar,” thereby shortening the wall and restructuring the space. New and patched walls were mudded with an irregular look to match the original mud. One of the most noticeable changes on the back of the house was the removal of floor-to-ceiling screens. She added a matching patio cover outside the kitchen to create a cohesive line along the back of the house.
Ojai carpenter and craftsman Bob Pulley worked to bring the family room’s natural pine paneling into harmony with the rest of the home’s trim, which eliminated the cabin feel. Original doors and knobs were moved to new locations as oddly shaped rooms were redesigned. Many of those knobs now have the lavender-filled, 30-inch “Knobags” from her Word-y Collection hanging on them, stenciled with labels such as Energy, Pureté, Ca sent bon, and Life is Good.
The shed was redesigned as a guesthouse using materials and elements from the main house, including the original bathtub, sinks, toilet, faucets, doors, windows, and light fixtures. It was then furnished with furniture from previous projects and items found on the street. “The idea was to turn the existing shed into a living space at a minimal cost. I am very big on giving second life to objects that are otherwise meant to be discarded,” says Dussouchaud.
Dussouchaud’s sense of design has served her well in the fashion industry, too. She has a long track record that ranges from designing made-to-measure clothes for a private clientele to sourcing European suppliers for Barneys in New York and tracking trends for L’Oreal. She combines an innate understanding of pleasing architectural design, enhancing it with materials, textures, and, of course, art.
The home is true to a less-is-more theme. The exterior shutters open and close, bits of original brick are visible, repurposed wood windows provide a relaxed, restorative feeling, and bathroom linen cabinets have wire doors. Rooms are graciously proportioned to suit civilized conversation rather than to impress. Restored bathrooms have retained their original character but provide luxe touches such as spa tubs. The chauffeur quarters-turned-workshop has even been given the onceover, and now provides ample space for Dussouchaud to work on projects.
For Dussouchaud, energetic, bubbly, and confident, serendipity is not a stranger. Visiting her grandmother’s home in the South of France in 1994, she learned that the celebrated designer, antiquarian, and founder of the Melrose House in Los Angeles, Rose Tarlow, had purchased a home nearby and was renovating the property. The two met and Dussouchaud spent nearly five months helping with the home’s renovation.
In much the same way, she met Academy Award-winning actress Mary Steenburgen at a café in the South of France, ultimately designing her and husband Ted Danson’s guesthouse at their home in Ojai. Says Steenburgen, “I was lucky enough to…meet her…in France and, through our friendship, she and her husband, Harry, and their daughter, Sophie, came to fall in love with our beautiful valley…Chantal is a true artist, an amazing designer…Her ability to listen and understand a person’s needs and lifestyle while at the same time bringing her own beautiful instincts and creativity to a project is unlike anyone I have ever worked with.”
Dussouchaud’s approach to her work as an architectural designer keeps her projects on target and in balance. The Ojai home is cohesive and warm, subtle but abundant. It feels like home.
Standing in the living room, surrounded by a 180-degree view of the trees and mountains, I noticed that the simple yet elegant linen curtains pooling onto the floor hadn’t been hemmed. “Why don’t you hem them?” I asked.
Leaning in close she whispered, “Because it’s boring.” With Dussouchaud, it seems there is always a surprise to delight and engage.