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Combining Zircons and Diamonds—a Bastille Day Celebration

Apartment renovated and decorated by Martine di Matteo

The streets are quiet out there this morning as France prepares itself for the annual celebration of Bastille Day—July 14th—the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, toppling the long-standing French monarchy in the process. For the first time ever, I’m celebrating it from my Niçois home, rather than the usual picnic on the Champ de Mars in Paris in anticipation of the magnificent fireworks display that rivals the best in the world.

Fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, Photo by Erica Simone

Fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, Photo by Erica Simone

Here in Nice, Bastille Day has a sad side as it conjures up visions of horror, when five years ago, a man drove a truck into a crowd celebrating on the waterfront to watch the fireworks, killing 86 people. To commemorate the tragic event, Nice’s mayor, Christian Estrosi, will see 86 doves released as a sign of peace, a public concert will take place at Place Masséna and at 10:34 p.m. precisely, the time of the start of the rampage, 86 beams of light will illuminate the Mediterranean waterfront to honor the dead. I intend to be there.

Home is what Nice has become as I spend more and more time here. As the years pass, the city becomes even more attractive to a died-in-the-wool “Parisienne” such as myself. When I first bought the apartment in 2011, I had no idea that the city would become a place I’d feel as at-home in as I do in Paris. Having both cities, and both apartments, is the perfect yin to the yang. As long as there’s no reason to choose one over the other, then I won’t and will continue to revel in them both.

An apartment or house is not a “home” until it’s furnished and decorated. When you’re in the market to purchase either, don’t ignore this fact, and that it takes both time and money…plus talent. The point is, that when you budget for the purchase, be sure to budget for the adornment of the property, otherwise you may end up with an apartment or house that is definitively NOT a “home.”

Property in Paris can easily cost up to 3,000€ (and much more) per square meter to fully renovate and decorate, while property in Nice will set you back more like 2,000€ per square meter. I’ve never understood why Paris is decidedly more expensive, but it is. Properties renovated and decorated at my own hand always hit the high side because I “want what I want” and I don’t believe in skimping or cutting corners…not when it’s a place you want to call home. In Nice, even though at the time the apartment was considered more of a second home and an investment to generate rental revenues, I anticipated the potential of the future use as my retirement home and spared no expense.

Vérnique Husson, Mosaïste, at Le Matisse

Vérnique Husson, Mosaïste, at Le Matisse

Architecture and design is the real fun of the property business, anyway. Sure, I look for the “good bones” when visiting properties—the skeleton of the property, or the things you buy that you can’t change…and that’s loads of fun. But the real icing on the cake is the world you can create for yourself in your new abode by using color, fabrics, shapes, style, etc. The choices are endless as are the moods one can imagine.

I work very closely with a couple of key designers and architects who are on call to assist our clients: Martine di Mattéo in Paris and Laura Poirier in Nice. They’ve taught me quite a bit about what can “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”…and I’ve contributed my own philosophy of decor to theirs called “Zircons and Diamonds.” Let me explain.

The idea is to marry the things that are expensive with the things that aren’t to create one unified story, all of which contribute to an upscale and professional look. Custom-made drapes are a perfect example of a fast and easy way to go from drab to fab. Sure, they cost more than the ready-made ones, but well worth it for adding the right panache. Place them on a window that’s next to your Ikea sofa and suddenly the bargain sofa will look a whole lot more expensive, too. That’s the charm of zircons and diamonds…when mixed, you can’t tell the truth from the trash.

When you’re trying to manage a project long distance, like most all of our clients, then you won’t want to take it on fully without the assistance of someone on the ground to facilitate the work. Our designers are fully prepared to work with absentee owners, not only to offer up their own design and decor talents, but to carry out the owners’ decorative ideas as well. They are knowledgeable, talented, well-resourced and responsible project managers. And they are on the ground, whereas you, as the new property owner, may not be. I oversaw my own project 10 years ago, but I was able to train or fly down to Nice often. I got to know many of the neighborhood hotels where I stayed while working on the project.

Over the last 20 years working in real estate in France, I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in hundreds of renovation and decoration projects, a few of which were my own, but most of which were for our clients who hired our designers and contractors to perform the work. Today I offer you a few words of wisdom based on that experience…if what you want is a successful renovation and a happy home:

1. Respect your designer/contractor. What that means is not haggling over the price they give you. That might seem foreign to you because it’s an American habit to negotiate price, but it’s not what’s done in France. If you can’t afford the experts, don’t use them, or don’t do the work. But, the moment you try to reduce their price, you infer that you don’t believe their work is worth it. When you don’t bargain with them, and they see that you respect their expertise, you will find that they will go above and beyond the call of duty to satisfy you and do lots of things not in the original contract for which they are not getting paid. Remember, you’re in this together. They want you to be very proud of your new abode and they want to be proud of their work—it’s a two-way street on which both parties need to respect one another.

Adrian Leeds' apartment Le Matisse under construction in Nice

Le Matisse under construction

2. Don’t do the work in bits and pieces. It’s not efficient to do a part of the work now, thinking you can do the rest later. For example, you might think of just repainting for now and then a few months or years down the road, update the kitchen. That’s not rational thinking. The reality is that once you paint, buy furniture, add drapes, move in, etc., etc., you’re not going to want to tear it all up and start over. Do it right from the get-go without wasting the time and money trying to do it piecemeal. And that means budgeting for it from the beginning.

Before and after photos of decor by Martine di Mattéo

Before and after, decor by Martine di Mattéo

3. Try not to overcapitalize the property. (I’m the worst at taking my own advice, because “I want what I want and I don’t believe in skimping or cutting corners.”) The cost of the renovation per square meter + the cost of the property per square meter should add up to the current market value of the property…per square meter. If you spent more than you should have (and this is more the norm than not), then you have overcapitalized the property and will be paying the price when it comes time to sell. If you never plan to sell, then it doesn’t matter, of course. Do whatever you like and enjoy it the rest of your life. But, if you do intend on selling years later, and it’s still a secondary residence for you in France, then you’ll pay a pretty penny on the capital gains tax regime that won’t allow you to deduct the cost of the renovation or decor from the tax basis.

Before and after photos of decor by Martine di Mattéo

Before and after, decor by Martine di Mattéo

4. Don’t order up a lot of items yourself for the property, expecting the designer/contractor to accept them by post and store them for you. It’s an easy mistake a lot of new owners make, especially thinking they can save a ton of money by by-passing the designer/contractor. This is the designer’s worst nightmare. If you’ve ever had any experience with a delivery in France, then you know that it’s never easy and straightforward. If coming from outside of the EU, then there are customs taxes and fees to be dealt with and paid. Acceptance of the packages could easily waste a huge amount of the designer’s time…and that could (in fact, it should) cost you a lot of fees from the designer. Just show the designer what you want and let them order it, accept the price and add their commission to it. Trust me, everyone will be happier in the end.

Before and after photos of decor by Martine di Mattéo

Before and after, decor by Martine di Mattéo

Right about now you’re probably wondering what are some of the tricks of the philosophy behind zircons vs diamonds. Well, what is not visible to the eye is clearly a zircon. And what is, is clearly a diamond.

For example, I am quite happy with Ikea mattresses that are inexpensive and lightweight, making them easy to move. As long as you sleep well, then why invest a ton of money into a Royal Pedic? But, that sofabed in the living room will be a much better looking, better sleeping and easier to use if it’s a top quality one-pull (the kind where with one pull, the cushions all fold under exposing the mattress)…they cost up to about 3,000€. So spend your money on that and not on the bedroom beds (and btw, twins are best to buy and put together to make one bed for more of flexibility of usage by couples or singles).

The living room n Adrian Leeds' apartment Let Matisse in Nice France

Le Matisse, Nice

Buy some pieces of Ikea-style inexpensive furniture, but change the knobs and you’d be surprised how just that touch changes its look. No one will be the wiser that it’s Ikea (or other), since their cheap, classic hardware is a dead giveaway.

Don’t use cheap materials, when labor is the real cost of the project. Spend a bit more for that better quality parquet floor or tile in the bathroom, because the worker who’s installing it charges the same regardless of the quality of the materials. This is when you don’t want to skimp.

Living room in Adrian Leeds' Le Matisse apartment in Nice

Le Matisse, Nice

Take the designer’s advice when it comes to how to create “one story.” Martine di Mattéo started as a window dresser and still today works in retail display. Her projects are all themed and her “raison d’être” is to create that one story by coordinating not only the colors and fabrics, but also the shapes and forms she employs to paint the picture she wants. She will work closely with you to tell YOUR story, not hers, but she knows how to take it down to the last detail. If you set out to do this yourself trusting your own good taste, then remember this idea with each item you purchase for your new home…so that the final look has that coordination and cohesiveness of a professional.

Even though I renovated my Niçois apartment on my own, I employed Martine to help create the theme, buy some of the “diamonds” of furnishings and make the drapes. She was the one who presented fabrics to me that set the tone—all “Matissien”—and that’s how it became “Le Matisse.” With each tiny addition, we always questioned whether the new addition fit the theme or not. The end result makes it both homey and fun to live in.

Sample tiles and fabric that Adrian Leeds used to decorate her apartment in Nice

Tile and fabric samples for Le Matisse

Martine helped me decorate my Paris apartment as well. That was about 15 years ago, setting the tone for what I’ll happily live with the rest of my life. And that’s the point. When you do it right the first time, you won’t want to change it and you won’t need to. It becomes home from the first moment and forever after. And if you want to trade off the zircons for diamonds down the road, then do it…and enjoy every moment of being at home in your house or apartment.

Adrian Leeds' apartment in Paris, decorated by Martine di Mattéo

Adrian’s Paris apartment, decor by Martine di Mattéo

For more information about the work of our designers, visit our Renovate & Decorate page. Be sure to let Martine and Laura know we sent you…as they work exclusively for our clients!

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds at work during the renovation of Le Matisse in NiceAdrian Leeds
The Adrian Leeds Group®

Adrian at work during the renovation of Le Matisse

Craig Carlson and his book Let them Eat Pancakes

P.S. Craig Carlson author of Pancakes in Paris and Let Them Eat Pancakes, proprietor of Breakfast in American diners in Paris, entertained us Tuesday afternoon at our monthly “Après-Midi” on Zoom with his hilarious anecdotes and stories from his books, accompanied by his husband, Julien Chameroy, and his “Belle Mere,” Elisabeth. To learn more about it, visit our site. You can also watch the session on Vimeo.


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