The majestic view of the house from the verdant garden makes it hard to believe that it was once a three-bedroom ranch.
It is only natural for a dwelling to reflect its owner, even more so when the owner of the house happens to be an accomplished interior designer. In the case of Paris-born Janine Ducoin-Arnold, every room in her elegant Larchmont home is imbued with some aspect of her own gracious French style.
Shades of blue ebb and flow throughout the interiors like a tranquil meandering brook. Ducoin-Arnold is also fond of yellows, and she uses the two colors in both a traditional French Provençal sense, with its country chic style and vibrant shades, as well as to create an understated aesthetic. Those warm and cool hues capture perfectly the essence of this former vice president for French bank CCF, who put aside her legal career when she was expecting her first child. “The part-time requirements were too much,” Ducoin-Arnold recalls. “Instead, I used my pregnancy as an opportunity for a career change.”
Though she had always had an interest in interior design, it was not on her career radar as a child. “France is the kingdom of ‘Do it yourself,’” Ducoin-Arnold says with a smile. “There wasn’t really a market for interior designers.”
Still, she admits that her passion for design was first piqued in her native country. Growing up in a small apartment on the outskirts of Paris, Ducoin-Arnold remembers her mother rearranging the furniture every weekend. “It was her way of changing the décor,” recalls the designer, who loved to help her mother “stage” the rooms each week. “It provided an outlet for my mother, and I suppose I caught the bug.”
It certainly took an interior designer’s vision to imagine the possibilities in the unassuming split-level that Ducoin-Arnold first saw on this private cul-de- sac in 1996. And it took both serious talent and uncommon flair to transform the 1940s-era three-bedroom house into its current incarnation: a tasteful center-hall Colonial that looks as if it has been imbedded in the local granite forever.
There were certain elements about the house and its property that attracted Ducoin-Arnold right from the start. After growing up in France and living in London for some years, she wanted a space with high ceilings, not the eight-foot ones found in the typical American home. The split-level fit the bill nicely, since it enabled her to expand upward, making the ceilings as lofty as she desired. Having developed a love for gardening when her family lived in London, she also was drawn to the generous property.
The designer was so excited upon first seeing the house that she stayed up all night madly sketching plans. Though she managed to keep its footprint, Ducoin-Arnold ended up with a finished product that bears no resemblance to the original home’s interior or exterior. She worked with architects Clark Neuringer of Mamaroneck and Arthur Wexler of Larchmont to refine her ambitious designs and Putnam Valley-based contractor ASC Remodeling to implement them. Not only did she add an additional story, she also pushed out the walls of the living room, kitchen, and sunroom.
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One of the greatest accomplishments was the transformation of the original home’s front hall into a grand double-height entryway featuring a dramatic circular staircase curling up to the second floor. This stately room foreshadows the elegance of the rest of the house. The wallpaper here mimics blocks of stone, and a baby grand piano is nestled beside the stairway.
Two large-scale, hand-painted Chinese screens set the tranquil tone of the formal living room. Ducoin-Arnold bought the silk panels from Gracie, a New York importer of Chinese papers. The pair flank a pine fireplace mantel with detailed carvings of rams, cupids, and flowers that Ducoin-Arnold inherited from her grandmother. While she has no idea of its provenance, she has taken it with her everywhere, installing it in nearly all of her abodes on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Anything with memory attached to it—whether it’s a memento from a trip or a gift from family or friends—adds character to a home,” says the designer, who believes that pieces with sentimental value are the soul of a house. “These things can be the inspiration for design.” There’s plenty of evidence throughout the room of Ducoin-Arnold’s travels, from the vargueno, a 17th-century portable desk that she found in Spain to the many pieces of decorative porcelain purchased on her trips to Taiwan and Hong Kong.
The homeowner points out that this gracious room, while formal in appearance, is very much lived in and not a “museum exhibit.” The family’s sheepdog, Nelson, has free reign, as does the cat, Pamina, who often can be found napping on an occasional chair. “Many Americans have a contradictory view of their formal and livable rooms,” explains Ducoin-Arnold, who readily admits that she has reupholstered the furniture quite a few times. “If it’s one, it can’t be the other. Europeans tend to live more casually in a formal setting.”
The Arnolds love to entertain and often host family and friends visiting from France. A small wine cellar in the basement provides the excuse for occasional wine-tasting parties, and the family treats almost every French holiday as a reason to celebrate. “It’s so much fun to introduce people to French traditions and cuisine,” says Ducoin-Arnold, whose daughter and son are attending university. One year, the Arnolds had a gathering to celebrate France’s Labor Day (May 1) during which guests exchanged little bouquets of Lily of the Valley for good luck, and every July 14th the Arnolds mark Bastille Day with a dinner featuring traditional blue, white, and red table settings and a très French menu. The circular flow of the house is conducive to entertaining, particularly in the milder seasons, as most rooms open to the terrace and surrounding gardens.
As is so often the case, many guests end up congregating in the kitchen and its adjoining family room, which is also where the family can be found most of the time. Once again, Ducoin-Arnold opted for a yellow and blue palette, but in this case, she used the colors in a classic Provençal way, incorporating bright sunny fabrics from Pierre Deux and seasoning the French country mix with treasures from her own Mediterranean collections.
These include a grouping of ceramic bénitiers (or holy water vessels from France and Southern Europe) that decorate the wall behind the kitchen’s large island and hand-painted plates from Italy, Spain, Greece, France, Morocco, Mexico, and Turkey that hang throughout the room. A shelf in the seating area displays the homeowner’s collection of Santons, traditional terracotta dolls from Provence representing occupations such as lavender vender and lacemaker that are unique to the region.
On the pale-blue papered wall of the dining room hangs another artifact from the South of France. Resembling a birdcage, this walnut antique with open slats on all sides is actually a panetiere, a hanging breadbox that was a must-have item in 18th-century Provence. “Traditionally the panetiere was hung above a buffet or a petrin on which dough would be rolled out and left to rise,” explains Ducoin-Arnold. “Since Provence has such an arid climate, flour was precious and bread expensive, so the panetiere would always have a lock on it. It was hung on the wall to keep pests away.”
Another piece that vies for attention is a turn-of-the-century English cheese scale, which Ducoin-Arnold found in London. Overlooking the oval dining table (English, circa 1750) is a large sideboard from Wales, whose shelves hold decorative porcelain plates including ones depicting different birds. (The designer adores birds, evidenced by the many birdhouses, feeders, and baths to be found in her garden.)
One of Ducoin-Arnold’s favorite rooms is a large airy sunroom, which is painted a soft yellow and features two sets of French doors—one leading to a screened gazebo on the terrace and the other to the gardens—and floor-to-ceiling windows on threesides. A family portrait, which includes the pets, hangs over the fireplace. A spiral staircase in the corner leads to her husband’s second-floor office, which also has windows on three sides as well as access to a small balcony overlooking the garden.
In one corner of the office is a little fireplace imported from Paris called a pompadour, which was a fixture in most turn-of-the-century Parisian living rooms.
As a designer, Ducoin-Arnold is always careful to fashion an interior that reflects her client’s taste. And she has done the same for herself. “It’s important to create a sanctuary that everyone in the family is comfortable living in,” she says. “After all, there’s nothing better than being able to enjoy and appreciate the beauty and tranquility of your own home.”
Elizabeth Cunningham Herring, a freelance writer and editor, is a former senior editor for Avenue Magazine. She lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, with her husband and two daughters.
Photography by Thomas Moore