B ewitching, Le Domaine des Etangs is one of those rare, eco-friendly French hotels that exudes bucolic bliss. Two hours south of Paris, it seems centuries away from the French capital’s coronavirus epidemic, resting on a 2,500-acre estate complete with 13th-century château, seven ponds, pastures and electric Citroën cars. Located in the Limousin region, the Domaine has been transformed by Garance Primat, who has added La Laiterie, a former dairy converted into an art space that focuses on reconnecting with the environment. “When we see what’s happening in the world – from climate change, to the coronavirus, to the #Metoo revolution – it’s obvious that we need to return to the basics of life,” offers Primat. Having exhibited works by Antony Gormley, Richard Long, Kris Martin and other major artists since 2018, La Laiterie now has a major Yves Klein show entitled Les Eléments et les Couleurs. “We worked with the Yves Klein archives in Paris,” says Primat, who describes the late French artist as touching her in a profound way due to “being thoroughly inspired by nature”. Philippe Siauve, the exhibition’s co-curator, describes Klein and Primat as “the perfect match”. “Both are very precise, sensitive and determined,” he says. “While the Domaine is the ideal setting because it features the essential elements – impossible to find in Paris.”
Although Primat refers to the Domaine as “an ongoing process”, it’s also a place entwined with memories, having been her family’s holiday home from 1986. A few recollections include helping in the kitchen by “picking the vegetables and feeding the chickens”, basking in her “favourite spot” – a babbling brook near the edge of the forest that “had a view of the château and ponds” – as well as breaking her wrist “when Papa made us water ski”. Her father was the late billionaire Didier Primat – a director and significant shareholder of Schlumberger, the oilfield services company. When he died in 2008, Forbes estimated that his fortune was around $3 billion. Described by Garance as “a romantic individual and visionary”, he restored the farmhouse and opened the Domaine briefly to the public in the 1990s. “The Domaine was close to his heart,” she notes. In 1994, the place had inspired him and his wife Martine to marry in a religious ceremony, surrounded by their eight children.
Garance – the third of the brood – is carrying on his legacy. Direct and no-nonsense in style, she is eager to share “another vision of the world based on true values that respect nature”. Aware that it must sound naïve, she readily points out that although she was “born with an inheritance and background”, having “a sense of responsibility has nothing to do with money”. Independent and with many ongoing projects, Primat is pioneer-like and fearless. For instance, when put in charge of the spa at Primland – another family business in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia – she spent considerable time with Native Americans, “learning about their beliefs and mythology”, keen to glean the benefits of their “medicine wheel” – a symbol encompassing a range of spiritual concepts. “Bien-être (wellbeing) has to be more than just massages,” she insists. Garance also cites her period of time spent with Aboriginal Australians as inspiring her ethnic and primitive arts collection. She was in Australia with her eldest sister, Bérengère Primat, whose Fondation Opale has raised awareness of indigenous art, including through mounting the recent Mapa Wiya (Your Map’s Not Needed) exhibition at the Menil Collection in Houston.
Garance’s artworks are part of her ever-increasing Collection Dragonfly, and it transpires within a few seconds of arriving at the Domaine that the delicate insect is the hotel’s omnipresent insignia, whether painted on porcelain, embroidered on towelling robes, or placed on windows in sticker form. “Dragonflies represent balance,” she says, wearing a gold one dangling around her neck. “Three hundred and fifty million years ago, they were a metre wide and have since adapted and survived.”
Primat has joined forces with Office Insectes Environnement, the governmental organisation that protects insects in France, and has also co-financed a guidebook on les libellules (dragonflies). Meanwhile, the Domaine is recognised as an official dragonfly reservation. “We have more than 35 different species,” she enthuses. According to Jean-Francois Magnan – the Domaine’s groundskeeper – the prominent dragonfly population explains the lack of mosquitoes, often the bane of ponds.
In order to create the right ambience for the hotel, Primat undertook a seven-year restoration. After the château’s exterior had been renovated, she decided to fuse the names of the French weekdays and stars for the seven suites. “Lundi became Lune, Mardi became Mars, Mercredi became Mercury, Jeudi became Jupiter, Vendredi became Venus, Samedi became Saturn and Dimanche, Sun,” she says. For each suite, Primat compiled a thick file of research that consisted of local history of the region as well as the astral influences and mythology. The well-travelled Primat also wanted to get the art right. “That’s the one area where hotels can be weak,” she says. Hence her choice of Dieter Appelt’s water photographs for the Venus suite and framed moon images taken by Nasa. Once organised, Primat contacted the Paris-based interior decorator Isabelle Stanislas. “I met her at the Milan Furniture Fair and immediately got on with her,” she says. “We share a respect for raw materials.”
Not unlike being caught in a fairytale that has attic bedrooms, magnificent carved stone fireplaces and well-polished flagstones, Stanislas’s work creates harmony and calm, whether it’s the neo-Gothic hallway that is brought to life by Vincent Fournier’s animal photographs, or a loft-like playpen that includes a billiard table, dressing-up chest, comfortable array of sofas and vast Star Wars poster. Other family perks on the estate include two swimming pools, a playground with a treehouse and salmon-coloured rowing boats that Primat admits came from Belgium. “We always try to work within the local economy,” she says with a light laugh, “but they were too pretty to resist.”
Other places to stay include seven metairie – self-catering cottages that are more rustic in style and punctuate the estate. Set in picturesque surroundings, they have their own individual pond and barbeque, and offer frequent sightings of herons, deer and wild boar.
“When we see what’s happening in the world it’s obvious that we need to return to the basics of life.”
Raphael Navot – the Israeli-born multidisciplinary designer who was hired to work on the two library spaces in La Laiterie – was “enchanted by the poetic values” of the château, combined with Garance’s “well-rounded attitude” towards “profound research and passion for local artisanry”. Her idea was to mix art and books to tell a story of past, present and future that would reflect the history of creation. She then approached Nicky Dunne at esteemed London bookshop Heywood Hill for his library curation service. Dunne was quickly won over by “the depth of her curiosity about the natural world”. Meanwhile, Jean-François Magnan, who used to trespass the grounds during his childhood – “we’d pick mushrooms and catch fish”, he says – stresses the local community’s gratitude towards the Primat family for saving the place. “You have to realise that the castle was covered in ivy and pretty sinister,” he says.
For art lovers keen to stroll around the Camille Muller-designed landscape at the Domaine, there’s Ugo Rondinone’s Sun, 2017, made of gilded bronze – “it’s like a wedding ring”, says Primat – Richard Long’s Ring of White Marble, 1993 – “He works in nature with nature,” she adds – and Irina Rasquinet’s Mère Veilleuse, 2016, which resembles a group of faceless Russian dolls protecting each other. Like many of Primat’s collaborators, Rasquinet commends the universe she has created for “inspiring and distilling the arts”, describing her as a muse who “dazzles like the sun”.