Building the Hill Country House


I feel that the building traditions of France transfer well to the landscape and climate of the Texas Hill Country. Here a small Dordogne Valley house serves as a nice model for a Hill Country house. The building is strictly natural and traditional, with just a few materials, and a permeable and flexible structure. Solid masonry structural load-bearing walls, 18-24" thick, of Texas limestone in lime mortar and quoin stone corners and openings. Slate or clay tile roof on timber rafters. Mortise and tenon timber doors and inswing double casement windows in true divided light and single glazing. Stone and timber floors. Any plasters or renders are lime or clay, with natural earth pigments if desired. Timber is unfinished or with natural oils or waxes. Absolutely no bitumen, cement, plastic, fluorocarbon, paint, plywood, or damp-proof membranes.


The type of building and furnishing that I suggest is what I call "earthy elegant". Always natural, with some of the roughness and ruggedness of nature, but also some of the delicacy and refinement of traditional craft. I believe this balance is necessary for truly elegant living and desirable, sustainable communities. Buildings and interiors should look as if they have always existed. There should be nothing in material, technique, or technology that could date the building--if it didn't exist 150 years ago, then forget it.


Fireplaces in antique 17th and 18th century marble with simple design but beautiful color and grain. Shown here at left is an Italian 17th century in Breccia di Pernice, and at right is a British 18th century in Bardiglio with contrasting marble foot blocks. These go with the elegant but simple and natural aspect of the house. Nice in walls of lime or clay plaster or wood panelling.

Fixtures & Kitchen

Hardware and plumbing fixtures are all in solid copper, bronze, and brass. Door handles and window espagnolettes from Belgium. Shipbuilding mortise locks, that I configure for architectural use, from Germany. Taps and mixers from France. Traditional enamelled cooking range from France. I am not a fan of the large modern showcase kitchens so common today. I like kitchens to be old-fashioned and charming. The kitchen is a workroom and should be appealing but simple, filled with marble, wood, clay, copper, bronze, brass, and enamelled iron.


We can carry the French basis through to the furniture, as the pegged mortise and tenon and frame and panel construction of the French furniture up to the 18th century was among the best in the world. We can also include in this some of the Italian and Spanish furniture of the same period.

"The said works are to be well and duly made, both ornaments, architecture, assemblage, turnery, carving in the French, antique or modern fashion, the joints well and duly observed, fitted with tenons, pins and mortices...the whole of good sound wood, honest and merchantable, under penalty of ten crowns fine and the work to be burned in front of the workman's dwelling."
(Roger de Félice, translated by F.M. Atkinson in 1923, quoting from the circa 1580 version of the statutes that governed the carpenters and joiners from the 16th-18th centuries in France)

Furniture of this quality is rare today. The good antique pieces are difficult to find (many of my photographic references go back a century) and there are few workshops capable of making reproductions in original quality. But it is these rare workshops that work with great skill in authentic artisanal methods that are of interest to me, as I like to work with reproductions. This allows to perpetuate craft skills, use pieces in new condition like in the period, and to wisely choose native woods and gentle natural finishes. I advise strongly against using any kind of wood stains, shiny polishes, or synthetic materials. I recommend natural wood finishes of pure oils and waxes.

While I do like a good Louis XV country house, the periods of interest for this house are the Medieval and Louis XIII. I don't like Renaissance, Louis XIV, or Louis XVI. The wood used was usually European walnut (Juglans regia), but for reproduction in the United States I would suggest Black walnut (Juglans nigra) and possibly some Black cherry (Prunus serotina). A number of pieces, especially in the Medieval period, would have also been made in European oak (Quercus robur), for which White oak (Quercus alba) could be a good option for reproduction in the United States.

Chairs and tables are drawn heavily from Louis XIII (circa 1601-1643) and pieces of similar period in Italy (chair at right) and Spain (table at left). Chair and table legs are turned either "en spirale" (spirals) or "en chapelet" (beaded). Armrests can follow the same turning or be made more simply with smooth wood or even upholstered. From the Medieval, I take trestles with loose top boards, especially for larger tables, and also the timber-framed cupboards where the structure and joinery is of large proportion, strong and plainly visible.

The one concession to "modern" furniture will be some upholstered arm-chairs and sofas in the Howard & Sons Edwardian designs (circa 1901-1910, the period which also saw the publication of The Wind in the Willows in 1908). These will be upholstered in the all-natural 19th century method of jute webbing and individual coiled steel springs on mortise and tenon wood frames, padded with curled horse hair and loose cushions of down and feathers. You would never want to use this method on older chairs (see below), but it is suited to the Edwardian designs.


The Louis XIII chairs represent some of the first chairs ever with fixed upholstery instead of movable loose cushions. These chairs would be upholstered using only natural materials, with a base of strong leather or closely spaced interwoven hemp or linen (nowadays, often jute) webbing, with no gaps so that the filling could be placed directly on the webbing. The filling would be pure curled horse hair or cattle hair, but I wonder if wool could also work. No metal springs are used.

"All too often old seats have, in the nineteenth century, been fitted with the ugly modern garniture with springs ; every amateur worthy of the name who becomes the owner of a chair or arm-chair thus disfigured will have it stripped of its springs and re-upholstered in the ancient manner ; if it is a question of a rest-bed or a sofa, the movable mattress will be the only possible thing."
(Roger de Félice, translated by F.M. Atkinson in 1923, sounding like me)

The covering material might be leather, wool, or silk. We can still have narrow-width handwoven pure silk velvet made, or silk/cotton velvet made on old mechanical shuttle looms, but I prefer leather or wool covering. Beautiful "Maroquin" goat leather, so popular in fine bookbinding, in traditional brown, red, and green. Fun and interesting Medieval plant and animal designs woven in wool. Plain handwoven wool tweed. And to cover the Edwardian chairs, the best tailoring wool serge in shades of brown.

On the wool-covered Louis XIII chairs, we will use handmade passementerie from one of the few workshops left for wool galloon and fringe. I like the galloon in natural cream and the fringe to match the cover color, but other variations can be used. To attach webbing, covering, and galloon, we will use nails and tacks from the last forged nail maker in France, in a wide-spaced arrangement as found in old period artworks.


Lighting is all in solid bronze, brass, wool, and linen. And some pewter and clay. Traditional British lanterns and floor and table lamps. Always unlacquered bronze and brass to patina naturally. Lampshade frames in brass or steel without plastic coating and wrapped in natural tape or ribbon, with handsewn gathered wool or linen fabric shade. Floor and table lamps are generally the most pleasing way to light a room (as far as electrical light) and properly handmade natural lampshades are essential for their presence and character. Lighting forms should come from historical types of candle and oil lamps and produce a similar sort of gentle and flattering light--in some cases, you might even have them made for candles.

In my opinion, the heated carbon or tungsten filament is the only good form of electrical light, so I encourage you to seek out those bulbs that are still available. Energy conservation can come from using modest amounts of light and only using the lights when necessary. And, as they have been for thousands of years, olive oil lamps and beeswax candles are still good options, especially if you want to be truly ecological. Below, is my favorite olive oil lamp, made 3,700 years ago in steatite by my Minoan ancestors. You can see two ramps cut in the rim for the wicks. Perhaps you can have someone carve something similar for you in soapstone.