With cut-glass chandeliers, Chettinad checks and Belgian art, this cottage in the Palani Hills is a peek into bohemian artist Isla Maria Van Damme’s personality

The month of March couldn’t have been better for Belgian decorator Isla Maria Van Damme. Loulou, as she is fondly called, was recognised as one among the top 100 influential architects and interior designers in the subcontinent, at the annual AD100 Awards-2019. It also coincided with the inauguration of Raw Mango’s New Delhi store, which she designed with Sanjay Garg’s team.

“I’ve been lucky to work in this fabulous country,” says the designer, whose hands are still full at 75. She is now designing the next Raw Mango store in Hyderabad, shunting between three cities as her other ongoing projects include a restaurant in Pali Village in Bandra, a contemporary holiday home and guest houses in Goa, and overhauling a duplex in Maharani Bagh, Delhi.

“This [juggling multiple projects and trying new things] is so me,” she says, as nostalgia hits her. Of Belgian nationality, Loulou was born in Kodaikanal, schooled in London, ran a shop of Indian handicrafts called Santosh in Brussels, turned fashion designer crafting wedding gowns, worked on European dresses in Indian fabrics for Jaipur brand Anokhi, and switched to styling cafes in Goa before society’s elites sought her out to do their interiors. “I returned to India at the age of 55 to lead a retired life,” she says, but actually never rested.

Five years ago, when she once again considered taking a break, she found 10 acres in the Palani Hills, en route Kodaikanal from Thandikudi.

Peace at its heart

The bohemian artist has raised a two-bedroom cottage there, in an elegant blend of British colonial and French plantation houses, and named it Sans Soucis (without problem). “It defines my personality,” she says. “This is a place I love to be me, and [where I] tell my friends and guests to live in the moment.”

Sitting in the colonnaded verandah with tiled roofs, and an amazing view of the valley, is balm for the mind and soul. A mini animal farm complete with ponies, cows, rabbits, dogs, cats and hens adds to the therapeutic experience. Inside the coffee and pepper dominated plantation, Loulou grows a host of vegetables, fruits, spices and herbs organically. Her land is a riot of colourful flowers from roses to bougainvillea, and she loves transplanting exotic cuttings and seeds from all over the world. “They’re all growing beautifully here,” she says.

Looking beyond chic

What began as an intimidating experience four years ago — clearing the Mangeparappu ridge infested with lantana bushes and other wild growth, and coordinating the work through phone calls and emails from Brussels — has ended in a timeless property carrying Loulou’s stamp.

Wall decor at Sans Souci, collected by Loulou Van Damme

Wall decor at Sans Souci, collected by Loulou Van Damme
| Photo Credit:

The bedrooms and living room open to the garden and the verandah, merging the indoors with the outdoors. Rusted iron benches in the garden, pinewood shelves from England and cupboards with antique finish in the verandah, metal framed bed in the guest room, and outdoor teak furniture for dining, where she sets up alfresco home-cooked meals with fresh produce, demonstrate Loulou’s expertise in juxtaposing the old with the new. “I do not like chic. I love [and buy] what appeals to me,” she says.

I notice her aesthetic in the thoughtful display of more than 100 pieces of art collected over the years. From block printed kalamkari table cloths and bison horns mounted on patina from Karaikudi, to the Marshall amplifier from the US on which she listens to Louis Armstrong and a 16th century temple (rath) on wheels from Gujarat, she positions every object d’art with flair.

Memories and bric-à-brac

“I have an open mind and any piece of work I find bold yet deep, I pick up, though I may not be sure what I’ll use it for,” she says. Like a painting by surrealistic Belgian painter Leon Spilliaert in which a naked woman without eyes stands in front of the North Sea. Or an iron desk she’d bought in 1970. “I use the space the way I want to live; I design it [according to] what I’m drawn to,” Loulou says, adding that she applies the same approach to all her projects. “I listen intently and understand my clients, and then marinate all that I visualise to be good.”

Loulou tells me that she picks up pieces from antique markets, art galleries and curios shops to create “memorable spaces”. In her room, she has a Kashmiri carpet that resembles a leopard skin. A weaver in Delhi took a year to hand knit it, modelled after the tiger carpets used by Tibetan monks for meditation. Loulou uses hers for meditating, too.

Turkish kilims, embroidered cushions, glossy coffee table art books and cookbooks bought at exhibitions, and inks by Kodaikanal artist Bruce Speck enhance the charm of the place. A big bronze Ganesha from Madurai reclines near a sit-out enveloped in creepers and flowers, by the plunge pool below the verandah. “Art adds culture and colour to homes. This is the place I walk, eat, sleep, sit, live and work in, so it has to be born out of inspiration. Each item I display has a story and is energising to either see, touch or feel,” she says.

Vernacular state of mind

Loulou loves colours. Her kitchen and bathroom are done in typical black-and-white Athangudi tiles. The shower in the bathroom is separated by a plastered water-proof screen on which hangs a collage of family photographs and memorabilia. The L-shaped kitchen with its tall ceiling opens to the garden and has a table in the centre, lit by a 19th century Anglo-Indian chandelier. “I am not ostentatious but I like the basics of luxury.”

With her cottage attracting visitors round the year, she is now readying a second guest house, Serendipity, further up the ridge. Consisting of 10 rooms, it is fashioned after warehouses seen in the hills, with tin shades, grand arches with metal windows, and black doors. “I am very vernacular in approach and mix things that people think can never go together,” she concludes.

Rooms at ₹8,000 per night (inclusive of three meals). Details: 9822580632

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