Driving around the French countryside, accompanied by your faithful dog, travelling to geranium-covered villages in search of quirky country furniture, ceramics and objects d’art: now doesn’t that sound idyllic? Well, it can be, says Dee Brophy, who spends a good deal of her life doing exactly that. “But I could also tell you stories about the time I bought a bench at a fair and it was too big to fit in the van,” she says. “Or the time I left my handbag in a cafe and had no money.”
Brophy began her working life as an information officer for the EU’s Food and Veterinary Inspection Office, which had opened as a result of the BSE crisis. Then she did an interior design course, which led her to study traditional upholstery. “Having lived in Belgium for a while and spent time scouring the markets there, and also lived in Bordeaux in France, I decided my passion was for sourcing forlorn objects,” she says. “So with that in mind I decided to throw caution to the wind, abandon my ‘safe’ job and open a little antiques shop in Killashee House Hotel in Kildare.”
The recession forced Brophy to downsize her business. Rather than keeping up a premises, she moved into a space at the The Store Yard in Portlaoise – an Aladdin's cave of antiques, vintage pieces and bric-a-brac that was a winner in The Irish Times Best Shops competition in 2015.
The moment you see something you have to make a very quick decision because you probably won't see that thing again
Brophy has now returned to her home county of Kildare and set up a showroom in Tougher Business Park, outside Naas. What does she mean by the phrase “forlorn objects”? “I suppose they’re lost, in a way,” she says. “When you go to a market and see something that in your eyes is beautiful but has just been abandoned it’s quite sad, really.”
Brophy brings these objects back to life, placing them in a new – and, hopefully, loved – context. Her eye for interior design leads her to pick up all sorts of “shabby chic” pieces which can be used in the most up-to-the-minute decorative schemes. “I love really distressed country furniture; I suppose it’s an appreciation for the quality of craftsmanship, really. I grew up on a farm where re-use and recycle was a part of life.”
Thus bits of old French balconies become wall features, both indoors and outdoors. Farmhouse windows can be turned into mirrors. A keen gardener, Brophy has made gardenalia one of her specialties; every year she visits all the big garden shows and has an eye for zinc planters, bird cages, stoneware, hand-thrown terracotta and garden seating.
“You don’t know what you’re going to find, so you have an open mind. I pick up a lot of lovely linen textiles; and champagne saucers from the 1920s – I rarely have them in stock, because I always have a list of people looking for them. Another lucky find was a pair of Francois Carré 1930s sunburst chairs with a metal spring seat and a spring back.”
She also, currently, has an elegant Victorian wirework bench: “I found that in the UK and I hopped on it, because if I go out looking for one of those I won’t find it. That’s the whole thing about my job. The moment you see something you have to make a very quick decision because you probably won’t see that thing again.”
Does she sometimes make the wrong decision? “Absolutely,” she says, laughing. “I knew of a house that was being sold, so I suppose there was an emotional attachment on my part, anyway, at that [contents] auction I paid way too much for something and I had to let it go at a loss.”
What’s her favourite find? “A French painting, oil on velvet, of two greyhounds. Because of the texture it’s just stunning. I’m so glad I found that one.”
Brophy, it must be said, is a bit biased in the greyhound department; she and her friend Worzel, a lurcher dog, are inseparable.
“When I met him he gave me a lot of confidence because I wasn’t worried about driving on my own in a van at all hours of the day and night.”
Worzel now plays a central role in her French adventures. On one occasion they were on their way to a fair in a field outside Lyon when their van broke down in the middle of nowhere. “Luckily I was able to call a dealer I knew, who was also going to the fair,” she says. “Myself and Worzel checked into a little Logis de France and the dealer picked us up at 3am. So there we were, squeezing into a van that was packed with the stuff he was planning to sell.
“So we went to the fair, and you know in Lyon it’s really hot and sunny – and my phone fell into a fountain when I was getting Worzel a drink.” At a nearby cafe she confided her woes to a total stranger – who promptly offered her a lift to her van. “I’ll never forget it,” she says. “This man offered me a lift in his little orange Renault Twingo. It, too, was jammed with stuff – and there were no windows – but it felt as if the little car was smiling at me. I’ll always remember flying down this iconic little French tree-lined road. I just thought: ‘Oh my god. This is life’.”
Dee Brophy Decorative is at Tougher Business Park, Naas, Co Kildare, Wednesday -Saturday, 9.30am- 5 pm. See deebrophy.com
Where Dee shops in France
The Foire de Chatou otherwise known as the Ham and Antiques Fair which takes place twice a year in Paris, foiredechatou.com, open to all. Next event: September 22nd-October 1st.
Avignon Antiques fair, open to professionals only. Next fair: May 15th, avignon-antiquities.com
Brocante des Quinconces, Bordeaux, held twice a year. It’s happening now until May 8th. Next fair: 24th November 24th-December 10th.
Brocante de Mézilles in Burgundy area. Next event: August 12th-13th