The renaissance of chic
What is it about the French and style? They seem to be born knowing how to dress beautifully, while French cuisine is considered among the finest in the world. And they're justly proud of their extraordinary design heritage: priceless antiques passed down lovingly from generation to generation, along with a love and respect for fine furnishings and an eye for putting things together that the rest of the world longs for.
The French people have an affection for beautiful things that has nothing to do with ostentation or acquisitiveness. There's a seemingly effortless, elegant way that French homes are decorated that emphasizes taste and comfort, rather than price or the latest trend. A French interior is a constant work in progress – there's always a place for a new vase filled with fresh flowers, an exquisite piece of Limoges china, or a chair still dressed in its original 18th- century fabric. Paris's flea markets are unlike any others, and antiquing is a national obsession.
We call this relaxed decorating style French Country in order to distinguish it from a more formal French traditional style, but providing a distinct definition is not easy; French Country is really a catch-all term for a range of regional and historical influences. The general look used to be called French Provincial, to acknowledge the rustic textures, primitive furnishings and beautiful colours associated with Provence, and by association all of rural France. Today, French Country refers to a style of casual decorating that's perhaps a little more smooth and sophisticated.
French Country combines a mix of antiques (mainly from the 18th century) with colours inspired by the matchless light and rustic beauty of the French countryside, and wraps it all in comfort: cozily stuffed upholstery, curtains that puddle dramatically on the floor, richly textured fabrics and carpets. But what truly seems to distinguish the look is another, less definable, quality: it's an instinctive sense of harmony and scale that makes the most eclectic room somehow just right.
France's Golden Age of culture and enlightenment first blossomed at the court of Versailles under Louis XIV (1643-1715), who set the style for all of Europe. Under his rule, which has come to be known as the Baroque period, craftsmanship in possessions was a measure of social status; furniture and interiors became ever more elaborately carved, gilded and decorated.
Baroque furnishings are often large in scale, almost comically ornate, and incredibly intricate, making them a challenge to place in modern rooms, which tend to be somewhat smaller than the grand salons of the Renaissance. Usually, a single grand Baroque piece is used as the focal point in a room, with smaller furnishings sparely placed as supporting players. Balance and harmony are crucial elements in a French interior.
During Louis XV's reign, 1715-1774, the decorative arts reached their fullest flower, in the period now known as Rococo. Under the influence of the King and his beautiful mistress, Madame de Pompadour, hospitality and comfort were paramount. Upholstery favoured rich damasks and velvets, and clothing, rooms, and furnishings adopted the soft pastels that Mme de Pompadour loved. With its easygoing charm, Rococo is considered to be the style that most readily translates into present-day interiors. (Think of that white curvy bedroom set with the gold trim that every little girl wants.)
The last of the pre-Revolutionary French kings, Louis XVI, ruled over the zenith of the Neoclassical style, with its refined symmetry and precisely scaled proportions. (It also had a strong influence on North American architecture of the same time, particularly in the United States, where statesman and architect Thomas Jefferson divided his time between America and extended visits to France.)
While the French kings and their guilded courtiers played in Versailles and Paris, life in the provinces was very different. Some towns thrived on the commerce produced by local industry – toile (fabric printed with rustic scenes on unbleached cotton or linen), which was the specialty of a town called Jouy, is a fine example. But for most rural peasant farmers, life was simpler and generally, far more difficult. The more whimsical motifs that we associate with Provençal style, such as farm animal motifs, homespun sayings sewn onto pillows, and rough-hewn furniture and finishes, actually date back to the more primitive time of Louis XIII, but rural life remained relatively unchanged over time – even after the Revolution in 1789.
Nowadays, there are few rules when it comes to either temporal or regional accuracy in a French Country interior. The ease that the French have with their antiquities informs the relaxed way they're used. Groupings are deliberately mismatched, priceless family heirlooms share the same space (and are as much in daily use) as items whose value is purely decorative. Floors may be bare, or covered in sisal or grass rugs, or a fabulous Aubusson carpet. Pieces from later periods, such as Victoriana, Art Nouveau and Art Deco from the 19th and 20th centuries, are collected and displayed just as avidly. The point is not to represent any particular period or style of decor, but simply to display favourite, personal things as one's own eye decrees.
Here in Canada, French antiquities are not, alas, as readily available as they are in their country of origin, where the results of centuries of craftsmanship are freely and devotedly circulated. But adopting a French attitude – a sense of personal history, an appreciation for fine craftsmanship and beauty, along with a convivial, relaxed sense of hospitality – is a fine place to start. Maybe we don't have access to prized toile, enamelware or bergère chairs at the local market, but we do have a rich cultural history with fine pieces of furniture from Quebec, for instance, as well as skilled craftsmen that rival the best in the world. The French Country room is, by its nature, always changing. The addition of a beautiful new acquisition, or even merely rearranging a grouping of artfully mismatched chairs or framed photos, is all part of what keeps it fresh.
FRENCH COUNTRY PALETTE
Adding a single colour is the next step after setting the stage by decorating with black and white. Blue is a powerful colour that holds its own against the strength of both black and white and is best used as a backdrop to the base palette. In this room, blue has the opposite effect of red and instead cools down the space – a useful trick in the south of France. When using blue, be careful what wood tones you add to the mix. Avoid warm or honey-toned woods and instead stick with wood tones that are on the cooler side. Here, weathered wood pieces have gradations of grey that work beautifully with the walls. Blue can also help define the architectural space of a room – note here how the solid blue wall instantly draws the eye.
FRENCH COUNTRY PALETTE
Red is used as a neutral in French Country decorating. It conveys confidence – something that's decidedly French – in your personal style. It can seem intimidating, but red is actually one of the easiest colours to coordinate with. Rich shades of red bring warmth and refinement to a stone room that's showing its age. An antique chair upholstered in lipstick red is the focal point for a room crowded with comfortably luxurious furniture. The pattern of the fabric corona inspires the intense burnt red of the side table. The same red is picked up in the bed linens. Such room screams confidence.
FRENCH COUNTRY PALETTE
BLACK & WHITE
Unmistakably French and undeniably chic, the combination of black and white is a timeless decorating tradition that never seems to go out of style (think of black and white tiles on the floor). The trick to decorating with black and white is to avoid using a white that's too cold or the room will feel stark. The intention in French Country decorating is to create contrast in a comfortable space. In a living room, cream provides the foil against black stripes, black wrought-iron furniture and accessories and ebony-stained wooden chair legs. White slipcovers and table linens brighten a room with cracked and peeling plaster. Again, the colour black grounds the room, giving the eye somewhere to rest in a sea of neutrals.
FRENCH COUNTRY PALETTE
Yellow is the colour of sunlight, but is most often used in French Country decorating as an accent colour, not as an overriding theme. In a kitchen, yellow is used to complement the rustic red curtains and the patina of the old copper pans. Yellow reflects and radiates light through dark spaces, which the French find helpful in old rooms with small windows. Though a living room is full of furniture, it doesn't seem crowded or overwhelming because there is a limited colour palette in use. Again, red is used as a neutral tone (a red couch, ottoman, pillows and stools), while the yellow wall is treated as an accent colour, making the red seem 'redder.' Note the artwork is in shades of black, white and beige.