Every French house deserves at least some French furniture. Let’s sort the antiques from the bric-a-brac.
Most British people buying a period house in France still prefer to a least partly furnish it with French furniture, and although the days of rock-bottom bargains may be over, there are still gems to be found if you shop carefully.
Furniture can be found in both brocantes and depot-ventes (where the sales are on commission), though the higher-end antiquités stores are for those with very deep pockets. If you have a ‘vide-grenier’ in your area, this too is usually worth a visit – it’s the equivalent of the British car-boot sale, and if you’re lucky, real bargains can be found.
There are sound reasons for buying French furniture for your French property. If you buy a property with lots of beamwork, or an exposed structure such as colombage (half-timbering), you’ll find that locally-styled furniture is usually in matching woods and therefore looks perfectly at home. In the Alps, for instance, your construction woods might well be pine or fir, and painted pine furniture is a good match for bare fir walls with their strong grain. In the north of France, both your flooring and your furniture are quite likely to be oak. And walnut, cherry and other fruitwoods are also available, all of which look right in rural surroundings.
Finer French furniture such as marquetry pieces can look well even in modest period French properties, as if the local ch‚teau had been raided by the Revolutionaries, but one thing to be aware of is scale. French houses, particularly in the south, tend to be much larger than British houses, and larger properties obviously require more furniture – they will cheerfully swallow up everything from your English house. They also often have high ceilings or cathedral-ceiling roof conversions where small-scale furniture looks instantly puny and out of place. Enter the gigantic French armoires and kitchen buffets that would swamp the average British room.
There are, however, some specific items you might prefer to source in the UK, such as chests of drawers. The French tend to prefer drawers or shelves built into their wardrobes, and the French commode-type of sideboard is often too formal for a bedroom space, while the ‘semanier’ with its seven drawers – looking something like an English tallboy — is often too tall. A classic pine or oak English chest of drawers fits well into most French houses, particularly if you replace the wooden knobs with white ceramic French ones.
Another item some have found in short supply in France is the classic pine refectory table, so at home in the English country kitchen. French dining tables tend to be made from better-quality woods, often with quite fine marquetry, and are very much dining room furniture rather than kitchen furniture. However, if you can’t find what you want for your particular situation, you can always cheat. “My ‘refectory’ table always garners a lot of compliments,” says Andrea Smiley, a textile dealer in Normandy. “After all, it’s over 14ft long and 4ft wide, so it really dominates the room. But people look quite surprised when I tell them it’s just made from scaffolding planks and four pub table bases. I gave it a bit of a distressed finish and now it looks right at home.”
Back across the Channel, vintage French beds are among the items most often bought by the British, and with good reason, since they offer a huge variety of styles. The bateau-en-lit is always a favourite, with its deep curved ends shaped like an elegant boat: the narrow ones can also be pressed into use as a sofa or chaise-longue, visually light because they are backless. More modern versions of the bateau-en-lit may have drawers built in underneath, providing useful storage.
Also available are classic Louis XV-style carved bedheads with a curved top and either upholstered or wooden backs. The upholstered type usually needs to be reworked, unless you buy from a high-end shop where the reupholstering has already been done.
One issue with French beds is that they tend to be rather narrow for British taste, where the king-size bed is now standard, and they also tend to be short. When buying an antique French bed, allow for the fact that you might have to extend it to ensure a comfortable night’s sleep, or just buy the bedhead and foot and have the bed base made separately.
Among the other items you might find still readily available in France are kitchen dressers – known as ‘buffets’. These capacious pieces of furniture are very useful, even in an otherwise fitted kitchen, for storing unattractive items such as electrical equipment.
Unlike the open shelves of a traditional English or Welsh dresser, French buffets usually have a closed top, with either solid wooden doors or glass doors, glass shelves and a mirror back, useful for displaying attractive glassware. Different regions of France have different styles, but wherever you are, it’s worth looking out for a marble top — surprisingly handy for keeping butter and vegetables cool in summer.
Many 19th and 20th century kitchen buffets in revival styles have a heavy, overvarnished appearance, but this can quickly be relieved with a rough rub-down and a coat of white or pale grey emulsion paint, picking out the carved sections in contrast.
The French often use the word ‘armoire’ for both wardrobes and cupboards and the same piece of furniture can sometimes be pressed into use in either kitchen or bedroom. French armoires may be fitted with shelves, using a nifty wooden ratchet system that gives almost infinite changes of level, or it might have a hanging section on one side with drawers on the other (a wardrobe with only hanging space is sometimes called a ‘penderie’ or ‘garde robe’).
If the piece is oak or chestnut, the doors and drawers tend to be solid rather than veneered, though veneered woods such as walnut can also be found. Doors may also be mirrored, and you may also come across the type with a horizontal openwork section that is backed with fabric – this maintains the free passage of air and prevents clothes from becoming musty in a damp climate.
When looking for wardrobes, make sure the item will come apart easily if you need to move it up narrow stairs or down a narrow corridor – quite often, French pieces are made with a detachable cornice and bottom section with exactly this in mind.
Armoires can be used for book storage, but proper bookcases (‘bibliothèques’) are also available, in all manner of styles from plain oak with plain glass doors, to more intricate pieces with bevelled glass and perhaps a ‘chapeau de gendarme’ top.
Whatever your taste or style, and even if you bring a container-load of English furniture with you, you should be able to find something archetypically French that will make your house into a maison.