Informally dressed: French cottage style

The casual, liveable cottage and farmhouse style never loses its appeal.

Cottages and farmhouses are the kind of period French property most commonly bought by British buyers and they are buildings designed to be lived in, not for show.

Such buildings are generally in the vernacular style – using local materials for both roof and walls, and fitting well into the landscape from which they were made. Their interiors, lived in by country people who worked the land, tended to express practicality and comfort, rather than formal grandeur.

This country style appeals to the modern-day brocanteur, who, neither a cotter nor a farmer, still enjoys winkling out interesting bits of furniture or textile, and prefers to let an interior grow incrementally, rather than buying everything from the same source.

The building

When you buy a cottage or farmhouse, it rarely offers the same kind of blank canvas as a barn: solid interior walls may mean you have to make do with the existing room layout, or be prepared to undertake serious restructuring. Windows tend to be small, which can make interiors rather dark compared with a modern property. And the greater desire for space in our modern lifestyle may mean that you want to convert the attic space, where awkward beams and eaves entail a different kind of compromise.

However, cottages and farmhouses have history, and usually some architectural features of interest. Depending on where you have bought in France, and the wealth of the original owners, this might include an oeil-de-boeuf window, a fireplace with corbels, a vaulted cellar or a bread oven. A property that offers several will probably be sold as a ‘maison de caractère’.

“We bought our house because of the fireplace and features like the stone sink built into the wall,” says Helen Nixon, who lives in a farmhouse in the Charente. “But I have to admit that we’ve got used to the fireplace now, and the sink is hidden by a sofa most of the time.”

Walls and floors

Floors in farmhouses and cottages work best if they’re of the practical variety, such as terracotta, quarry, wood or ceramic. Luckily, the French prefer hard flooring, so French DIY stores offer a massive range, from click-together laminates to real-wood parquet, to ceramic tile in every imaginable colour and pattern.

Fitted carpets don’t look quite at home in farmhouse-style interiors, where people are (at least in theory) stomping in and out with muddy gumboots, but area rugs work well. Try coir or sisal in areas of heavy wear, or wool for softness underfoot. Sheepskin and goatskin also look at home, as do rag rugs or flat weaves such as kilims and dhurries.

The wall treatments that look best are usually homely, such as exposed stone or rough plaster, and matt paints generally look better than satin. Many expats would advise bringing over British paint from the UK. “French paint is like milk,” says David Halton, who owns both a cottage and a converted barn in Normandy. “I’ve bought every available type, but it just won’t cover. Whenever I go back to the UK, I stock up on trade white emulsion.”

Upstairs, wallpapers can sometimes be useful to mask the dead-flat look of plasterboard walls, but stick to something simple like a Toile de Jouy, or the traditional prints offered by Laura Ashley, rather than modern, grandiose or textured designs.

Furnishings

When it comes to furniture, plain, simple country pieces of any era are usually the most effective in a vernacular interior, and since local brocantes and depot-ventes are likely to be full of country pieces in the right styles, take your cue from these.

Living room with woodburning stove fire in converted barn, Orne, Normandy, France

“We’ve furnished our French house bit by bit from local depot-ventes,” says Richard Manton, who has a farmhouse in Normandy, “but it’s not as easy to find bargains as it used to be. For instance, we couldn’t find two similar bookcases, so we chose ones that were as different as possible, rather than having a near-miss.”

For soft furnishings, large, accommodating, family-friendly furniture works well. Helen Nixon couldn’t find a French sofa she liked, so she had hers made in the UK and shipped over. “We bought a model with cotton loose covers which are easy to wash,” she says. “I’ve been very glad of that with our cats and dog and friends’ babies wrecking them every five minutes.”

Room by room

If you’re moving across full-time, there is no need to furnish from scratch – your existing British furniture may fit quite happily into a French country setting, especially if it’s of a traditional style. Victorian, Arts and Crafts period, or Utility all look fine, as do plain, modern pine pieces from shops such as Ikea or Laura Ashley (if you have a chest of drawers, hang on to it, as these can be harder to find in France).

Fine Georgian antiques, or spindly 50s furniture, however, may look a little precious unless items are grouped together, and anything too sleek and modern can be hard to accommodate.

If your French house is larger than your UK one, your British furniture won’t go very far, so mix and match with some French pieces such as an oak or fruitwood buffet or two. A large armoire or ‘bibliotheque’, as well as being beautiful, is indispensible for storing books, CDs and DVDs.

Many French cottages have only a corner kitchen in the living room, but this can be a nice solution for a holiday home, or for a cook who doesn’t want to be cut off from visitors while preparing meals. However, you’ll find a decent extractor fan very useful to keep your furnishings clean.

Where the kitchen is a separate room, it’s usually used for dining as well – a separate dining room is a rare commodity in a farmhouse or cottage. Oilcloth, a pine table and rush seats are more at home here than fine linen and china.

Bathrooms and bedrooms in cottages and farmhouses sometimes have to be where you can slot them in rather than where you’d actually like them, especially if you’re making the most of an attic conversion.

Attic bathrooms in particular tend to be very small, but that may be no bad thing, as Helen Nixon points out. “Our first priority was to move our tiny bathroom upstairs into a much larger bedroom,” she says, “but when winter came we realised that a tiny room with a huge radiator was actually an asset.”

With small bathrooms, a simple decorative scheme will probably work best, with white sanitaryware and a wall treatment such as tongue-and-groove or white tile. Wicker or painted wood furniture looks more in keeping than laminate or modern mirror-finish cabinets. The French tend to prefer a modern look, but the odd traditional range appears in outlets such at Atlas.

A French bed may prove more practical than a British four-poster if you’re jammed into a small space, but can still give a nice sense of enclosure because of the high footboard. Antique beds in many different styles are still readily available in brocantes, though you may have to extend the length, as people have got taller over the decades.

Gillian Albert runs a B&B in the Loire and says: “Most of my guest rooms only have a bed, a night table and a chest of drawers, because there’s simply no room for anything else, but luckily guests just seem to think it’s charming and olde worldy.”

Gillian herself, however, has hung onto a very spacious master bedroom with its own fireplace – clearly short stays and living full time are two different entities.

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