The French look: the continuing charm of French interior design

French interiors are known the world over for their charm, but charm is a hard concept to put a finger on. ‘Raising domesticity to an art’ is the hallmark of the French look, claims French style magazine Maison & Jardin, and that’s not a bad place to start.

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

There are many different types of French interior, of course, but one hallmark of French houses is that they are usually bigger than English ones. Other than those bourgeoise varieties packed with objects intended for admiration, this can result in a rather spare atmosphere, especially those in the southern style, where life is lived mainly outside. Many an English owner in France, unnerved by the greater amount of space in their French property, has stuffed it to the gills to create the more familiar and cosy look of the English country cottage.

In terms of elements of style, French homes often do without fitted carpets – though rugs may be plentiful. Downstairs rooms often have terracotta or ceramic tiling, or parquet flooring, while upstairs rooms generally have bare floorboards. Furniture is often painted white or grey – a soft, knocked-back look – though the style itself may be quite ornate.

Though not allergic to flowers, the French are not fans of chintz, that quintessentially English fabric, but prefer either very loud floral prints from the likes of Canovas, or the subtle madder- or blue-on-white tones of Toiles de Jouy. Further south, the Indian-inspired paisleys of Provencal fabrics in rich mustard, green and red are popular. Curtains may range from multiple layers of chiffon drapes in the grand Parisian style, to nothing at all in the countryside, where shutters provide the only protection from the weather. However, if you live in the average British street and need privacy, heavy cotton curtains with repeat designs will give you a more French look than the plain nylon net beloved of the British.

French interiors, even in a British setting, are not difficult to create, even if you never set foot in the ‘Hexagone’, though it is vastly useful to be able to pay a visit to the odd brocante. But don’t be too hidebound by rules in creating a French-style interior – the French themselves have borrowed from every style in the world, including the British.

KITCHEN/BREAKFAST ROOM

The French kitchen is traditionally a workplace, though working-class and country families do eat in the kitchen rather than in a separate dining room. The French generally pay more attention to the batterie de cuisine than to interior decoration, but the simplicity of a workroom where form follows function retains its own charm. Cut-paper borders or bands of cotton crochet, often featuring kitchenalia, are used to decorate shelf-edging, while splashbacks are usually tile and work surfaces are often tiled to match.

Large tables, perhaps covered with oilcloth, serve for both food preparation and meals, with simple bentwood or rush chairs au Van Gogh. Storage in the French kitchen is provided by large, freestanding furniture (a ‘placard’ – cupboard, or ‘armoire’ – wardrobe) rather than rows of fitted cupboards. The French kitchen buffet is capacious, and, unlike the English dresser, generally has a closed top in glass or wood, and a marble surface for eggs and butter. The sink will usually be white enamel.

Rather than cookers the French prefer ranges, which are set 2cm or so lower than a conventional cooker so that you can see the contents of pans on the back burners easily. These have 5-6 burners and 1-4 ovens and looks something like the British Rayburn. There are no wall cupboards as a rule – the French prefer to keep their copper pans, enamel colanders, etc, to hand on shelves or hanging rails. The French batterie de cuisine is usually comprehensive and may include esoteric items such as crepe pans, turbotières, tripières and a moulin for making mashed potato and soups. If the French have electric implements in their kitchens, they’re likely to be hidden away in disgrace.

Get the look:

  • Get rid of your top cupboards and replace them with shelving.
  • Front the bottom cupboards with gingham or other checked fabric rather than doors.
  • Use copper or enamel pans, and keep them out on display.
  • Use Le Parfait jars (with a rubber seal and metal clip) for storage of pasta, rice etc.
  • Install a white enamel sink in place of metal.

Tip: Certain knick-knacks will give your kitchen an instant French hit, including sets of spice jars in descending sizes; regional pottery – flower-strewn from Quimper, the greeny-yellow glazes of Provence, or the tin glazes of Normandy; le Creuset-type enamel pans; enamel coffee pots; wood-burning stoves from the likes of Godin; and terracotta wine-racks.

SITTING ROOM

Most ordinary French people spend their evenings in the kitchen and either do not have a living room, or have a ‘salon’ reserved for family events. The grand salon is a stiffly formal affair, with chairs placed against the walls and few soft furnishings of the squashy sofa type. The middle-classes and above, however, do have petit salons that the British would recognise as living rooms. Here the furniture is usually Louis XV or XVI-style (ie: rather curlier than English style) with a heavy velvet finish, or Empire-style with a brocade finish. Wooden furniture has hand carving and curved panelling, with ornate handles and finger-plate, and is usually in fine woods, or painted – the ‘stripped-pine’ look is not in French taste. The petit salon, though relaxed, is still often more formal than an English sitting room and readers might prefer to merge styles in order to retain some comfort.

Get the look:

  • Eschew carpets and lay terracotta, stone or ceramic tiling, or wooden flooring instead. If you’re in a flat with noise regulations, cork flooring may provide a suitable alternative.
  • Install an open fire or woodburning stove – or even a fake one if you’ve no chimney. The fireplace is the heart of the French sitting room.
  • Keep patterns to stripes, checks or Toile de Jouy – avoid chintz and Native American patterns.
  • Rough-plaster the walls for a country finish.
  • Hang lots of mirrors with gilt frames.

Tip: the French enjoy their ‘petit soins’ – somewhere at hand to rest your coffee cup, a blanket on each chair for winter evenings, a vase of fresh flowers, or chandeliers with real candles. They also enjoy ‘objets d’art’ or objets trouvés’ grouped as collections.

BATHROOM

Belle Vallee, Domfront, Orne, Normandy, France

The French bathroom is generally rather spartan by British standards, containing the bare minimum of items needed for washing, bathing and showering, and often tiled floor to ceiling in white. However, all the items will be very good quality. A roll-top cast-iron bath is standard, or perhaps a freestanding model in zinc or copper, if you can find one. The other sanitaryware is generally white, with a bidet included next to the toilet basin. Towels are usually cotton waffle or linen edged with lace, rather than the Turkish towelling used by the British.

Get the look:

  • Towel rails in chrome or bent wood.
  • Taps in chrome and enamel.
  • A circular shower rail with a curtain, rather than a glass door.
  • Radiators that are cast-iron and curvy.
  • Large mirrors with gilt frames.

Tip: for daily washing, the French often install handbasins and bidets in their bedrooms, screened by a folding screen.

BEDROOM

The French bedroom is instantly recognisable, partly because of the shape of the bed. French beds tend to have very high footboards compared with their headboards and the footless, divan type of bed is rarely used. Bedframes may be plain wood, as in a bateau-en-lit (boat-bed, or sleigh-bed) type, or carved wood padded with fabric in the Louis XV or XIV style. The four-poster is a rarer creature – the French generally prefer to canopy their beds at the head end only, often using a wooden ‘couronne’. Also popular are ‘daybed’-style beds, turned side-on against the wall and canopied from head to foot.

Sometimes a room may have a complete set of matching furniture, but this is not de rigeur. Toile de Jouy often figures heavily in the bedroom, along with the type of wholecloth quilt known as a ’boutis’ where the pattern is produced solely by stitching, and in general, feminity rules, with lots of lace and ruffles. French bedding often has a lace edge to the sheets and pillowcases, and the pillows should be square, not oblong.

Get the look:

  • Add large square pillows to your bed.
  • Toile de Jouy will instantly Gallify the most British of bedrooms.
  • Paint the furniture white or pale grey, with touches of gilt.
  • If you have a chaise longue, this is the place for it

Tip: a French boudoir should be a haven to retire to (a boudoir is literally a ‘sulking room’), not just a room for sleeping.

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