The epitome of French house style must be the chateau, and living in a grand building of this kind takes a certain approach to interior design.
Many Britons are enchanted by the idea of buying a chateau, and they can still be picked up in France for the cost of many a UK townhouse.
Although the most famous chateaux are those of the Loire valley with their pinnacles and spires, chateaux come in all shapes, sizes and ages, from relatively modest maisons de plaisance or former religious buildings to enormous stately piles complete with their own vineyard or forests.
However, although styles may vary, what all chateaux have in common is a certain grandeur – these buildings were built to impress, and if you buy one, that’s something you need to be ready to live up to.
Matthew and Angela Charn moved from a four-storey townhouse in Northampton to a 13-bedroom, 13-bathroom chateau in the Mayenne.
“We weren’t looking for a chateau,” says Angela. “We were looking for a large building with scope for providing rental accommodation. We looked at farms, convents, hotels, manors and gite complexes but nothing had the wow factor we were looking for until my mother found this house.
“As we made our way up the long drive, we passed a lake, massive rhododendron bushes laden with flowers, and went through huge white wrought iron gates. We turned into the grounds, past a small stone chapel and over a real moat. I think I’d fallen in love with the place before we even went inside.”
What you usually get when you buy a chateau is interesting historical features such as stone fireplaces, porticos, towers and statuary, along with beautiful interior details such as parquet flooring, mouldings, window furniture and wood panelling. Angela and Matthew bought the chandeliers, marble fireplaces and mirrors that were fixures in their chateau, which also had floors of marble, flagstones and oak.
Living in a chateau generally also offers an exciting amount of space, especially on the ground floor, and there is usually at least a hectare of land. Angela’s chateau also loves watching the patterns of the water in the moat reflect on her high ceilings.
Buying a chateau may mean that you may have some enormous rooms to furnish and ceilings, particularly in 18th and 19th century chateaux, are often very high, with enormous windows that flood the rooms with light.
“The only real disadvantage,” says Angela, “is the scale of the place. Painting a wall takes three days, not the two hours you originally thought, while making curtains requires several rolls rather than the usual few metres.”
It’s often sensible in a chateau to divide the property into a winter and a summer layout, or at least ensure that you have a cosy winter sitting room. Many chateaux were not built for today’s standards of comfort and very large rooms can remain draughty and uncomfortable in winter.
“Our chateau wouldn’t suit the kind of family that liked new-house comforts and order,” says Angela. “There is very little double glazing, and the central heating, although remarkably efficient, does make some bizarre noises! But Matthew loves it here because he can fill the outbuildings with junk and make as much noise as he likes.”
Nevertheless, by no means all the rooms in a chateau need be large. Space in such buildings is often reserved for display rooms such as the main salon, entrance and guest bedroom, whereas other rooms may be smaller and comfortably modest.
If the building has its own particular style – say, Louis XV – you may find that your current furniture looks rather modern and plain.
“Chateaux don’t look good furnished in Ikea ware,” says Angela, “but shabby chic is OK. We have some antique pieces but most of our furniture has been picked up at the local brocantes. Also, items which appear huge in the shop disappear once in place, so don’t be afraid to think BIG!”
Boxy, squared-off styles often don’t sit comfortably with carved panelling, so consider adding a few curvy pieces of furniture, such as a hump-backed sofa or a chaise longue. Instead of plain cushions, use cushions with pleats or frills to soften the square outline, and make use of throws, preferably with fringing.
Few people living in the average British house have very strongly patterned furniture, as neutrals blend more easily into a small room, but furnishing very large, traditional rooms requires a different approach, because the eye longs for something to break up the space. Almost no pattern can be too bold, on furniture, curtains and walls. “Rich, heavy colours and textures work,” says Angela. “Think 17th century boudoir and you won’t go far wrong!”
Another thing that you may notice as you move your belongings into your chateau is that your old furniture may quickly look rather lost.
Simply buying more furniture will help, but the trick with a large room is to create intimacy by carving up the space into separate areas. For instance, in a salon, three sofas grouped around a fireplace can be locked together visually by a large area rug, leaving another soft furniture grouping facing away from the fire, and perhaps a study area at the far end.
You may also find that dark colours that would be oppressive in small rooms work well in these larger rooms. Conversely, be wary of cool colours such as pale blue and primrose, as these visually increase the space, which may not really be what you need.
There is usually more than one reception room in a chateau, so if you have ever been unable to induldge a penchant for a separate television room or study, here is your opportunity. You may also be lucky enough to have a library, which is often cosily panelled and makes an excellent winter sitting room.
When it comes to fabrics, choose woven rather than printed for richness of effect: rawsilk, velvet, heavy weave cottons, tapestry and brocade are all suitable, and patterns can generally be as bold as you please. “Decorating a chateau is like dressing a film set,” advises Angela. ”You can let your imagination run riot.”
Curtains should be lined and interlined wherever possible, so that they hang correctly and cut out draughts – a chateau is not the place to hang saris, nylon nets or tab-headed cotton drapes.
If the windows are large, you can afford to cut out quite a lot of the light with treatments such as swags and tails, or a pelmet board or lambrequin over the top of the window. But if you can only afford a small amount of an expensive fabric, use large expanses of cheaper fabrics and use the expensive fabric as a prominent accent on tie-backs, cushions, etc.
If you do decide on printed fabrics, which can look right in bedrooms, err on the side of boldness. Very large chintzes or Toile de Jouy scenes look particularly nice in bedrooms, whereas small prints can often look lost.
Bedrooms in a chateau present different challenges from reception rooms, as they may be fairly small, but a high ceiling height is often maintained, which can result in a rather box-like effect.
One way to offset this is to divide the wall height into three, with a dado, the main wall, and the upper wall and cornice all given different treatments. This is especially effective if the middle section is patterned – something like a Toile de jouy wallpaper is often effective – the upper section is painted to match the ceiling and and the lower section is painted to match the floor, visually grounding the room.
In the larger rooms, such as the master bedroom and main guestroom, beds should have a high footboard – divan-type beds without a footboard often look lost in a large room. If you don’t have a canopy bed, a fabric canopy fixed to the wall is useful to break up a plain expanse.
Chateau bedroom furnishings were often made in matching sets, and though your budget may not stretch to boulle and shagreen, 1930s French oak bedroom furniture is still widely available in matching sets of bed, wardrobe and dressing-table, and looks good in many small bedrooms, especially teamed with patterned fabrics.
And if the bedroom still looks canvernous, remember that in former times, master bedrooms were used not only for sleeping, but were where the lady and gentleman of the house would do their paperwork and retire from the hustle and bustle of the househould. Therefore, a study area, lounging area or even a bath can often be installed without encroaching a great deal on the central space.