The French look: kitchens and bathrooms

Continuing our investigation into the charm of French interior design, this time looking at kitchens and bathrooms.

Kitchens

The French kitchen is traditionally a workplace and middle-class families eat strictly in the dining room. Working-class and country families, however, do tend eat in the kitchen and many country families don’t have a living room at all, spending all their time at the kitchen table, with a television nowadays propped in one corner. Being connoisseurs of food, the French generally pay more attention to the batterie de cuisine than to the interior decoration of the kitchen itself, but the simplicity of a workroom where form follows function retains its own charm.

Les Haises
converted barn
Mayenne, Pays de la Loire, France

Cut-paper borders or bands of cotton crochet, often featuring kitchen items such as ladles and pots, are used to decorate shelf-edging, while the cooking splashbacks are usually tile (often plain white, or blue and white, arranged in a diamond pattern rather than as squares) and work surfaces are often tiled to match. Some kitchens, particularly in older houses where light was originally at a premium, have a small drop-down table attached under a window that can be folded away when not in use.

A large table, perhaps covered with oilcloth, serves for both food preparation and meals, while suitable chairs would include simple bentwood or rush-seated chairs au Van Gogh. There is no sign of the Windsor wheelback or stickback chair that is so at home in the English country kitchen.

Storage in the French kitchen is traditionally provided by large, freestanding furniture (a ‘placard’ – cupboard, or ‘armoire’ – wardrobe) rather than rows of fitted cupboards. In particular, the French don’t tend to use top cupboards, though modern kitchens do offer them. Lower cupboards might have their doors replaced with fabric, or the door panels punched out and replaced with chicken wire and gingham. This allows air to circulate inside the furniture, preventing damp and musty smells. Another useful item, much beloved of the British, is the old wire baker’s rack, which acts as open shelving.

Rather than the English or Welsh dresser, with its open back for display, the French use a capacious kitchen buffet. This generally has a closed top in wood, if two-door, or – if three-door – the middle section may be glazed for displaying household glassware. The better quality buffets also have a marble surface which is invaluable for storing eggs and butter. Placed on a north wall, the buffet then effectively acts as a kind of open larder.

The sink, probably from a company such as Porcher, which has been producing sinks for over 200 years, will usually be white fireclay and deep, like a Belfast sink. Modern French enamel sinks also come in standard 120cm x 60cm format, comprising a drainer and double sink that drops neatly on top of a regular kitchen base unit.

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 look something like the British Rayburn but with more chrome or brass. Those from companies such as Fourneaux de France with their heavy cast-iron burners and enamel finish are sought-after all over the world.

The French tend to keep their pans, colanders, etc, to hand on shelves or hanging rails placed either above the cooker or above a central table or island unit. The French batterie de cuisine is usually comprehensive and extremely well made from copper, 18/10 stainless steel or  enamelled cast iron, and may include esoteric items such as  bains maries, turbotières, tripières and a moulin for making mashed potato and soups (the handy in-pan electric mixer is considered to release too much starch into the food). If the French have electric implements in their kitchens, they’re likely to be hidden away in disgrace but one item that many French housewives do own is a bread-maker, despite the continuing fondness for freshly-baked croissants from the local boulangerie.

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 fireclay 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.

Bathrooms

Belle Vallee, Domfront, Orne, Normandy, France

In contrast to living rooms and bedrooms, the French bathroom is generally rather spartan by British standards, containing the bare minimum of items needed for washing, bathing and showering. It may be surprisingly lacking in colour, and is often tiled floor to ceiling in white.

However, all the items used 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.  These older designs are sometimes rather small for a modern human, however, so if you can, try before you buy. If your floor lacks the necessary robustness, acrylic copies of enamel are quite convincing from a distance. Taps are generally in chrome, brass or brushed nickel and many French modern DIY ranges offer all three finishes, plus occasionally copper, at prices phenomenally less than you might pay in the UK.

The other sanitaryware in French bathrooms is generally white, with modern toilets usually being close-coupled (ie: the cistern is attached to the base) and with a water-saving dual flush, as water charges are high in France. Older toilets are quite hard to find, but vintage marble-topped sink units can be found, under which you can place new bowls, and marble washstands are readily available. These can be drilled out and a new bowl installed, or if you’re lucky they may even have the swivel sink still in place. This type of sink has no drainage hole but is punched at both sides to enable the user to turn it upside down into a slop bucket on the lower level (this would originally be emptied by a servant but you might prefer to have it plumbed in, in the normal way).

French vintage showers  can be spectacular, with huge shower roses and even needle body-spray options. Many of these have been bought up by eager British reclamation yards, however, and are sold on at phenomenal cost.

A French bathroom generally includes a bidet next to the toilet basin for personal hygiene, and as well as their more familiar uses, they’re also very handy for cleaning your feet or washing down small children.

French towels are usually cotton waffle for giving your body a good scrub, or smooth linen edged with lace, rather like the type the British use for drying glassware. The French are less fond of the fluffy Turkish towelling used by the British.

Get the look:

  • Towel rails in chrome or bent wood.
  • Taps in chrome, brass or brushed nickel.
  • 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, hidden behind a folding screen.

 

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