There is a clever old saying that praises France in this way, “Every man has two countries; his own and France.” In the past year there has been a tendency by some to overlook the significance of France in U.S. history in favor of questioning recent political and military attitudes related to the continuing Middle East crisis. Yet the interior design world as we know it owes much to France, and the friendship between the French and the Americans has been a favorable one for more than 200 years.
Today let us praise France for her role in making life more pleasing
by creating interiors that are today as they were throughout history—livable
STYLE STARTS HERE
From the interior design point of view, France has led the world
in style development for much of the Renaissance and the periods
following, in particular the Court Rococo, Court Neoclassic and
Court Empire periods. These formal periods are seen in great palaces
and hotels. They are a rich aesthetic treat, but not necessarily
livable. When I show some over-furnished Court French styles to
my introductory design class they groan audibly, and some even remark
that the richness they see on the screen makes them feel sick.
The royal court styles of the Rococo Louis XV, the Neoclassic Louis
XVI and the Napoleonic Empire have been imitated very little beyond
the royal palaces because of extreme costliness. Yet these often-decadent
styles have served as the catalyst for the creation of a flexible
and delightful genre that has been copied the world over. Known
as Country French or French Country or Provençe, the simplified
court style has evolved and is still evolving. In fact, there are
several styles that are French Country.
From the lavish chateaux to charming farmhouses, French Country
has charm in each of its style applications. One authentic French
Country style inspired by the Rococo and Neoclassic periods includes
floors of hard surfaced tile, brick or parquet wood; walls of stucco,
floral wallpaper, ticking or other fabric; beamed ceilings or heavy
moldings; and remarkable wooden furniture pieces. An entire book
could be written on the many kinds of French furniture, a highlight
of aesthetic achievement.
One reason why French rooms are so charming is that they possess
“bones.” This means the architecture is solidly handsome
even if the room were to be unfurnished. The French window alone
is a classic (two panes wide, long and narrow), and French fireplaces
are decidedly handsome.
The frankness of the materials described above gives the French
Country interior a somewhat earthy or masculine appearance. It is
the romantic or feminine element of fabric, wallpaper and accessories
that seals the charm. The combination of rustic and refined is perhaps
the secret to French Country success.
FABRIC IS THE KEY
Color and fabric are very important elements in a Country French
Interior. Textiles from Provençe were often brilliant and
busy or deep and sturdy. To fill an entire room with one fabric
is often preferred—it seems to keep the style pure. One recurring
popular fabric is the famous toiles: single-color pictorial design
on an off-white plain-weave cotton or linen fabric, originally roller
printed in France. Or perhaps it is the classic striped ticking
fabric or plaids. Or a room might be drenched in a floral fabric
inspired by Chinese or Indian imports. These multicolored fabrics
often feature a climbing vine with exotic flowers dripping from
After France passed through the 19th century and its Victorian era,
French fabrics were often graced with bouquets and allover floral
patterns in addition to the toiles, vines, latticework and tiny
patterns and fine stripes from the Neoclassic period, and the bold
wide stripes of the Empire period.
French Country style can become as lavish as desired. It fills up
the senses with delightful furnishings. One favorite color scheme
is the lively blue-and-white combination. It is a classic in that
it is fresh and clean while supporting floral or pictorial complexity.
The simplicity of a monochromatic scheme allows the design or motif
elements to be more complex. This appears to be a bit of a dichotomy,
but it holds true.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Another genre of the French County style is far more simple and
less complicated. The reason partially lies in the preponderance
of sleek mid-century modern revival interiors where “less is
more” is the credo. Also, there presently is a winding down
of the aesthetic love affair with Neoclassic on the cycle of style
revivals, leaving us with very simple design and tapered legs—Sheraton
and Hepplewhite—lightly scaled and fitting for smaller, intimate
rooms much more human in scale than the overscaled monster-size
houses being constructed all over North America. Thus, if the client
does not live in a too-big mansion, this style may be a perfect
Perhaps this new French Country look is also a result of a collective
desire to simplify over-scheduled lives. A simpler approach to life
seems to make life in the over stimulating information age itself
Color has impact in French Country style. Historically the influence
of lavish color came from the importing of “Indiennes”—printed
cotton fabrics from India with tree-of-life meandering vines and
lavish foliage and full-bloom floral designs. These early fabrics
were vibrant and full of color contrast. Indienne patterns influenced
the French Country style with indulgence in pattern and color. Today
color and value (light and dark) contrast is imperative. Sometimes
it is strident, and perhaps a bit startling. For example, a fresh
citron green accented with red, a variation of a complementary scheme,
lively and very current.
Another bold approach is the use of eye-catching red as accents.
These brighter colors give life and vibrancy to a French Country
interior. Use accents so that they are grouped, so that they connect
to other accents of the same color. Avoid making the eye jump from
accent to accent, but find a way for the eye to be led along from
one point to another, and so that the effect is a satisfying, almost
Another well-loved approach to color is the family of still rich
but neutralized hues. These more earthy values are the hallmark
of many French Country interiors and, for the long term, they prove
more livable because they are less demanding. One definition of
livability is the lack of assertiveness, but where attention can
be given equally to many elements the eye will find the overall
Subtle, deep color in French Country interiors may be used lavishly—the
pastel rust color on walls, for example. Typically, the colors have
warmth and stimulation. In a dining room with rust-colored red-oranges,
the appetite as well as the intellect are put into high gear. People
often feel warmed, welcomed and indulged in hospitality. Good food,
good friends, good feelings might be the result of carefully handled
Sturdiness coupled with privacy are important to window treatments
of Provençe. Shutters have been the most revered treatment
because they do not wear out, and they withstand the brilliant sun
and heat of the south of France. Today we may see blinds in their
place, both wood blinds in white, off-white and natural or stained
wood colors and metal blinds for their durability and economy.
In the chateaux, fabric has always been a favored treatment in boudoirs
or chambers that include private areas and sleeping rooms. Long
draperies with valances, often on wooden or metal decorative rods
are just the thing. Sometimes the valances are attached right onto
the face of the draperies so that when open or closed the decorative
rod is still visible and the top treatment is, too.
Pelmets or shaped, non-quilted top treatments are sometimes used
to cover the top of the treatments, and swagged treatments in more
formal areas are appropriate.
No matter the direction you take your clients’ furnishings,
you’ll find that if your choices are French, the result will
almost invariably be livable and charming, a great combination of
both masculine and feminine elements, rustic and lavish, hard and
soft. This contrasts is disarmingly wonderful!
J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at
Brigham Young University. She has authored several books including
Window Treatments, Understanding Fabrics and Interiors: An Introduction,
3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular
correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion,
education and merchandising.