Say "Oui!" to French Country by Sharon Hernes Silverman
To understand the allure of French Country décor, think of your favorite pair of shoes. Not the high-style dress shoes that pinch your toes and always need polishing, but the well-made everyday shoes that look great, go with everything and feel terrific on your feet.
French Country is the "perfect shoes" of a well-dressed house. The craftsmanship is elegant, the maintenance is minimal and the style blends beautifully with others.
Inspiration comes from the 18th- and 19th- century landscape, lifestyle and crafts heritage of the French provinces. Provence provides the predominant influence, though Normandy, Brittany, Val de Loire and Ile de France contribute their own characters. The exuberant palette is that of Matisse, van Gogh, Cézanne and Monet--vibrant hues that take their cue from nature. Sunflower and cobalt complement evergreen and terra cotta. Gentle curves, floral carving, and motifs from folklore and the farmyard complete the look.
The French rural tradition celebrates good food and good company. Its furniture, fabrics and accessories are as inviting as the bountiful countryside. That relaxed feeling is increasingly popular stateside, where antique shops, furniture stores, boutiques and catalogs make introducing French Country flair into your home as easy as un, deux, trois.
"Furniture That's Meant to Be Used"
"We've all had `Do Not Touch' pieces," says Jan Timmons, co-owner of The Country French Collection in Adamstown, Pa., which is about an hour's drive west of Philadelphia. "Not these. This furniture is very warm and welcoming. The color and texture of the wood is so inviting to touch."
Indeed, it's almost impossible not to caress the antiques and reproductions Timmons and her business and life partner Gary Friedman have assembled in a lovingly restored dairy barn. They encourage hands-on assessment of their inventory, which is set up much like it would be in a home, giving shoppers real-life vignettes to appreciate.
A staple of French Country décor is the armoire. "Originally, armoires were used because houses had no closets," explains Timmons. "You could find them in almost every room, especially kitchens, dining rooms and bedrooms. Many of our customers use armoires for linens, or with the doors open in a kitchen, or for entertainment lefts." Her store has an on-site workshop where pieces are thoroughly restored, repaired and prepared for their designated uses.
Timmons says armoires from the 1800s often were made from the mix of woods available on the farm. Cherry, walnut and oak are seen frequently. "Wedding armoires are more elaborate," she adds. "These were gifts from the parents of the bride."
Provençal artisans combined graceful curves with exquisite floral carvings to display their skill. A variety of sizes, finishes and carvings give today's shoppers plenty of choices. "It's such fun to mix French Country with other styles," says Timmons. "You don't have to set your other things aside; you can start with what you have."
The Country French Collection is a good place for new collectors as well as experienced connoisseurs. "I want to be able to work with young couples, as well as people furnishing their third home," says Timmons. "Often people will start with a farm table, and then add pieces."
The French fascination with bright cotton prints dates back to the mid-1600's, when ships brought fabrics from India to the port of Marseilles. These gorgeous-and expensive-cotton fabrics became all the rage with the aristocracy. French textile artist worked feverishly to reproduce the colors and designs domestically, but it took until the mid-1730s for French manufacturers to perfect the colorfast technique.
Accessories and lighting complete the French Country look. The kitchen is a natural spot to add these details. "In France, a meal is an event," says Jan Timmons. "Linens are layered; a simple leftpiece of flowers and berries fits in beautifully. And there are many options for lighting," she adds, "from ironwork to crystal."
Faïence earthenware comes from the abundant clay in and around Provence. The texture adds a beautiful accent to an informal table. In addition, traditional components like the farinière (flour box), panetière (bread box), and boîte à sel (salt box) make charming accessories. On the walls, rustic artwork features roosters, pigs and nature scenes. Area rugs bring warmth and color to the floors.
The overall effect of French Country décor makes anyone who experiences it want to sit down to enjoy l'art de bien vivre: the art of living well.
Sharon Hernes Silverman writes about travel and design. Contact her through the website www.brandywineguide.com.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE SEPTEMBER 2004 HOME &DESIGN SUPPLEMENT OF THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER.