Decorating 101: French Country

Author: Alecia Pirulis

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You may have heard the term on decorating shows and wondered what it meant, or perhaps someone commented on your decorating style and the term came up. If you’ve always wondered but were afraid to ask, here are the basics of French Country décor:

First, the term “French Country” refers to rural France, particularly the Provence region. A home decorated in French Country style should bring to mind rolling hills and lush valleys, age-old traditions, and sturdy, well-built furniture passed down for generations. Think old-world, rustic, and natural – but with an edge of sophistication. Think vineyards and fields of lavender … winding country roads and ancient ruins … sheep, roosters, olives, and cavaillon melons. It is a mixture of antiques, beautiful curves, gilded edges, and elements from nature – stone, wood, wool, and cotton.

Paint colors are pulled from nature, as well. Think pale blues and buttery yellows with hints of lavender and cream. Colors are soft and muted; when stronger colors are used, such as brick red or royal blue, they are used very sparingly so they don’t overwhelm the space.

Wood elements are also important: think wood beams, wood floors, a rough-hewn wood farmer’s table in the dining room, etc. For curtains and fabrics, look for soft patterns (toile is a great choice but floral patterns work nicely). Gilding is also popular in French Country decorating. Look for picture frames and mirrors with ornate frames edged in gold.

When many people envision “French” decorating, they picture lavish, expensive furniture and opulence. While that may be true for a French chateau or a chic Parisian suite, it isn’t necessarily true for the French countryside – here the design relies mainly on function. Form and beauty is important, of course, but items should be both elegant and useful. Items will often serve more than one purpose – an old milk jug, for example, can be used or a flower vase or even be converted into a lamp. Plates hung on the wall could be taken down and put into use if necessary. Ornate candelabra can be used as a source of light.

To decorate your space in French Country, you’ll want to hit antique stores, flea markets, and thrift stores. When painting furniture, here’s how to achieve a distressed look: sand the item and use a wire brush to clean any stubborn dirt. Paint the entire piece of furniture with a light-colored latex paint and let it dry. After it is completely dry, rub a candle over it. You can do just a few spots such as near drawer pulls and corners, or you can go over the entire piece. Now, paint a darker color over the lighter color and the wax. Take some steel wool and lightly brush it over the waxed areas before the paint has dried completely to remove the wax. (It’s okay if you use the steel wool on parts that weren’t waxed – the result will add nicely to the overall distressed look.)

When decorating your space, consider open shelving to show off your useful treasures, and mix your fabrics to include toile, stripes, gingham, and floral prints. Add containers of fresh-cut flowers that look like they came straight from your garden – full, colorful, and mixed blooms – nothing too formal.

Don’t be afraid to mix and match the items you display – an elegant oil painting of a French countryside can easily sit next to a rustic, hand-thrown pot and a stack of old, leather-bound books. You should also mix frames – put rough, natural wood frames with gilded ones. If you hang a mirror on the wall and you feel something is missing, try hanging a series of small plates above the mirror.

French Country is charming, old-world, and functional. If you are ready to get started, hit the paint store first and look for soft, muted paint colors. Then, hit the flea markets and antique stores for furniture and accessories such as plates, wrought-iron candleholders, and anything that has French writing or a French motif. Finally, hit the fabric store and look for natural materials in floral, toile, and gingham. Be sure to add fresh flowers and plenty of natural elements (shells, driftwood, etc.). There – you’ve created a beautiful French Country space (and it didn’t cost a fortune!).