What is it about French interiors?

Sophisticated, elegant, and informed by a strong sense of history, French interiors are consistently influential around the world. We dive into the hallmarks of the nation’s approach to interior design

When it comes to style, the French have a reputation the world around for effortless chic. Whether in terms of fashion or interiors, there’s a particular combination of elegance and simplicity that our neighbours across the Channel seem to get just right. For centuries, the rest of Europe has been casting an envious eye at what emerges from France; just think of the considerable influence of the Baroque and Rococo styles that emerged from the courts of Louis XIV and his successors. Three hundred years later, sophistication and elegance are still qualities we deeply associate with French design, and the work of 20th-century and contemporary designers such as Madeleine Castaing, Alberto Pinto, Pierre Yovanovitch, India Mahdavi and Jacques Grange displays them in abundance.

The strength of France’s identity within the interior design world emerges from a widely felt respect for the history of the nation and the expression of that history through its architecture. The towns and villages of France display a variety of styles; the mid-19th-century Hausmann apartments of Paris are perhaps the most iconic, but the Renaissance châteaux of the Loire and the surviving Gothic and Romanesque buildings of the countryside are just as influential. 

Architecture is the fundamental starting point of any interior. Interior designer and antiques dealer Chahan Minassian expresses it quite simply. “You don’t put a jewel in an ill-fitting box,” he explains. As interior designer Marianne Evennou explains, “If I am designing a Paris apartment, I think it’s important to really feel like you are in Paris.” Just as the boulevards and balconies you see from the windows offer a sense of place, so should the interiors.   

For textile designer Pierre Frey, French interior design is something that can both represent and express a sense of history and place. “Part of the French taste and French eye comes from inherited history and architecture,” he says. “Whether you have grown up around a small collection of objects or in a château, awareness of history is so familiar and present.” Growing up with a familial fondness for antiques, Pierre refers to the importance of flea markets or ‘brocantes’ in France, which have become an innate part of French life and ingrained in the country’s shopping habits. “It’s really part of our DNA,” he remarks. The idea of giving an object – be it a chaise longue or coffee pot, a second or even third life, is an idea that almost everyone in France shares.

But this doesn’t entail a slavish devotion to the past. As Pierre adds: “For me, French design is a fabulous mix; you can have a Napoleonic room next to an Art Deco room next to a Louis XVI room, with a backdrop of 16th- and 17th-century architecture. If you open a magazine there’s often something old next to something new, it’s diverse and eclectic.” Marianne agrees. “I like to play with the past,” she says, “and I maintain respect for the building. It’s completely rewarding to give a space a second life. But I don’t like the idea of an interior being totally one thing. I like a little bit of everything, I find that idea full of hope.” That idea of balance permeates French design in every kind of house.

Jacques Grange’s design for Pierre Passebon’s Paris apartment

Francois Halard

As concerns about sustainability grow around the world, the culture of working with the past and decorating with second hand or antique objects gains a new kind of value. Chahan maintains that the French aesthetic carries with it an innate level of sustainability based on the diversity of materials. “French design always comes with a sense of attention to detail, quality of materials, different textures, and the juxtaposition of unexpected elements. Sustainability is basically built in.” “This is a generation that is going to live so differently” says Marianne. “We really don’t have a choice but to make life and design, more responsible.

For Pierre Frey and his family’s namesake fabric house, durability is a fundamental part of the design ethos. “Making things last was something that was taught to us from my father,” he reflects. “Even turning lights off after we left a room! And our wallpaper, fabrics and curtains last for decades”. At manufacturing level, these standards are thriving in the form of durable, recycled and renewable Pierre Frey textiles. Notably, the low carbon footprint and responsibly sourced and grown Natecru Durable Sustainable collection is entirely woven in France, and demand is at an all time high.

In Marianne’s working life, her clients are coming to her with more diverse spaces and living situations than ever before. “I see friends cohabiting and buying together, with new ways of living,” she explains. Strict norms and formulae are unravelling in every aspect of culture, and it’s happening in our domestic lives too. If there are rules of French interior design, will they collapse? Marianne doesn’t think so; for her the spirit of French interiors is rooted in spontaneity. “You lose what is fresh about it if you think too much. It’s not an intellectual thing, it’s an instinctive thing and you must allow yourself to feel.”

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