5 Interior Design Lessons I Learned From the French
Several years ago I packed up my belongings and hopped across the pond, to spend some time living in Paris. I went for a few different reasons. I was a part-owner on a cafe at the time, a special little place that I had opened with friends and that we’ve since sold (though it remains open under different ownership — Foundation Cafe, Paris). I didn’t actually DO much to make the cafe work, more just sit there sipping on cappuccinos and watching the world go by, and I did a whole lot of that. I had also always wanted to spend some time living in Paris. I mean WHO DOESN’T want to live it Paris?? It’s amazing.
That time living abroad was transformative, as you might expect. There were so many things that I discovered about the world, and about people, and about myself. However, one unexpected outcome was the transformation that I experienced in my design style and aesthetic. I wouldn’t say that my short time living in Paris made my style what it is today, but that experience certainly played a central role in informing my ideas on beauty and design.
Here, I’d like to share a few observations learned from the French, and how these observations changed my design style.
#1: mix the old and the new
You’ll quickly notice that Paris is primarily comprised of very old buildings, with only a few exceptions in central Paris. Accordingly, Parisian apartments and homes are also quite old and quirky, and some are grandiose and beautiful. What this means is that Parisians live their very modern lives, in harmony with the past, living among this beautiful old architecture, and (in my opinion) in respect of the future as well.
How this translates to design: After returning from Paris, I noticed that I craved this sense of timelessness and intermingling of old and new in my designs and the homes that I created. Through the lens of the French, I learned to seamlessly mix the old and the new in an elegant and contemporary way.
#2: Don't Try so Hard
French women don’t try too hard. Or at least, their aesthetic looks as if they don’t try too hard. You won’t find a Parisian woman walking down the street with full makeup, hair styled with a curling iron, wearing a short skirt and platform high heels. It would just be too much. And if you do see that, you probably want to get out of that neighborhood STAT! When I think about French beauty, I think effortlessly chic. Better to be mysterious, natural and alluring.
How this translates to design: This was a central lesson for me in interior design. You just don’t need to try so hard. Perfect is boring. And overdone sends the wrong message. Oftentimes I’m flipping through a favorite interior design magazine, and I just keep flipping! I see so many perfectly perfect homes and interiors, styled within an inch of their lives and it just feels suffocating. Do you ever feel that way? Like how am I actually going to LIVE in that space, among all that stuff?! Too many tchotchkes! Better to have that je ne sais quoi…that certain indescribable something. This whole concept was the inspiration behind my tagline at Frances Lauren Interiors: Easy, Elegant, Interiors. Beautiful doesn’t have to be complicated!
#3: Create Space to Enjoy Life
Even in the middle of winter, you’ll find the French sitting outside on restaurant terraces or sidewalk cafes, huddling under a blanket and laughing and talking with a spouse or with friends. Come what may, the French are going to make time and space to enjoy their lives.
How this translates to design: It’s important to celebrate the good times, and to make time and space (and spaces!) to congregate and enjoy life, and this is especially important in home design. As I’m working with clients I like to talk through how your home actually functions, and what we can do to foster great memories in your space.
Do you love having a ton of friends and family members over or hosting large holiday parties? Then let’s design a great living room and entertaining space where you can comfortably host everyone. Or do you have a busy family, where something like a breakfast nook or a kitchen island would be a great space to congregate in the mornings and during meal times? Or maybe you’re like me, and you crave that moment of solitude to slip away to a quiet space with a cup of tea and a great book, and recharge. If so, then a reading nook with a comfy chair or a chaise, and a reading lamp and small table would make for a cozy quiet space for you. Whatever the case may be, be sure to make spaces in your home where you can live and enjoy your life, in ways that are meaningful to you.
#4: mix high and low design
The French seamlessly mix high and low design. Even in many fine French homes, you’ll still find bargain Ikea pieces and flea market finds, but they integrate them with other higher end brands to create a beautiful overall aesthetic.
How this translates to design: This might sounds shocking coming from an interior designer, but not everything in your home has to be brand name or exorbitantly expensive. I recommend spending on the items that you use the most and that you really love. When my husband and I got married, it was important to me to invest in a great quality sofa and an upholstered bed frame. On the other hand, I found an affordable dining table that we really loved, and we have a pet so it didn’t really make sense for us to spend on an expensive rug. For our decor, a lot of our artwork are my own pieces, and the accessories are mostly items we’ve found during our travels, that evoke special memories. When you’re thinking about your design project, be sure to set a realistic budget. Allow yourself to spend on meaningful things, and then save in the other areas with the mindset that you can always upgrade later.
#5: respect local craftsmen, experts, and specialty stores
The French respect local craftsmen, experts, and specialty stores. Unlike most American cities, the French still have the butcher’s shop, the cheesemonger, the boulangerie, and the confiterie. For the most part, they don’t do big box stores in Paris.
How this translates to design: To me this reflects a French mindset that when you go to the specialist, then you receive the very best. I think we in American culture can stand to learn something from the French on this topic. Not to knock places like Wayfair or Homegoods, but is it really the best, or is it just cheap? Is it meaningful to you? This design lesson integrates with Observation #4. Learn to set aside funds to purchase meaningful and quality items from trusted vendors. For example, it might cost a bit more to have custom window treatments made for your home, but you’ll use them everyday, and you’ll also probably have them quite a long time.
Wow, this was a long post. Did any of these things resound with you? Is there anything that I’ve missed here? Feel free to respond in the comments!