Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
Living with Antiques Writing Samples
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971
“French Country’s Charm: a Few Mellow Provencal Touches and You’ll Even Smell the Lavender” Hartford Courant (June 6, 2008), H1 The reservation was made months ago. “Everything a French country house should be,” reads the rental agency’s website. You know, without looking at the pictures, what that means: an old stone house with faded blue shutters, terracotta floors, beamed ceilings, and creaky armoires. But it is the view of the lavender field that really makes you feel you’re in Provence.  Early July is when the lease begins—two weeks of pure heaven. So much for your neighbor’s vacation plans. With the dollar sinking faster than a home-ec soufflé, most of us will be staying home this summer. France may be closer than you think, however.  Medieval granges do not abound in Hartford County.  In this respect, the local architecture is a letdown. But with a few pointers you can transform your 1960s split-level into an approximation of a Provencal farmhouse. “Timeless and functional” is how antiques dealer Maggi Mahon explains the appeal of the French Country style.  The furniture tends to be solid and boxy with plain cornices and bonnet tops, and it is typically made of hardwoods like walnut, chestnut, and cherry.    For ornament there is floral and geometric carving. Mahon is a partner in 44 Christian Street Antiques in Bridgewater. In the ten years, she has been selling French furniture she has had the opportunity to reflect on the qualities that attract collectors and designers. “A lot of pieces mix well with other styles.  They fit in with the two trends in decorating—the Modern streamlined look and the country, homey feel,” she says. There’s nothing new about Americans seeking inspiration from France. In the early 19th century, when relations with England were hostile, American tastemakers looked to Paris. But it was during the second half of the century that the fashion for French interiors took off. Rooms were sumptuously decorated with tufted sofas and gilded ornaments, and the furniture was inspired by 18th-century models. Turning your home into a mini-Versailles was a practice that flourished through the 1950s. By the 1980s, the French look had gone rustic, with farmhouse furniture replacing Rococo knockoffs. The trend reflected the desire among young collectors for a less formal décor. Harvest tables and wrought-iron baker’s racks worked in both city lofts and suburban colonials. There was another reason for the change. Peta Howard, of Joseph Stannard Antiques in Norfolk, started selling French furniture for the same reason many collectors started buying it: the price.  With the rise of the Americana market, the budget-conscious needed to look elsewhere. Howard’s inventory is representative of the provincial repertoire, with traditional furniture forms, like the bonnetière and homme debout. There are regional styles in French furniture. The bonnetière, for example, was made to store the large hats that used to be worn in Normandy and Brittany. “French Provincial” is, however, a generic category for most decorators.  It is less about geography and more about a certain look. Stylistically, it is the first cousin to French Country, with accumulative rooms that suggest tenacious and acquisitive forbears. That means lots of heirloom bric-a-brac: odd pieces of faience and silver, watercolors of Marrakech, and ancestral portraits (your own, ideally). If, for reasons that are unclear, you failed to inherit these things, you can stock up at the local auction house. To do it right, you also have to invest in yards and yards of toile de Jouy (the historic printed cotton) for the bed hangings and portieres (Pierre Deux, $49.99-$85/yard). And if you’re feeling really ambitious, you can rip out the wall-to-wall carpeting and lay down terracotta tiles that were salvaged, in France, from old buildings. The Tile Shop, in Ridgefield and Newtown, is a good place for this sort of thing. A few regional styles are known in this country. A familiarity with the Norman style correlates with an interest in World War II, says Xavier Bachelier, the owner of Ile de France Antiques in Washington, Connecticut. Many tours of the battlefields apparently take in Normandy’s antiques shops. The decorative arts of Alsace-Lorraine also have a following because of the number of Americans, who can trace their family history to eastern France. But Provencal is the fantasy style of choice—not only in America, but in France, where the allure of the sunny south is a common theme in glossy decorating magazines. “Provence is what people know,” says Bachelier. As Bill Sturman, also of 44 Christian Street Antiques, points out, “What has come to be known as the French Country look is really the style of Provence.” It is popularly associated with the prosperous expatriate life that is recounted in the books of Peter Mayle, the advertising executive-turned-travel writer.   “Provence is the perfect backdrop for the good life,” says Sturman. The furniture of Provence is made from local woods like mulberry, pear, and olive, which have, in Sturman’s words, “a rich, glowing, honey-toned patina.” In the end, though, stylistic analysis fails to convey the charm. “The essence of a true Provencal home lies in its unpretentious simplicity,” he says. But the sort of furnishings suited to a bohemian expat might not be the right fit in the average Connecticut home.  While many households can make do without an 18th-century kneading trough, they’d be challenged to forgo coffee tables, sectional sofas, and stereo cabinets. For that there is Pierre Deux, a home decorating store in Westport and Greenwich, which sells contemporary furniture in the French Country style. Hence the Roussillon Petite Rocker, which is an American rocking chair upholstered with a French Country cotton print. Also in stock are French Country toothbrush holders, placemats, tote bags, and wastebaskets—useful accessories that the peasantry of Languedoc never got around to developing. To get started, Mahon recommends buying one piece for the kitchen or family room. It could be practical. A vaisselier (a buffet with a plate rack) is perfect for showing off your special dishes.  Williams-Sonoma carries a Provence line of painted earthenware platters and tureens ($39-$329). Or you could pick out something fanciful, like the poultry baskets that French farmers used to carry their chickens to market (44 Christian St. Antiques, $750). Objects related to wine are appropriate. Take the drying rack, a stand for holding empty wine bottles (Ile de France Antiques, $490).   You can set it up in the dining room to measure the “progress” of your next dinner party—which will surely be the occasion for clever, philosophical banter. To inspire your circle of wits, serve a good selection of cheeses, crudités, and pâtés. Money is an important part of any decorating project, but French Country is suited to the small budget.  For one, the style is haphazard and accretive. “There is little effort to make everything match,” says Sturman. “The French mix what they like with what the family has handed down.” It also offers plenty of DIY opportunities.  The French are a frugal people, with an enthusiasm for painting furniture and making curtains from cheerful fabrics, patterned with roosters and flowers, like the ones for sale at Elkabee Fabric Paradise in Bloomfield ($8.50-$15.95/yard). Bricolage is the term for these decorative home improvements. As Bachelier points out, old things are not really rare in France, so there is less caution about stenciling a 19th- century coffer.  He hastens to add, though, that historically important pieces are usually exempt from amateur embellishment. Francophiles, take note: not all such projects are appropriate. Incorporating a hand-blown bell jar into a lighting fixture is a really French thing to do. Converting an armoire to a television hutch is not. The trick is not to go too far. Howard recalls looking at a book of Provencal décor and realizing that she has never seen anything like that in Provence. Of course, some characteristics of the French home can be happily omitted. At the top of the list: unheated rooms and bathtubs (instead of showers).  Add to that, those hard, overstuffed bolsters (a “Tootsie Roll pillow” in the idiom of American foreign exchange students.) But French interiors are rightly associated with comfort and elegance. “The French Country style is warm, relaxed, and functional,” says Mahon. “It mirrors our lifestyle.” So this summer as you sit in your garden, thoughtfully planted with lavender, you can hope that next year, you’ll be able to enjoy the real France.  Then again, perhaps the home-grown version is just as satisfying.