How to Achieve French Interior Design, According to the Pros
We called on Paris-based designers for their expert tips on creating timeless, chic interiors.
Open up an international design magazine, and I bet you can spot the French homes. There’s something about French interior design that is instantly recognizable—a certain je ne sais quoi. While you can’t import views of Paris’s mansard rooftops or the Provencal countryside, there is much you can do to bring the character of French interiors to your own home. We called on three Paris-based design pros to ask them about the most important characteristics of French interior design and how to create the look in your own home—even if you're miles from la République.
Meet the Experts
Ajiri Aki is the founder of the French lifestyle brand Madame de la Maison and author of Joie: A Parisian’s Guide to Celebrating the Good Life.
Penny Drue Baird is an interior designer with offices in New York and Paris, and the author of two design books about French interior style.
David Jiminez is a Paris-based interior designer and author of Parisian By Design.
Related: 10 Interior Design Secrets Only the Pros Know
Embrace the past
In France, there is an acceptance of design history, says Ajiri Aki, the founder of Madame de la Maison, a French lifestyle brand, and author of the new book Joie: A Parisian’s Guide to Celebrating the Good Life. “The French appreciate the design of the past,” says Aki. “They respect the bones of a space and then they layer in their contemporary life.”
Say "Yes" to moldings
All three of the experts we spoke to pointed to historic moldings being an essential element of French interiors. “You can’t recreate French interior style in a drywall box,” cautions Penny Drue Baird, an interior designer with offices in New York and Paris, who is the author of two design books about French interior style. Luckily, adding molding is a relatively easy and affordable update that you can do yourself or hire out. And it doesn’t need to be ornate, says Baird, “It can even be just a ceiling molding and basic crown molding.”
Related: 10 Small Design Upgrades to Add Character to a New Home
Fake a fireplace
Another architectural element that appears in many French rooms is a fireplace. While adding a working fireplace would constitute a major renovation, Baird suggests you can simply “add a mantle and dress it,” noting that it becomes “almost architectural.”
Related: 8 Stunning Fireplace Mantel Decor Ideas for Every Season
Make magic with mirrors
Above those French fireplaces, you’ll often find gilded inset mirrors. “Any antique mirror and a gilded wood mirror, for sure, adds French style,” Aki says. Not only will placing a large mirror above your fireplace echo French interiors, it will also bounce light around the room.
Pssst…If you currently have a television in that prime spot above the mantle (or on the primary wall in your living room), try to find a new location for it: The design pros say the French prefer not to make the TV the focal point of the room
Weave in antiques, especially French ones
Even the most contemporary French home is likely to have some antiques in the mix, says David Jiminez, an interior designer based in Paris who wrote the book Parisian By Design. For the most iconic French style, look to Louis the XV and XIV furniture. “This is furniture that was created three hundred years ago and still looks fresh today in so many environments,” says Jiminez.
Related: Home Decor You Should Thrift Instead of Buy New, According to Experts
Incorporate iconic French patterns
When it comes to patterns that are a hallmark of French interior style, Baird points to toile de Jouy, a generic term for fabrics featuring pastoral romantic scenes and motifs. The printed fabric was originally Irish, but it became popular in France in the eighteenth century, and, "It never went out of style,” Baird says.
However, if you prefer something less traditional, Jiminez suggests a classic awning stripe. “You see it everywhere—the Palais-Royal, awnings on the street, curtains, upholstery on chairs—it’s very uniquely French,” he says. But not any wide stripe will do. Jiminez says the consistency of the width of the stripe is key: 7 centimeters wide is the classic French stripe.
Display some copper pots
While a big La Cornue or Lacanche range is the hallmark of a French cooking space, they are beyond most people’s budget. Instead, “If you want to give your kitchen a quintessentially French vibe, hang up some copper pots,” Aki says. Jiminez also points out that these can often be found secondhand for very little money—you’ll just need to do the work to polish them up.
Use the good china
According to Aki, the French don’t save their best for special occasions: They use it every day and usually the best stuff is old. “There’s a lot of mix and match dishes in French homes,” she says. “Everyone flea markets, there are pieces passed down, they don’t need to have everything shiny and brand new.”
Hang your art like the Louvre
“Any time you hang your art salon style, it makes it feel a little more European,” says Jiminez. (Salon style hanging is essentially a clustered and crowded gallery wall that is intentionally mismatched.) So, to really nail this look, you shouldn't go buy a salon-wall set at a big-box store. “The frames are very purposefully not matching,” says Jiminez. “The more mixed a grouping is, the more interesting it is.”
Shop the flea market
“The French people I know take great pleasure in not spending a lot of money: There’s a deep appreciation for going to the flea market,” says Jiminez. Of course, who wouldn’t choose to shop at the Paris markets, which Jiminez describes as “unlike any other place in the world?” But even stateside, flea markets are a great source for antiques on a budget, including those copper pots, fine china, and vintage art.
Make your bed the French way
“French beds are looser in style, there is some ease to how the bed is put together: Think a great looking duvet not perfectly tucked in,” Jiminez says. The experts also say that the French often prefer classic white or solid bedding–not a bold print, and Aki says she sees a lot of linen sheets in French homes.
Splurge on fresh flowers
Perhaps the easiest way to add French style of all? Display a gorgeous bouquet. All the experts noted that the French never hesitate to treat themselves to flowers—always fresh, never fake!
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