Carolyn Westbrook is a huge fan of the classic French style of interior design. Here she reveals the Parisian source of her own French homes inspiration and offers her take on why Gallic interiors have such enduring appeal
The French have an appreciation for detail that is unsurpassed, along with their appreciation for aged beauty. There are buildings and structures that have stood for centuries and only grow more valuable and beautiful with age. Elsewhere in the world, people are often too quick to pull down ancient trees or historic homes, but in France there is an appreciation of the aged elements that are passed down through life. Only by realizing the value of time-worn objects is it possible to create a home with real beauty and tenderness.
The classic French-inspired elements are built for longevity. This is the good stuff that won’t fall apart in a few months, but you have to go out there and hunt it down. The search for anything that appeals to you so you can create collections, conglomerations and collages reflecting your personal interests can begin at any car boot sale, flea market, second-hand store or antique shop. You know what they say… one man’s trash is another’s treasure, and all that. It’s true, which can mean great bargains when you’re shopping. Plus, you are one step closer to saving the earth as you refresh, renew, and recycle.
Layering is key to the French-inspired look, much like a bird spends endless hours creating its precious nest. All sorts of elements with different textures are brought in, but strength and comfort are, of course, the most vital. The French style is much like my own philosophy: more is better. While I can appreciate modern elements in a room, they must be softened with textiles, such as beautiful curtains, fresh flowers, and soft rugs, or they come across as cold and hard, which certainly does not make for a comfortable home. The French have mastered the art of patterned walls and lush curtains layered with beautiful paintings stacked against and hanging on the wall, and interesting table top collections of all sorts of treasures. Gorgeous old, dripping chandeliers set the mood for the perfect French-inspired room, along with rugs that possess the perfect fade from footsteps that have crossed them and from the sun’s beams that have shone down on them through the window.
Decorating a home is a sentimental journey, which encompasses objects that were loved and treasured by others long ago and are brought in to be loved and cherished once again. The items chosen will be different for everyone, and that is what makes each of our homes so unique.
On the many occasions that I’ve walked the streets of Paris, the incredible attention to detail, from the architecture to the golden statues that are just an everyday sight in the middle of the street, was all too apparent. The hand-painted façade of a gourmet shop looked as though it belonged in a museum. The pâtisseries offered their own kind of artwork, with stacks of pastries and goodies piled high on cake plates and displayed to perfection. Shop fronts were breathtaking, as were the interiors and the wares on sale. Even the beautiful aqua subway tile designs in the Métro were a stunning work of art. All in all, a sensory overload but in the best possible way.
My search for textiles led me to streets where fabrics were sitting in containers near the curbside for one’s approval and purchase. There were unbelievable toile patterns in all sorts of colours and combinations, waiting to be paired with a silk plaid or stripe. Solid colours of silk were hung side by side, creating the most luxurious stripes. Gathered together in the middle, they would make the most breathtaking curtain you can imagine. This is what welcomed me before I even made it to the brocantes, the French flea markets.
The brocantes are stationed across Paris and are mostly open on weekends. There are magazines available that give the location of the travelling brocantes, which move around to different spots every week. For those of you who love wonderful treasures as much as I do, these flea markets are an incredible experience. There is everything you can hope to find, and then some things that you cannot ever have imagined. I came across beautiful chandeliers, linens, hotel silver, stacks of transferware, and wonderful objects inscribed in French. It’s like being a kid in a sweet shop. Speaking of which, you just have to visit the sweet shops, where the goodies are displayed in magnificent, huge glass jars, which are decades old. The packaging for some of the sweets was also amazing – pastel Jordan almonds came in tiny boxes, pretty enough to be considered jewellery boxes.
I remember being with my husband Joe and daughter Alexandria in Paris on Valentine’s Day. We strolled along streets lined with fresh tulips, perusing the brocantes. Being in Paris on such a day was a dream come true, but my romance with French style had started long ago. My own style is often described as romantic French, and I do like to add soft, romantic touches to any décor. Layers are crucial in every room. I love decadent layers of fluffy silk curtains, the glorious mix of cabbage roses and hydrangeas in a charming ironstone container… with just the right lighting to create a romantic atmosphere. Ever since I was a child, I’ve played house. I was passionate then, as I am now, about creating beauty in a space, no matter how small or simple. I guess that is why one of my greatest pleasures now is making a beautiful space from nothing. I call it creating beauty.
As with any romance, there must be passion, and I am passionate about anything that has been loved and shows its history. When I am shopping, I never really know what I am looking for, only that whatever it is has to speak to me. It’s almost as if the object chooses me. I never choose anything based on its monetary value. Many of the oil paintings I buy have holes or rips, but looking at beautifully portrayed flowers on an old painting used as the backdrop on a tabletop vignette… that is what evokes the romance of collecting, and that’s what makes the difference between simply decorating a house and creating a home.
Photographs by Keith Scott Morton
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