With our hectic schedules and the need to adapt to rapid changes, we increasingly look to our home environment to provide us with personal regeneration and stability. We also want to make sure we can provide an inviting setting for maximising the quality of time we spend with our family and friends.
The French style has always been the epitome of elegance and, in the past 10 to 15 years, it has become more affordable and available. There has been a definite move in trends from the colonial via the country look to the Tuscan and French Provincial. They are both similar and what they have in common is very interesting. In comparing them we can better understand their popularity.
Both share sunny, warm textures, a ‘lived in’ look, and mixture of warm earthy colours as well as vibrant ones that recall the food, fruit and the skies in Mediterranean countries. What makes the colours in the south of France so vibrant is that the air is very dry. Think of Van Gough’s starry sky, Cezanne’s fruit and Monet’s haystacks. You can almost hear the crickets in the dry summer heat of those colours.
In trying to understand what makes the French provincial look, it helps to consider its history and multicultural influences. The south of France, like most Mediterranean countries, has a strong Islamic influence. Spain was one of the major Islamic centres in the world until the early middle ages, so the Moorish influence in architecture, colours and even food is very strong. The colourful tablecloths we associate with Provence are of Indian provenance. The fabric printing blocks were brought over from India and are still used to this day. The Louis XV-style furniture with its curves and carved motifs were from designs copied from the early explorers of China. The so-called Chinoiserie (referring to all Chinese-inspired designs) was a big hit at that time. Other elements are related to the climate and landscape. The proximity to Italy and the rest of Europe added further diverse influences.
What gives this French provincial or Tuscan “feel” is this very eclectic and diverse approach. Within this diversity, the individual and personal touch is integral and paramount to making it “work”. One of the things people are attracted to in this style is its personal and almost intimate quality. It is the elements of the past, of the “lived” and the “lived in” that gives the “look”. So in order to recreate it, one needs to bring something of one’s own past, maybe old wooden toys, a stack of loved old books, an old desk repainted, anything that is imbued with personal “colour”.
Without these personal touches the French style becomes another formula, rather than the search for a joyful and friendly home environment.
Another way we experience the personal and the “lived” in the French style is through the richness of textures. The old stones, the old renders, the ochre lime-washed walls, the cobbled stone meandering streets, all these demonstrate a “lived in” feel, where we feel connected to the personal history of those around us.
Moreso than ever, we have a need to experience being part of a community; the old structures that reinforced our sense of belonging do not work for us any longer, nor do they allow us to express the sense of individuality we strive for. This explains our need to recreate some of the romantic aspects of the past, though in an individualised and reframed context.
The flat and hard man-made surfaces of modernity do not resonate with our instinctive response to our environment. They are born out of a conceptual drive and while they satisfy our mind, we also need other aspects of who we are to be reflected in our environment. We need a visual and tactile experience that gives us the feeling of being connected to a communal history, an organic heritage. We need to have around us textures and colours that come out of what is embedded into our personal and cultural heritage.
That is where the rounded and sensual shapes of a cabriole leg on a provincial chair speak to us. Almost any line that could have been straight has been made into a shaped one. Others are bent into something almost whimsical. The scalloped shape of a table apron, the asymmetrical design of a Louis XV sideboard door, all these shapes reflect and feed our familiarity with the organic, the plant and human shapes they reflect. We somehow feel like we belong there, just like the origins of those designs come from elements that belong to us.
The aged and worn surface of an old French farmhouse table speaks to us through its visible history of wear. It shows us where people before us sat, chopped food and rested their feet. As we touch and feel it, the waxed timber seems to resonate with the echo of all the lives that have touched it and lived around it. No metal and glass modern table can give us that sense of belonging.
In some way I do not see the French and Tuscan styles as something that exists per se, that can be thought of as some “style” or as a formula that can be recreated. I perceive them as a way of responding to and expressing ourselves in our living environment, as an expression of a relaxed hospitality, a welcoming inclusiveness and a sunnyness of colours.
And really, this is also the best approach to take when trying to create this feeling in a home or a courtyard. One of the things I do first when I am asked to design an interior or to bring a French element into an existing interior is to walk in repeatedly as if I was a first-time guest.
I look for what can be done to make me feel invited as I walk in. I ask myself, what could there be to catch my eye? Just like a little red dot in a renaissance painting, what could seduce the eye, stimulate the desire to enjoy the space?
The colours and textures in a room need to give us a feeling of both balance and stimulation. Maybe it can be the contrast between a cream modern sofa sitting on a French Aubusson-style rug, a few scatter cushions with some strong colours that relate to the rug. The balance of the surface textures is as important to consider. If we wanted to give a room a slightly more dressy feel, I might look at a gilded finish with an aged look, the red base coming through the gold, with some brown wax to subdue the impact of the gold. On the other hand, if a very casual feel were called for I would look at a cherrywood piece of furniture with some carving and an antique finish, bringing warmth and detail yet understating its richness.
Another important element I look for in the process of designing an interior with a client is how they like to socialise, what they like doing when they relax. I then work on designing the space and details in such a way as to enhance their lifestyle.
I see a home space primarily as a space where we feel safe enough to relate to others on a more personal level. It is also a space where we reconnect with our sense of self and in this process recharge our “batteries”. So, in visiting a home I try to understand the needs of the individuals as well as what would enhance the dynamics of the relationships in the home. I look at what would provide personal spaces and how those spaces relate to the areas where they will socialise and interact with others.
My theory is that many elements of the French provincial and Tuscan styles mirror these lifestyle needs best. I believe that is the reason for their popularity. The love of these styles may be an instinctive response to wanting to bring more humanity, warmth, and a sense of belonging to our lives.
Jean-Christophe Burckhardt was born in Switzerland, before training as a craftsman and designer in Italy and France, where he surrounded himself with the styles that inspired his future designs. He honed his creativity and craftsmanship in France, specialising in restoring old farmhouses in the country’s south. Now based in Sydney, he has worked for nearly 20 years bringing French style and ambience to private homes and public institutions, where his work and extensive knowledge is greatly sought after.