I always wonder why there is a fascination for French decor in Australia. The Aussies like everything French. In Sharon Startford's words, the Australian has a kind of "love affair with all things French."
How did France influence a great deal of culture here when they were 15 000 km away from each other?
Thanks to Cécile Mazurier of My French Life and her three-part historical article on the unfortunate luck of the French to establish their colonial power here. It became clear that the French arrived in 1772 even the English had gotten to the eastern part. However, territorial claims over the western part of Australia failed when Commander de Saint-Aloüarn died while traveling back to the King.
Source: Cecile Mazurier, "How Australia didn’t become French – Part 1," My French Life, June 17, 2013.
Also, the expedition that should have claimed Australia for France arrived after the English Fleet set their foot here. The article cited Bill Bryson. "...if La Pérouse had arrived before the First Fleet and claimed Australia for France, it would have saved [it] 200 years of English cooking."
Source: Cecile Mazurier, "How Australia didn’t become French – Part 3," My French Life, September 11, 2013.
One thing is clear about this story, the "Frenchness of Australia" began when France came here for its love of scientific knowledge and commercial trade. Despite the mishaps, it has established a sphere of influence over the continent. And now, Australians have adored the French culture, with Francophiles relishing the French cuisine, language, and even festivals. No wonder Aussies abodes also have loved decorating their interiors with a French style, especially with the tincture of the timeless French Provincial style.
I believe that one of the basic human needs is our sense of roots. That is why I like to give you a little history of this design which became popular during the reign of Louis XV. Its history will let you know the very essence and spirit of the provincial home living; and its uniqueness among the many classical finesses in interior design. Letting you learn this will help you incorporate the rural artistry of homemaking into your very own home.
What is French Provincial?
The french provincial or Louis XV Style is a technique in interior design that became popular during the reign of Louis XV. In many historical books, you may find the term Louis XV Style more often. But they refer to the same design. Scholars use the latter to refer to the era it became famous, while the former suggests that this style originated from the humble areas of the provinces in Southern France like Provence.
The provincial design defined the Golden Age of French Furniture with its distinctive character and a lovely blend of sophistication and toned refinement. It is the "...perfect expression of a frivolous and voluptuous period marked by a passion for pleasure." Its nonchalant charm of balanced rusticity and elegance captured the hearts of those who love both the starkness and richness of life.
Which is Which?
Many times, provincial design is synonymous with the french country, farmhouse, or chateau style. They originated from the rural areas of France, which makes the difference between these techniques more ambiguous than I ever thought. But do not worry my dear fellow Francophile. They may be similar in many terms, but they have distinct characteristics.
French country is the umbrella term for all styles that sprung outside Paris. Under the French country decor, there are farmhouses, provincial, and chateau. You can find the difference between these in terms of the degree of rusticity and elegance. You can also identify them through the social classes of the period that used them in the past.
Farmhouse and chateau styles are in the extremes of the French country decor. Farmhouse style is very rustic, says Mathilde of Brocante, Ma Jolie. The wood material of many furniture of a farmhouse maintains the roughness and crudeness. Distressed homewares for the peasantry are characteristic of this style.
On the other hand, Chateau style is the luxurious decor among the three. It loves decorations and ornamentations. The ornate details make it the most expensive of the three. That is why it was more fit for the elite class of urban Paris rather than rural France.
Provincial: A Reflective Response to the 18th-century State of French Affairs
There is more meaning to the history of the Louis XV Style than we can imagine. These meanings are part of the very identity of French provincial as a method of designing the interiors of your house. It is both a response and a reflection of the socio-economic situation of the time.
Response to the Criticized Exaggeration of the Rocaille Style
Sometimes, the Louis XV Style is interchangeable with the delicate Rocaille Style or known as Rococo. That is understandable because Louis XV Style was born from the highly ornate Rococo of the Regency Period (Louix XV was too young to govern France when Louis XIV died, so the Regent Philippe II governed France for a meantime.) In the translated book of Roger De Felice, French Furniture Under Louis XV, these two styles are "inseparable...the two are but one."
The defining feature of Rococo is its apathy towards the rigid rules of symmetry and straight lines -
"...the unexhaustible and sometimes delirious fantasy of sinuous lines, the horror of all symmetry and all vertical lines..." - Felice, 7.
The curved legs and bodies of French provincial furniture came from Rococo. Most furniture in this style had elongated S called pieds de Biche or doe's feet. (Note: The curved geometry, as well as the provincial living style, had been part of furniture making since the 16th century. To why is it attributed to Louis XV...let us learn it in the coming sections.) Moreover, the oriental influence of Chinese and Japanese arts, as well as monkey designs, were part of the decorative features of Rococo. These decorative motives are Chinoiserie and Singerie, respectively.
Source: Singleton, French and English Literature, 196.
However, Rococo found itself in the glaring criticisms of the French philosophers and archaeologists because of its exaggeration and lack of French qualities such as "restraint, balance, clarity, and reason." They even called it the "corruption of taste."
Rococo did not withstand the gravity of attacks, but when they had thought Rococo was out, the Greek style of home furnishings came to the rescue. Greek manner has almost the same features as Rococo. Both fancy curved shapes and lines. But Greek furniture prioritizes ergonomic and anthropometry. Furnituremakers are conscious of the functionality of an object in the everyday life of human beings. For example, the backrest of the Greek chairs is an "important innovation." The curved backrest demonstrates an invitation to a "nest" or "embrace" or "template" for human activities, like sitting, resting, and working.
Source: Ioannis (John) Barboutis and Vasiliki Kamperidou, "Klismos - The Style and Form of the Ancient Greek Chair," (Paper presented at the International Scientific Conference "Wood is Good" - User Oriented Material, Technology, and Design, Zagreb, Croatia, October 2013.)
No one knows how the Grecian methods of furniture making began in France, but thanks to the Rococo and the Greek designs, the pure Louix XV style evolved and persisted. Rococo inspired the creation. The Greek influence saved it from the onslaught of so many attacks. Indeed, art seen in home decorations is not strict in one period or one culture. People interact, and time overlaps.
Source: Felice, French Furniture Under Louis XV, 191.
The Provincial Nobility and the Industrialized Furniture-Making Industry
The "pure Louis XV Style is Rocaille chastened and simplified" with a blend of Greek manner. But the simplification of the Rocaille style was not possible without the active participation of the rural French people. As mentioned, Louis XV Style came from the provinces. Furniture-makers created this style for the "active, shrewd, and prosperous landlords" of the provinces.
Poverty was rampant during the last part of Louis XIV's governance (well, his administration loved wars that drained the French treasury). The peasants and lower middle class of the rural area experienced this, too.
It changed, somehow, as time passed by in French society. The local nobility learned advanced methods of "seigneurial reaction." The narrow definition of this term referred to a feudal system in agricultural areas where peasants paid dues to the landlords through cash, labor, or harvest. The more progressive technique of this reaction included the skill in accounting.
Source: Image taken from Livre des profits ruraux. Originally published/produced in France; late 15th century. via Wikimedia Commons
"[The reaction] was a comprehensive adaptation of the noble estate to an expanding market for farm produce. This adaptation included a number of managerial methods applied primarily to, the estate proper...These methods or techniques: included more precise estate accounting joined with the enforcement of seigneurial titles, foreclosure of mortgages of indebted peasants and purchases from neighboring proprietors, reduction of labor and middleman costs through progressive changes in leaseholds, land clearing to increase farm production, and stocking and speculation." - Forster, 684.
Through this "strict and disciplined management of economic affairs," the wealth of rural people increased but not as much as the richness of the urban elites. Rural people "...were busily amassing wealth, gaining knowledge, awakening to a sense of their importance, and aspiring to share in the increasing prosperity of the times." Substantial prosperity happened in the provinces creating a new social class: the provincial nobility.
The new class became the largest market for furniture-making. The elite of the French provinces had the money to pursue a lifestyle similar to the monarchy in Paris - a life of modest luxury without abandoning the very essence of provincial living. (More so, the purchasing power of the aristocrats from these areas was still not the same as the Parisian elite.) The simplification process of the grandeur of Rocaille style began here.
"While the Rocailleurs were thus boldly pursuing their fancy outside the regular line of evolution, the majority of Parisian artisans arrived unerringly at the Louis XV Style properly so-called, taking all that is best from Rocaille and leaving its exaggerations. The most important quality they assimilated was its asymmetry, which was to reign triumphantly until the return of regular forms imitated more or less from the antique." - Felice, 10.
The quest for this simplified style became the most notable and perfect invention of the time. Cabinet makers were so inspired and created new pieces of furniture.
"They created for their voluptuous generation so many new kinds of furniture and adapted them so perfectly to all possible uses... they left nothing important to be invented by their successors. They reached the utmost limits as regards perfection of manual technique and refinement of comfort." - Felice, 10.
In addition to this, the industrialization of furniture-making became prosperous. The production became abundant. Thanks to the rural aristocrats!
"The clientele of the cabinet-makers extended day by day, the mania for fine furniture took possession of society, financiers and magistrates, artists and great nobles alike, and all the provinces set up in rivalry with Paris. 'Furniture,' to quote Mercier again, 'has become an object of the greatest luxury and expense; every six years, people change all their furniture to possess all the most beautiful things that the elegance of the day has been able to imagine.' "
It was the reason French Provincial is a timeless style that would never lighten the load of your wallet. "...it is not essential to pour out money like water at the great sales to possess Louis XV furniture of genuine beauty."
The intricacy of its history is notable. It is now time to talk about the spirit and soul of this decorating scheme. Yes! Aside from the origin, I think you must know and absorb its very purpose. It is like when you know the why the how is easy.
Characteristics of the Style
I like this description because it tells us how magnificent this style is. More natural: It draws inspiration from nature. More humane: It caters to the needs of the users - the human beings. Ergo, the cardinal purpose of the French Provincial Style is not decorative or aesthetics. They are COMFORT, INTIMACY, AND FUNCTIONALITY. The first two purposes answer our very own nature as pleasure-seekers - physical and social pleasure. It is through the functions of each element of the style that we achieve those glees.
That is why the Louis XV Style is the lone versatile furnishing scheme. French Provincial is for you and your needs no matter where you are or how the seasons change. As long as you are there, this style is perfect. It is beautiful how much you simplify it, where you put it or when you put it. "...would not be out of place in any house, whether in winter...or summer...they figured in all houses, rich or poor."
Given the main purposes, how are they translated into the designs of houses and furniture?
The Living Georgic Motif
The designs of the house and furniture are the perfect manifestations of the mentioned purposes.
1. The Sundry Chambers in the Petite Apartment
Houses in this style are smaller in size. When I say smaller, the point of comparison was the larger residences of the previous reign of XIV. Instead of patronizing the grandeur of large dwellings, the period had its interest in apartments.
The desire for comfort and intimacy of the 18th c. resulted in two radical house transformations:
(a) reduced room size with multiple divisions/rooms (the smaller, the more intimate it can be); and
(b) separation of house sections for socialization and personal pursuits.
Each room has an exclusive character that serves different functions. Felice gave an example of an advertised place during the time.
Source: Felice, French Furniture Under Louis XV, 22.
It was not only the houses that became smaller in size. The pieces of furniture created and invented became smaller, intimate, and functional in so many ways.
2. The Petite Chattel
During this period, the furnishings of decorated houses followed an interdependent system of things where there was an array of smaller, lighter pieces of furniture. It implied three things.
(a) Moveable: the smaller, the more mobile, the more creative you can be in arranging, rearranging, accessorizing, and furnishing these pieces depending on the activities and social situations
(b) Ergonomic: the lower, the more it follows the appropriate human body proportions, which makes it more comfortable
(c) Feminine: the tinier, the more it is associated with women. Well, it could be but also because women were a majority of the market segments of furniture.
Source: "How to Spot Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI Chairs," 1stDibs, October 5, 2020.
3. The Curvy Chattel
In every housing design, it is the furniture that makes the interior alive. And in the provincial style, it is the curved line that makes the country homewares alive.
It is the case because the curved geometry is the "line of life par excellence" - the natural, the one that exists in actual life, the line closer to nature.
"A straight line is neither graceful nor ungraceful. It is nothing at all. Straight lines intersecting one another are either ungraceful or uninteresting. But a curve may be in itself a marvel of grace, a pure delight to the eye. All their surfaces swell or curve inwards. Every line is nervously arched or inflected with a sort of languor. All the tangent curves seem to be exchanging caresses; everything, in short, lives." - Felice, 28.
Source: Felice, French Furniture Under Louis XV, 175,178.
4. The Humanly Chattel
Interestingly, the items of furniture in this style were more human than just we ever thought. The critical design of each type is a demonstration of the art of the human body.
"Louis XV furniture has further, in common with the living being, the unity, and continuity of parts. in a Louis XV arm-chair the leg is a continuation of the seat, which is also continued in the console of the arm; the console and the arm seem to be all in one, and the arm carries on the back just as a branch continues the trunk of a tree, or as a limb continues the trunk of an animal." - Felice, 32.
Source: Felice, French Furniture Under Louis XV, 204.
5. The Specialized Chattel
This last feature made the provincial pieces of homewares the most genius in the history of French furniture. The local furniture makers gave these pieces a powerful "capacity to facilitate the body's every act." Every item is highly specialized. It means it serves a particular function to the user depending on the activities, be it writing, gaming, dressing, or even keeping secrets.
"For every mode of leisure activity or social interaction, there was a piece of furniture designed to accommodate its particular conditions...Furniture in eighteenth-century France was prosthetic, an artificial extension of the body that enabled its management of physical and social space." -Hellman, 430.
Ergo, the provincial furniture was "the epitome of comfort and convenience, an oblivion of sumptuous ease."
To give you an idea, let's examine the most symbolic furniture of the Louis XV Style: the seating furniture and the dressing table.
The Sociable Ergonomic Chair
The chairs in this style favor comfort and conversation. And so, the seats are deep and low with cushioned mattresses with the appropriate height of the chair back. The chair back is from eighteen to nineteen inches "to enable the sitter to rest his shoulders against them comfortably while leaving the head entirely free, to avoid disarranging the hair either of ladies or gentlemen."
Look at this chair made specifically for writing tables. This design is perfect for someone leaning forward the desk for a longer time.
"...the thighs are parted and carry the weight equally, and are not bruised by the front crosspiece of the chair; being curved, allows the entire weight of the body to rest on the front part of the seat and on the inner part of the thighs, which being the fleshiest is most resistant to fatigue." - Hellman, 428.
Meanwhile, there is a type of sofa in half-oval just like the photo. A couch is for sociability: social interaction of your presented self-image to the social. In many houses, a sofa or couch is among the fixed furnishings. You place it against the wall covered with any decorations such as a mirror or painting. If you have a house party, those who are seated on this sofa are facing three directions and are in a "double position of viewing and being viewed." They can observe the social intercourse of other people inside the room, but they can also be the center of attention of the people surrounding the sofa.
Source; Felice, French Furniture Under Louis XV, 215.
Aside from the double position of viewing and being viewed, the very design allow the three occupants to have a private and intimate talk with each other. While they are speaking, their body, head and torso, can be in the direction of each other while making eye contact.
The Efficient Dressing Table
The dressing table was "one of the best-designed and the most graceful pieces of furniture invented in the eighteenth century." This single piece of furniture has a multifaceted structure that can accommodate not only your face and hair but also your hobbies of reading, writing, game playing, and even drinking with someone.
"These objects generally appeared at first to be merely flat tables with unusual deep bodies, but could be manipulated to reveal mirrors, reading and writing surfaces, and numerous drawers, cupboards, and subdivided compartments." -Hellman, 425.
Source, Hellman, "Furniture, Sociability, and the Work of Leisure in Eighteenth-Century France," 426.
It may contain your grooming articles such as cosmetics and comb. You can also hide tools for other leisure activities mentioned above in the compartments of this table. The genius design of table considers even the drawer mechanisms at the sides of a table, only to spare "the necessity of pulling a drawer toward her, a gesture deemed ungainly and inelegant."
It seems that the dressing table is perfect for a woman's caprices. In fact, this table supports the historical argument that this style is effeminate because women had an invariable influence on its development.
Many types of tables like dressing, bedside, writing desks, and chiffonier were among the "feminine pieces of furniture."
It comes to no surprise that this period is blazingly golden with both aesthetics and functionality. Now that you already know the essence and purpose of the style, you are more ready to use your creative juices in restyling your Australian home. You have the why. This time, it is the how. What makes something provincial?
The Rustic-Chic Style of Experiencing Provencal Spaces
In interior design, a style is "a set of basic features, design techniques and elements which create special harmony in a particular style."
There are seven elements of designing. In each sphere, we will identify the character of the provincial style.
A Space to a Bucolic Place
Space is simply the placement of everything inside the house or a room. It refers to the "distance between and around furniture and objects and their proportions within a room," says Sarah Warwick of Homes and Gardens.
There are two types of spaces: the positive and the negative. Designers consider the exact position of the homewares as the positive space, while the gap between them is the negative space.
But what are the usual sets of furniture that are present in this style?
To transform your space into a place, you may have these pieces in the different rooms in your house.
Wardrobe/ Armoire: the undisputed queen of modest household goods.
These following pieces are derivatives of wardrobe.
It is the most remarkable furniture of the Louis XV period - a chest of drawers.
"...in the composition of this that joiners and cabinet-makers were able to give the freest course to their taste for undulating lines and convex surfaces..." - Felice, 75.
All the varieties of Louis XV tables have one uniform characteristic : the curved lines of their legs.
Beds and Headboards
The furnishing of your house is according to two interdependent systems of furniture placement.
The first is the series of homewares in fixed positions like console tables, commodes, armoires, beds, sofas, and chairs. For example, a couch is usually against the walls.
The second is the series of moveable pieces like tables for every activity and additional chairs. You can easily arrange and rearrange them to accentuate and accessorize the fixed furnishings.
Charles Faudree, the author of Charles Faudree’s Country French Living, recommends:
"Just one distinctive piece of furniture, such as a towering armoire, an unusual commode, or a great accessory like a grand mirror or painting, will make the rest of the seemingly more important."
He further reminded us that a signature piece does not have to be a wallet-draining endeavor. "The key is finding a piece you love and want to live with forever." And always remember that less is more. It is only in this way that your signature piece and surroundings decorations will come out more.
Mathilde advises, "...instead of adding more and more things to your home, [place] a few well-chosen pieces. They will have a lot more impact in a room than lots of little ones."
The Serpentine Shape
To make a more defined space element, you must know the form of the room you are designing. The form is the shape of the room and the objects within it like furniture, artwork, and decorative accessories. In this style, it is a natural and curvaceous shape.
To create a natural space, the Louis XV Style follows the principle of asymmetry. It pertains to the technique of "creating balance with items that are different while maintaining cohesion." In other words, when you divide and design a room into two, each half has different homeware. They are not identical, but they have equal visual weight or eye appeal. The mirror effect and even the matching of everything are not the priority.
Source: "Here’s Everything You Need to Know About French Provincial Interiors," Bed Threads, March 24, 2020.
For example, the bedroom in the picture shows the bed as the signature piece, located against the wall. Furthermore, the set of furniture around the bed follows the asymmetrical design. The right side has a chair and bedside table, while the left side has a drawer and chair. In the second photo, the bathroom demonstrates a curvity with a chair and a table.
Source: "31 Days of French-Inspired Style Day 10: Mirrors," The French Blue Cottage, October 9, 2021.
In symmetry design, what is on the left side should be on the right side. But remember, Louis XV Style is not as rigid as the rules of other styles. You can always strike a balance in creating symmetry and asymmetry.
The Irregular Lines
Concerning the form, lines are essential. Ruth Doherty of Homes & Gardens learned Barri Cutchie's, Design Director, take on lines as an element of furnishing. "Lines are part of the concept of form within interior design and are critical to the success of a design scheme. There is an argument that lines are at the heart of form, characterized as either horizontal, vertical, diagonal and curved lines, which all help to define shape and volume."
And of course, the defining feature of the Provencal style is the curved geometry. You can find this sexy line in the form of C or elongated S in the legs and bodies of furniture and moldings (furniture or walls).
The Bright Light
The Louis XV Style also loves brightness. To achieve this, it employs the shimmering crystals of a chandelier, the reflecting magic of a mirror, and the brilliant illusion of windows.
Chandeliers create drama, flair, and eloquence in a room. Courtney Allison suggests in her book to look for a candelabra that you love. It is not necessarily the bigger sizes. Explore with chandeliers with a "glass body that seems to float" as it can "fill a space with beauty and light without overpowering it."
Mirrors can help reflect the light coming from the chandelier. So aside from adding the illusion depth, a mirror is a striking tool in bouncing both artificial and natural light.
And of course, the most sustainable and easy way to add radiance inside a room is the windows. These are must-haves in a provencal living. Windows in the interior are "the design element that can transform a room, from cold and uninviting to warm and amicable. Windows are the openings to the world. They allow light and the outside world to come in." If you can still remember, this motif favors the natural more than anything else. What is one way to bring this inside? It is through the windows.
Be careful not to overpower the windows by decorating them with a lot of fabric layers. Remember, less is more. You can try to use curtains that start from the ceiling and end to the floor.
The Color of Nature
The color palette of this motif plays around the color of nature - the natural surroundings of rural life. For provincial style, the combination of terra cotta, pink beige ocher, and green or lavender is perfect. The Southern French landscapes have the colors of earth and sun, olives, and lavender trees.
But the general rule of incorporating the Provencal colors is to use neutral and subtle colors. Never use bright colors in doing the style. Chalked paint or matt finish paint is also preferable.
Mathilde has an incredible suggestion on using the colors.
You can use the colors in the door and a wall section. For the wall, you can paint only one part with a different color. Usually, this is the wall part where the sofa, the bed, or signature furniture lean.
And, of course, your chosen pieces of furniture must have neutral colors or even accent colors like copper and gold. Use the latter sparingly.
The Flowery and Greenery Pattern
The decorative motives of the Louis XV Style love the patterns of nature, flowers, and greenery.
"everywhere, in bouquets and baskets, singly or grouped in twos and threes, bloom roses, daisies, eglantine, narcissi, and again roses...Elsewhere, branches of laurel and olive, or palm, are interlaced. Whole palm trees, often wreathed with flowers, are used more especially to enframe looking-glasses over fire-places."
You may use fresh flowers when there are available. Opt to maximize the benefits of dried flowers if the former is not available. Plants also offer a natural vibe. "Feel free to add one or two plants per room. Think of an olive tree, swiss cheese plant, ponytail palm, areca palm, pancake plant, fern..." Mathilde says.
A flower is among the French patterns, but there are also the stripes, checks, Toile de Jouy, French writings, damask, and Provence patterns.
Use them in pillows, beddings, table linens, upholstery design of chairs, curtains, dinnerware, and wallpaper.
The Courser Texture
The combination of the previous elements produces the texture of the room. The texture is "not simply just about how decor and soft furnishings feel, but it's also about 'visual texture' – using different materials to add interest and breathe life into a room." The visual appeal of the room suggests a feeling or a vibe. The rustic-chic style of the French country evokes warmth. The curve is the defining feature of this style, and human beings associate this with a sense of friendliness, hospitability, and connection-based relationship. It is not rigid.
It is also the same with the texture. The roughness of furniture through moldings, inlaying, and marquetry, layering of different fabrics, as well as the other ornaments of picture frames and artwork hold the invitation of relaxation.
The parquetry of your floor also adds to the same vibe. But you can also use rugs that follow the patterns mentioned above if you do not have parquetry
The provincial style is remarkable for its simplicity combined with timeless magnificence. It does not boast. There is no need for the validation of wealth and social class. The pride of the provencal is its resiliency and persistence to remain beautiful no matter what you do and no matter how much you want to simplify it.
The art of french provincial style is not about how expensive your furniture is or how matching your designs are. Remember its purpose. Above anything else, it wants comfort, intimacy, and utility. Its desire to fulfill your physical pleasure of relaxation and social delight of socialization is the top priority.
I would like to reiterate Courtney Allison's words as a concluding remark.
"Style is something that changes over time. It starts in one place and meanders on down the path of inspiration and vision while being sprinkled with passions—and it becomes more refined and more reflective of you. Finding your style and what truly speaks to you is not a simple snap of fingers that says this is who you are. It is a layer of many things. It is experiences, treasures, trinkets, from travel, bits you are inspired by, memories, and favorite pieces you enjoy every day in your home. They each reveal a bit about you and what you are passionate about, and all together create a bigger picture that tells more of your story."