You're Saying "Armoire" Wrong—and 16 Other French Décor Words
The French invented many of the words we use in the furnishing world, starting with décor itself (and domaine too while we’re at it!), which comes as no surprise, really. They are master decorators, after all. From armoires to buffets, our homes would be lost without these interior inventions that were only created thanks to the French people’s intrinsic need to craft interiors that are at once practical and elegant.
Many of these typical European pieces that have made their way into our homes are not only visually pleasing, but they actually promote the subtle values of French living—from the importance of food and cooking to spending quality time as a family, or simply adopting a certain joie de vivre. The art of decorating is more than just for show—it’s to create a lifestyle to aspire to and an environment for loved ones to gather. Read on to find out exactly how French your home really is—and make sure you’re pronouncing key words correctly with our little décor glossary below.
A chaise lounge, or chaise longue, literally means long chair in French. It’s the type of decadent seat where you would imagine yourself spread out like Marie Antoinette on a lazy afternoon or, alternatively, where you might find yourself staring at the ceiling at the shrink’s office.
How to use it: Indoor or outdoor, chaises longues are doubly decadent when placed in a spot basking in natural sunlight, like near a window or in a sunroom.
A cabinet is a piece of furniture used to hold or display items: Curio cabinets, medicine cabinets, filing cabinets, or kitchen cabinets—they all serve a specific purpose. Its surprising origin comes from the French cabine, or a room on a ship, and was first used in the 16th century.
How to use it: Use cabinets around the house to store or display groupings of items and keep everything neatly organized. The French are not ones to throw away anything that’s not broken, so it requires a lot of organizational discipline.
Though the word is used to describe Asian décor and art, the word originates from 18th-century France, where intricate Chinese motifs and patterns were wildly popular.
How to use it: Display a collection of ginger jars or collect an antique lacquered console—the French always have some type of antique or collectible in their homes. It adds a sense of history and layered elegance.
Infuse a Worldly Flair
A terrace isn’t just a patio—think of the sprawling decks that linked French châteaux to their equally elaborate gardens. Its origin from the word terre (earth) denotes a leveled area next to a building that was historically made of rubble and commonly used to link the landscape to a structure—usually involving a view. Today, we love them for lounging or dining alfresco.
How to use it: Arrange a couple of chaises longues on your terrace, and you’ll feel French in no time.
A console table is most often used in an entryway—it makes sense then that the term is also used to describe electronic dashboards. It should be seen as a central space where everything needed to get in and out of the house is stored. Think keys, mail, and your wallet.
How to use it: Usually placed against a wall in a hallway because of its narrow frame, a console should be adorned with lamps, trays, boxes, and other objects or organization receptacles.
Faux literally translates to fake or false—it just sounds chicer in French. Whether it’s faux fur or faux bois (fake wood), it denotes an imitation, or copy, of the real deal.
How to use it: “Darling, I hope this sheepskin chair is faux!” Using faux fur or leather is not only economical but also PETA-approved.
More than just a professional term we widely banned in the post–Mad Men era in favor of the more politically accepted “executive assistant,” the secretary (or secrétaire in French) is a cabinet or bookcase that typically has a fold-down desk and tiny compartments for storing stationery or mail. In the 15th century, it was used to describe a “person who keeps records, or writes letters,” bringing the furniture counterpart full circle.
How to use it: Use it as a desk in your office, or as a console in the entrance, to file your essentials—mail, keys, etc.
Used to describe anything from Christmas ornaments to architectural details, ornaments (from the French ornement) describe objects of features used to embellish a space or item. Just look at French furniture and architecture of centuries past to understand why they needed a word to describe these decorative accents.
How to use it: Unless you’re planning on making serious architectural changes to your home, ornaments are best used on a tree during the holiday season.
Today, an armoire (or wardrobe) is typically used to store clothes or linens, but this wasn’t always the case. In medieval times in France, armoires were used to store body armors and weapons, which explains the “arm” (French: armes) in armoire. It also says a lot about their tall stature.
How to use it: Use it in a room with no built-in wardrobe, or as a linen cabinet.
Store it Away
Tapestries are typically heavily decorated and embroidered cloths that were hung on the walls in the Middle Ages for decoration. The French word tapisserie is actually derived from tapis (French for rug), which explains their rug-like look.
How to use it: Today’s tapestry equivalent could liken to macramé hangings (another French word!) or Moroccan wedding blankets. Hang away!
In French and English alike, a buffet is also used to describe a spread of food or snacks where guests can help themselves. Logically, the furniture counterpart is used in the dining room to display food or drinks and store dinnerware like linens, fine china, or wineglasses.
How to use it: Elevate your entertaining game by using your buffet to display a fully stocked bar, a snack station during a big game, or a spread of food when hosting a self-serve lunch for a big group.
Serve While It's Hot
Trompe l’oeil is French for “a deception of the eye” and refers to a visual effect where the eye is tricked by an illusion. It mostly refers to paintings or intricate motifs used to create interesting art decals.
How to use it: Install cubic geometric floor tiles, or create faux moldings with paint to infuse your space with an eye-catching feature.
The original pouffe was a cushion-like seat, often large enough for multiple people. The word pouf made reference to the overstuffed cushions—meaning to fluff or puff. The origins date from the early 19th century.
How to use it: Use poufs in the living or family room as extra seating. They are especially great for playing board games around the coffee table.
Take a Seat
A banquette is not just the seat you’re crossing fingers to score at the restaurant. It dates from the early 17th century and could be linked to a French banquet, where a large group would get together for a feast or meal. Today, a banquette is typically built in as part of a dining room or breakfast nook, but it can also be used to describe a dining bench.
How to use it: Build a banquette into your kitchen to promote quality family time and encourage the children to spend more time in the kitchen. How French of you!
To put something (or someone) on a pedestal can be used literally or figuratively in décor. A piédestal in French was used to denote a support to an upright structure—a statue, plant, or lamp for example. A pedestal table has one central support leg and most often a round top.
How to use it: Place a statue or plant on a pedestal, or if space allows, add a round pedestal table to your entrance hall—top it with a vase filled with sculptural branches like cherry blossoms and a stack of books.
Display it Proudly
Before it was used to describe a highly specialized field or market, a niche historically was a recess in a wall used to place a statue (like when Belle grabs Lumière from a niche in the staircase before realizing he’s alive in Beauty and the Beast, remember?). In French, it’s also used to describe a doghouse. Ultimately, it can be used to refer to any type of recess, nook, or alcove.
How to use it: Alcoves used for candles are great for creating atmosphere in a room. Another type of niche we’re particularly fond of is the shower alcove—you can never have enough space for your Aésop bottles.
Suede, a popular leather finished with a velvet-like nap, was originally used for women’s gloves due to its softness. The term comes from the expression gants de Suède, which literally translates to “gloves of Sweden.” Another reason to thank the Swedes for our favorite décor trends.
How to use it: Suede (or ultrasuede) is a popular material for sofas and upholstered furniture because of its durability, but we especially like it when it’s a little antiqued or worn. Find a vintage suede piece you love—if it’s coming back in fashion, it’s only a matter of time before we see it resurfacing in interiors, too.