French interior design exudes a certain je ne sais quoi: It's equally refined and effortless. But the most effortless looks often require plenty of carefully curated design choices to achieve—and the signature French look is no exception.
That's why we sought the expertise of Constance Gennari, Parisian founder of The Socialite Family, and expert in French interior design. Having visited and photographed homes designed by hundreds of stylish and discerning Parisians, Gennari is equipped with the best tips and tricks when it comes to what makes French décor so covetable.
Meet the Expert
Constance Gennari is the founder of The Socialite Family, a website that sells home décor and features the homes of everyday French families.
Below, read on to discover the best French decorating ideas to achieve the look in your own space.
While you may be used to classic American designs—from traditional to modern, industrial, and more—Gennari notes that American stylists have one thing in common that's less common for French designers. “There’s more perfectionism in American style than in France,” the expert says.
The French treasure family heirlooms and pieces that aren’t pristine: For example, they won’t dismiss a stained leather chair, and they don’t mind a crooked hardwood floor. The result: a space that feels more lived-in than immaculate.
Master the Mix
“The French love to mix vintage and contemporary furniture, whereas there is more homogeneity in American style,” Gennari says. French designers have no qualms about placing a modern chair beside an 18th-century dresser, or styling ultra-contemporary lighting against an ornate background. It’s all about the dynamic tension that exists between different periods and styles.
If you're unsure where to start when it comes to mixing styles, consider your overall goal for the finished space: For example, if you plan to incorporate a luxurious vintage sofa, plan your other décor around it as a focal point.
According to Gennari, there are three secrets to decorating like the French: Be aware that perfection does not exist, mix different styles, and make audacious choices. Don’t worry too much about how pieces will fit together—as long as the proportions are right and you truly love each piece, you will find your own personal style through trial and error.
Draw From Your Personal History
“My style is linked to my personal education,” Gennari says. “I grew up with a father from Milan and a mother from Paris. My mother, who is an artist, has a broad collection of Empire-style and 18th-century furniture. I spent my childhood at Les Puces with her negotiating with the merchants. This is where my style hails from,” Gennari says.
To get the look in your own space, incorporate pieces from your family's collection into your décor. Did they have a midcentury penchant, a collection of nautical memorabilia, or textiles from their heritage? Weave these pieces into your personal aesthetic to create a sense of history in your home.
While this may look like an average daybed, a discerning eye knows that this iconic piece was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. If a particular style interests you, read up on its history and get to know the designers that created the movement.
“I like Gino Sarfatti’s lights, Osvaldo Borsani’s chairs, Pierre Paulin’s desks, and Alain Richard’s lights,” Gennari says. If these names sound new to you, they're likely a good place to start learning about classic French style.
When prompted to choose between formal and casual, Gennari excitedly suggests, “Forsual, of course!” The key is to make your home feel versatile, designing rooms that can function for multiple purposes with a sense of cohesion.
Find the right balance in your space that allows you to host a formal affair when necessary, but still enjoy the style every day without being too concerned about stains, scratches, and marks.
Gennari believes contradictions characterize a French interior. Want your bedroom to be a mix of French provençal, midcentury staples, and contemporary art? Go for it. Think bright magenta photography will pair well with a bold chartreuse bench? Try it. Want to mix marbleized wallpaper with a powder blue sofa? Why not? Things that don’t obviously pair well together often make for the most interesting interiors.
Follow Your Own Rules
Traditional design rules may advise against using benches and ottomans in lieu of chairs. They may also discourage curtains that pool on the floor, but Gennari recommends following your own rules.
Do what feels right for you, not what you were taught is right in magazines—something that Gennari considers the worst decorating faux pas. Just as there is a difference between fashion and style, there is a difference between trendy design rules and personal taste.
Don't Throw Out the Old
If Gennari had to choose between old and new, Gennari always picks old—so it’s no surprise that the expert's favorite place to buy décor in Paris is at Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, a larger-than-life flea market.
“It’s like being in a museum with the right to buy everything,” Gennari says. “One of the magical sides of Paris is the diversity of décor you can find.” For contemporary furniture, Gennari visits La Boutique Danoise, Le Monde Sauvage, Maison Nordik, Merci, and La Trésorerie.
Don't Be Monomaniacal
One of the most common mistakes Gennari notices in American decorating is “monomania for a particular color or style,” she says. Many interior designers have noticed this happening with midcentury modern style, which saw a wild resurgence post-Mad Men. Rather than sticking to one aesthetic, don't be afraid to combine styles for a layered, dimensional look that's full of unique personality.
Whether it be casually arranged fresh florals or a bouquet of dried wildflowers, displaying florals around your space is part of classic French home style. Position blooms next to your gilded mirror, above the mantle, or on your nightstand. For a balanced look, place plants of varying heights as centerpieces in the living area, or opt for smaller vases styled throughout the home.
Add a Touch of Vintage
Similar to Gennari's advice on not throwing out the old, if you haven't inherited any heirlooms, seek out vintage or antique pieces for your French-inspired space. Add a vintage rug for the living room, an antique console for the entryway, or hunt down vintage French posters. Display décor like posters in a mix of rustic and elegant frames for an eclectic design.
Work With the Architecture
When it comes to decorating your home, the most important thing to consider is the architecture. Embrace the details that already exist, and work with them—not against them. Whether that be exposed wood beams or worn hardwood floors, use these details to inspire the décor of the space.
Seek Out a Gilded Mirror
Keep the vintage and antique feel—a focal point in French décor—going in the bathroom with a gilded mirror. Similar to seeking out furniture with its own patina, worn pieces of décor bring their own sense of history into the home. Gilded mirrors can also create an eclectic focal point above your fireplace mantel, or leaned against the bedroom wall as a nod to the classic French style.
Opt for a Distressed Look
Shiny and brand new is the opposite approach to French-inspired home decorating. Instead, seek well-loved materials: Antique, vintage, distressed, and even off-color are all styles to consider when recreating this look in your own space. Don't be afraid to mix and match colors that you wouldn't normally place together; starting with a white background on the walls is a great way to ensure that new pieces won't feel busy when combined.
Splurge on a Clawfoot Tub
Europeans are experts at relaxation, and the evidence certainly carries over into their bathroom designs. Splurge on a clawfoot tub to cop the French-inspired look at home. Opt for a vintage porcelain style for an authentic vibe, or even consider painting the feet on your tub with a worn metallic finish to create the style on a budget.
Go for an Understated Color Palette
French-inspired décor may be eclectic, but its preferred color palette is more subdued. Think lots of white, pale neutrals, and pops of color. This bedroom feels understated yet visually interesting. A dark chandelier hangs delicately over the room for an element of contrast, while dark blush tones are blended throughout the bedding and décor.
Add an Armoire
European apartments are notorious for their snug quarters, and if you're familiar with living in small spaces, you've likely encountered a closet that doesn't have space for your favorite clothes. Make like the French and store your wardrobe in a freestanding armoire. Not only does it add plenty of extra storage room, but it creates an opportunity to pick a unique piece to bring character to your bedroom.
Hang a Chandelier
While French décor is generally understated, an opulent ceiling fixture might be the exception. Hang a vintage (or vintage-inspired) chandelier over the dining table, in the entryway, or as the centerpiece in your living room. Choose a piece with similar hues to your wall color to bring texture and a minimalist look to the space, or opt for a more vibrant tone to create a focal point.
Create a Cozy Outdoor Space
French countryside-inspired décor is all about making outdoor spaces focused on leisure. No matter where you live, you can get the look by pairing rugs, poufs, intimate lighting, and more—anything that inspires you to sit back and stay awhile. Don't forget to incorporate plenty of plants and lush greenery for a lived-in, earthy vibe.