French interior design exudes a certain je ne sais quoi: It's equally refined and effortless. However, achieving that look is anything but, so we sought the expertise of Constance Gennari, Parisian founder of The Socialite Family, a website that features the homes of everyday French families. Having visited and photographed the homes of hundreds of stylish and discerning Parisians, here's what Gennari had to say on what makes French décor so covetable and 20 tips to achieve the look yourself.
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.
“There’s more perfectionism in American style than in France,” Gennari responded when asked about the difference between decorating in the states and in France. 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 ultra-modern lighting against an ornate background. It’s all about the dynamic tension that exists between different periods and styles.
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.
Incorporate pieces that your family collected 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 may be a good place to start.
When prompted to choose between formal and casual, Gennari spontaneously answered, “Forsual, of course!” Find the right balance in your space where you can host a formal affair when necessary, while still enjoying your space 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 would always pick old, so it’s no surprise Gennari'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 biggest 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.
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 some vintage French posters.
Online décor retailers like 1stdibs, and Chairish are good places to outfit your space with vintage, French-inspired finds.
Work With the Architecture
Embrace the details that already exist and work with it versus against it. Whether that be exposed beams, or old floorboards, 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. Other areas to consider styling a gilded mirror include above the mantel, or lean it against a bedroom wall.
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, even off-color are all buzzwords to consider when recreating French style in your own space.
Splurge on a Clawfoot Tub
Compared to American culture, Europeans are experts at relaxation. Splurge on a clawfoot tub to cop the French-inspired look at home.
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.
Add an Armoire
European apartments are notorious for their snug quarters. Make like the French and store your wardrobe in a freestanding armoire.
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 living room.
Create a Cozy Outdoor Space
French countryside-inspired décor is all about making outside spaces places of leisure. No matter where you live, do the same with rugs, poofs, twinkly lights—whatever will inspire you to stay a while.