Kings of Chelsea

The timeless style of French Interior Decoration

Year after year at the forefront of interior trends, the heavyweight designers that are featured so prominently in the popular and influential style magazines (World of Interiors, Architectural Digest, Elle Deco, House & Garden) are either American or Franco-Belgian (it’s convenient to combine France and Belgium here as there are many esteemed designers who come from Belgium and are prominent on the world stage)

Making up the numbers are other European designers and increasingly, Chinese and Korean firms. Punching above their weight too, are the Dutch.

Of course, in every country there are esteemed and incredibly talented individuals and companies, but it is noticeable that the USA and France especially, seem to usually take top billing.

There’s no doubt that part of the reason for this is to do with where the clients are – the USA is the wealthiest country in the world with huge spending resources, and France is a country with high rates of tourism and second home ownership, centered around Paris and the South, especially the Cote D’Azur.

After this, there is the historic tradition of France being a country of good taste and good lifestyle, into which there is certainly still a market to be bought.

American clients seem to be as happy commissioning a home-grown talent as they do engaging someone from across the pond in Europe, but there is undoubtedly a very indentifiable “style” that leads the prestigious projects to often get allocated to Franco-Belgian studios and individuals.

Just like the rise of the “starchitect” and the attention and prestige that engaging a globally famous name brings to a building project, the same has become true of Interior Designers and Interior Architects – many are now feted as rock stars and film stars could be, and their own personal wealth and lifestyles frequently mirror those of their clients. There is a glamour and prestige attached to the industry at these rarefied levels, individuals are considered to be tastemakers and trend leaders, so their every move and project are watched with great curiosity and detail.

How, then, is it possible to identify the “look” or the “essence” of this style? Especially as like fashion, it is a fluid and changing discipline.

Several words nearly always seem to arise when considering the French style, and usually include “classic” and “tasteful”. There certainly seems to be a respect and an academically considered synthesis of the past and of historic precedents in the schemes that are created, even when initially they may appear totally avant-garde. Similarly, there is an emphasis on “quality” and “curation” where every part of a project has been carefully considered and is a sum of its parts rather than a singular spectacular intervention. There is a deeply thoughtful approach to French design that is sometimes overlooked when considering the final effect.

The avant-garde of Modernism flowered in Paris and in French second-home villas in the 1920’s and 1930’s and had a profound effect on decorating around the world. Indeed, the DNA of the current incarnation of much contemporary style has its roots in this period. The artful agglomeration of furniture, objects, and bespoke architectural backgrounds to frame these pieces was as relevant in 1928 with Pierre Chareau as it is in 2021 with Joseph Dirand.

Amongst the various current styles, the one that places a strong emphasis on carefully placed and chosen individual items, usually with a strong sculptural quality, is the most repeated. Whereas in the 1930’s these items might all be contemporary to the scheme, there is now a greater scope for using items from all ages – prehistory through to modern art. The skill of the decorator comes from knowledge of both the pieces themselves, and an innate ability to see the “thread” that can join them together, either in complementation or in juxtaposition.

Current and past masters of this style include Jacques Grange, Francois-Joseph Graf, Vincent Van Duysen, Axel Vervoordt, Jean Louis Deniot, Joseph Dirand and Olivier Dwek

Perhaps the last word on this subject should be left with Jacques Garcia – a legend of the French decorating scene and a chameleon from project to project. He clearly identifies the intelligence at the heart of the Francophone design ethos: “luxury is the simplest thing in the world: It is knowledge”