Plug into the French connection
Thursday 22nd August 2013, 12:21PM BST.
Stepping inside Carolyn Westbrook’s home, it’s impossible not to notice that romance is in the air.
It’s not just the traditional scene-setters of soft lighting, candles, plumped cushions and vases filled with fragrant flowers. There’s also an abundance of gilding, sensually-curved furniture, mirrors with decorative detailing and luxurious fabrics, which provide the clues to the real passion of Westbrook’s life – French style.
“My love affair with France began long before I ever set foot in Paris,” says the designer, as she shows me around her beautiful 1800s plantation home, in Texas, America.
“I’ve always been drawn to the intricate detailing that’s evident from French furniture, and the way they decorate their homes with elaborate mouldings, aged objects and pieces that have become antique as they were passed down the line, from one generation to the next.”
It’s a decor approach she’s interpreted in her own distinctive way and which she reveals in her book, Through The French Door.
Her gorgeous home could be a template for Francophiles (17 million Britons holiday in the country every year, according to Foreign Office statistics, making it one of our most enduringly popular overseas destinations) who want to replicate the nation’s sophisticated style this side of the Channel.
What makes Westbrook’s abode so interesting is that she embraces a variety of approaches, from the appeal of a grand salon through to French rustic and contemporary Paris chic.
Her airy entrance hall has walls decorated with a collection of oil paintings and antique brown transferware plates, all picked up on her frequent visits to French flea markets.
Formality is avoided – nothing should be too regulated or co-ordinating – with an eclectic mix of armchairs.
Clutter is tidied away in vintage suitcases, while potted palms and plants give what Westbrook regards as an essential injection of colour and interest.
“Many people are faced with a blank canvas when decorating their homes and all those white walls and empty spaces needing to be filled can be daunting,” she says.
“It’s often a good idea to break the space down into smaller areas, which will help warm up a room and make it more intimate and comfortable. Oil paintings and diverse collections create a layered effect, tell a story and make a room interesting.”
A lounge encapsulates the essence of French salon living where the aim is to be able to instantly relax in time-worn comfort.
“But there’s no hint of pretentiousness or stuffiness, which is what I love about this style,” says Westbrook.
“Everything in the room’s been carefully chosen, which takes years of collecting the right ingredients.”
She’s chosen a range of fabrics for curtains and sofa and chair upholstery, but the colours and patterns blend harmoniously and the profusion of table lamps means lighting is soft and balanced.
As she redecorates and experiments, she moves favourite pieces from room to room, to avoid the ‘look’ of each area stagnating.
In the dining room, wood and texture star and there’s an aura of calm serenity, enhanced by the views of the surrounding 53 acres of countryside.
Pale walls and a varnished wood floor are the perfect backdrop for a pine sideboard housing an array of blue French china, and a pine farmhouse table.
Refreshingly, there’s no lack of surprises, because slavishly following a style is an anathema to Westbrook, who believes decor should continually evolve.
So in her kitchen, instead of a rustic French farmhouse theme which would be all too predictable, she’s evoked a sense of drama with a black and white scheme.
“When I opted for black cabinets, that was unheard of at the time, but they set off the white countertops and sink perfectly,” she says.
“I have various collections of antique dishes, and I swap around each collection so they can all be appreciated. I love to use bold, colourful flower arrangements to bring life to the space.”
Monochrome continues in the sun porch with black and white striped curtains, and a white vintage dove cage and zebra rug. She’s continued this theme in one of the bathrooms, where exuberant Toile de Jouy fabrics contrast with glossy black walls.
Nowhere is her enthusiasm for French romance more evident than in the bedrooms. One is totally feminine with her favourite shade of pink used subtly in flowers and paisley bedding, with a bright pink chest flanked by simple white chairs.
Another has theatricality, with the bedhead a stunning antique mirror and velvet drapes, which once dressed a stage, providing the backdrop beyond.
When she decided to refresh one bedroom she gave it a zingy injection of lime green, contrasted with white mirror frames and plaster busts. It has a fresh modern feel even though its basic ingredients are still vintage French.
“Green and oatmeal bedding was the inspiration for the new look, and this is often a good way to decide on a colour scheme. Focus on one item which always attracts your eye and introduce it gradually on a larger scale,” she says.
Westbrook hopes to inspire others to enjoy the beauty of aged and antique treasures, and to create homes which have their own spirit and reflect their owners’ personality.
“The beauty of French style is that it’s so versatile and can be adapted to suit. All that’s essential is that your home should envelop you in beauty, familiarity and comfort.”
If you’ve fallen in love with the style, have your own French affair by sourcing classic touches that will turn your living room into a salon and your bedroom into a boudoir…
Get the Gallic look
A variety of companies import French homeware, or take inspiration from across the Channel in their designs.
- Monogrammed linen is characteristic of French style. Monogrammed Linen Shop embroiders your choice of design and colour of thread on its linen. A small pillow case, from £45, and monogramming, from £16, for two initials (www.monogrammedlinenshop.co.uk/020 7589 4033).
- The struggle to find good quality French-style furniture for her own home inspired Jacquie Dunton to set up her online boutique Sweetpea & Willow in 2006. Its selection includes art deco lighting, cherry wood furniture and silver and gold leaf mahogany pieces. Gold Gilt Dragon Wall Mirror, £601; Gold Gilt Silk Love Chair, £326, and a cupboard inspired by Marie Antoinette, La Muse de Versailles, £1,895 (www.sweetpeaandwillow.com/0845 257 2627).
- ChiChi Furniture takes French designs and gives them a modern twist to create a shabby chic look. A ‘La Rochelle’ Bedside Table in vibrant pink, £449.99, has cabriole styled legs and intricate, brushed gold handles (www.chichifurniture.com/01245 421 122).
- Laura Ashley’s Provencal range is inspired by the traditional style of the French region. Provencal Armoire in an ivory finish, £1,450 (www.lauraashley.com/0871 983 5999).
- Alexander & Pearl has luxury French furniture, mirrors and lighting. A Gia 6-Arm Gilded Silver Crystal Chandelier with hand-polished crystals, £495 (www.alexanderandpearl.co.uk/020 8508 0411).
- A glamorous collection of furniture, mirrors, chandeliers and accessories can be found at The French Bedroom Company. A Cafe de Paris Dressing Screen, £195, features a view of the Eiffel Tower on one side and the Arc de Triomphe on the other (www.frenchbedroomcompany.co.uk/08456 448 022).
- Through the French Door: Romantic Interiors Inspired By Classic French Style by Carolyn Westbrook is published by CICO Books, priced £19.99. Available to readers for £17.99 (inc P&P). Call 01256 302 699 and quote ref GLR 7WE.