Voilà—French country is trés populaire

By Dorothy Malcolm


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Article first appeared in Home Improvement, CNC-Herald Media Publishing, Boston, Fall


“Houses built of golden stone [in Cordes] rise to the Renaissance châteaus crowning the top… Roussillon, a hilltop town in the heart of ‘ochre country,’ where the earth is a bright red, as are rocks jutting out for miles…This village is ancient, boasting houses made in every shade of burnt orange, dusty pink and russet red—they take on a particular brilliance at sunset…Artists, writers and trendy Parisians have discovered Roussillon’s charms and today many use it as their second home.”

“Provence and the Riviera” by Arthur Frommer

For anyone who’s ever read Peter Mayle’s bestseller, “A Year in Provence” or saw the enchanting, 1991 foreign film, “My Father’s Glory,” one would be hard-pressed not to fall head over heels in love with the South of France. Provence, as it is called, is a place of mesmerizing light and color, bucolic settings and brusque terrain. In fact, it is so dazzling, one can see its luminosity in the paintings of the French Impressionists, particularly Vincent Van Gogh.

Adapting the “look” of this part of the world has become a pastime and even a passion for designers and do-it-yourself home decorators. It’s not unusual to see a kitchen-dining room in Boston’s Back Bay, a veranda/lanai in Palm Beach or a bedroom in Chicago that seems to have slavishly imitated the style and fashion of Provence. But being a slave to its fashion isn’t what French country is authentically about actually.

According to Heidi Thiede, owner of Voilà, a year-old boutique on Route 53 (the old Cape Cod route) in the toney metro-Boston suburb of Norwell, “Decorating in the French country style involves beauty and texture, yes, but mostly comfort. You have to look at an object, touch it, and feel the character of it—get into it, understand it. It’s about loving the look, loving the life.”

French country decor has so much charm, that upon first glance one gets the feeling they can easily interpret the look into their own existing furnishings and décor. Au contraire. The image of Provençal is more enigmatic and indistinct than first meets the eye.

The Internet has a vast array of information on French country but there are several, consistent factors that combine to create the look and feel of Provence:

§ Color, usually vibrant and predominantly blues, yellows and reds
§ Pattern, regional, cottagey fabrics and jacquard, including toile, generally in pure cotton and lacy curtains on windows and/or weather-beaten shutters
§ Texture and finish, rustic and matte/flat on walls and floors; high-gloss on glazed ceramics; or a rusted, worn patina evoking age (faux finishes are good here as well)
§ Themes reoccurring are the primatif rooster, the dragonfly, a countrified fleur de lis, le papillion (butterfly), the rather formal, Napoleonic bee, and Provence’s ever-present cricket, the cigale or cicada—all depicting aspects of nature and things organic
§ Furniture, ruggedly formal, primarily light woods, white-washed woods, rush or cane seats; or wrought iron with washed out marble tops or hand-painted embellishments on any piece of household furniture
§ Metals, chiefly in iron (wrought), pewter, some copper, and wire-type accessories.

But country French, for all its country house ambience and Shabby Chic, usually incorporates a hint (sometimes a shout) of something formal, ceremonial, or a variation of Louis-the-umpteenth. So the challenge is perhaps to think grand on a cottage scale.

“This is a place that respects time-honored crafts; Picasso might have arrived here a painter, but he left a potter…Cordes is an arts and crafts town, its ancient houses on narrow streets filled with artisans plying their trades… Nothing could be more typical than a game of boules played under shade trees on a hot afternoon in a Provençal village. … Cordes is one of the best known of the Provence hill villages, east of Avignon…today an escape for in the know Parisians, it’s a town of silk painters, weavers and potters…”
-- from Arthur Frommer’s “Provence and the Riviera”

Voilà in Norwell features furniture, antiques, the finest accessories, linens, and objets d’art of France. The merchandise is one-of-a-kind with 18th and 19th-century antiques and a fabulous selection of Thiebeaut linens and Pichon ceramics and dinnerware. Heidi Thiede works with both her customers and interior designers to help clients create an authentic French country atmosphere.

At Pierre Deux on Newbury Street in Boston, they carry a coordinating line of fabrics, wallpapers, ceramics and accessories that are quintessentially South of France. Their fabrics include the ubiquitous Toile de Juoy (bucolic country scenes involving people at work and play), and the prosaic cottage-style patterns of tiny flowers and/or paisleys, usually finished with a vibrant border of more flowers and stylized motifs. They specialize in Les Olivedes fabrics and Quimper ceramic dinnerware and pottery.

Rue de France on Thames Street in Newport, R.I., specializes in lace window curtains, the popular Toile de Jouy patterns, linens, wall décor, toys and other decidedly French inspired accessories.

And for those who find France, Boston or Newport too exotic or far flung and would much rather shop in their own homes or neighborhoods, Southern Living At Home has recently launched a catalog-shop-at-home-house-party-theme for those interested in acquiring affordable reproductions of the French country style. Kellie Glennon Roche of Quincy is a certified consultant to sell and assist clients with their Provençal décor. Sponsored by the award-winning magazine, Southern Living, these comfortable at-home presentations, high-quality reproductions and relaxed shopping methods offer socializing and carefree buying for many consumers.
Heidi Thiede at Norwell’s Voilà reminds customers, designers and aficionados of the Provençal style that “the French may not have a lot but what they do have is very fine and often rich in color for them, and what they can afford. They have incredible color combinations and they’re not afraid of combining varying and vivid colors all in one palette.”

“The way of life in the south of France is unique,” Thiede continued, “For instance, when they dine, a simple meal becomes an event. Even how they dress, their gardens and their homes; it’s about things they really love and want to keep a long, long time.” Clearly, Thiede believes that French country is more a state of mind than just a “look,” and her top-of-the-line boutique lends credibility to that philosophy. Her antiques and accessories in the Voilà showroom speak volumes to the simplicity, rustic formality and pastoral elegance of French country detail and design.


Pierre Deux, 111 Newbury St., Boston (Back Bay); 617-536-6364; www.pierredeux.com.
Voilà, 428 Washington St. (Route 53), Norwell, Mass.; 781-659-1343; www.voilainc.net.
Rue de France, 76 Thames St., Newport, R.I. www.ruedefrance.com
Southern Living At Home, Kellie Glennon Roche, Provence interior style consultant/presenter, Quincy, Mass; kellie63@aol.com
The Internet: Choose a search engine, such as GOOGLE, YAHOO, ASK JEEVES, etc., and type in “French country style” or “Provence interior design” for vast resources globally.

All material produced and maintained by Dorothy Malcolm dba Verbatim-Ink.   Not to be reproduced without permission.