The World of Interiors, published by Condé Naste, is my favourite design magazine. 

It’s so lush with the gorgeous and unaffordable, I feel almost physically sick turning those leathery pages.

The scale of the rooms, the shimmering grandeur, that other place of wealth beyond all spending, all illustrated with colours rich enough to plunge your arm up to the elbow. 

It’s not cheap at over €8 a copy, and last month I was forced to nose the last €1.20 out of a crack in the upholstery of the jalopy. 

So it’s Ironic, really, that in 1980, the editor of this paradigm of domestic style and extravagance, Min Hogg, gave a name to a whole new genre of decorating ‘shabby chic’.

A contemporary Shouchikubai paper by Farrow & Ball from €50 per roll
A contemporary Shouchikubai paper by Farrow & Ball from €50 per roll

Shabby indicated a decaying gentility. It required lovely old things that one of a certain class might just have lying around — the inter-generational spoils. 

There was a lot of talk about ‘honest wear’ and ‘soft distressing’ for pieces with great bones.

We wouldn’t tear the elbows out of a Harris tweed jacket or throw cutlery at the Waterford chandelier, but we were quite happy to give middling furniture a clout with a hammer and scrub through the three layers of paint we had just carefully applied. This kind of pretention took work.

English shabby survived through the golden age of magnolia, pine and dusty flower baskets, and was finally murdered by the new interest in faux industrial styling which is a lot more uptight, controlled, relying on keeping the place straight to be tasteful. 

Shabby Shaker (basically anything with plain lines in timber) was finally pushed aside by the hysteria for mid-century forms. 

Afeather lampshade by Isobel Marinot-Wood, €130,
A feather lampshade by Isobel Marinot-Wood, €130,

However, the French fade, with bruised paintwork, natural materials, wrought iron, crowded mantles and indicated antique eccentricity, is still thriving.

And it’s a great deal more ‘haute bohème’ (arty, upper class) than it was thirty years ago, but the underlying principle, that to relax is très acceptable — remains true. Here’s how to stir the look to life.

Salvage (sauvetage):

Brown late 19th century and Edwardian is out of favour in the sale room, and many curly, inflated high Victorian chiffoniers, headboards and wardrobes are cheap and therefore, ideal for polishing, painting up and inviting to new roles as French flair.

Choose pieces with a flirty, feminine allure (a nice turn to the leg for example) over scrubbed out wobbling kitchen survivors clearly from the back-stairs. Glorious, vintage-inspired, French court and country pieces are available from specialist suppliers. 

Eggshell finishes and chalk paint are all the rage for their perceived idiot proof application, but sloppily handled, the results can be dire. Take time sanding, priming and apply with care. You can still knock back the top-coat but don’t pare the thing bare.

Gilt candlesticks and vintage cutlery add a certain flair
Gilt candlesticks and vintage cutlery add a certain flair

Consider taupe, creams, china blue, deep emeralds and soft black (recalling lacquer) revealing an undercoat of white or off-white only in places where very light wear would naturally occur. 

Be exacting in the finish and use wax or lines and glances of gilding to pick out recessing, carving and edges.

Authentic Rococo, the 18th century heart of classic French decorating relies on white, gold, and delicate pastels for colour. Tired of creams? Go to pale grey with a chalky finis to period-led walls.

Fabrics (tissue):

Stick to natural materials in whites, solid pale colours and stripes in textiles. Elect for raw cotton, linen, cheesecloth, voile, leather and honest upholstery ticking, for formal, adult spaces.

Clean white where ever possible is a lightness of being and decorating that allows finer detail to come through. 

Work with pure white from butter soft cotton to broderie Anglaise fringing crisp white sheets, to heaps of bolsters and cushions in textured fabrics.

scrubbed up tables with pristine white make a statement
scrubbed up tables with pristine white make a statement

Include lush, heirloom curtains melting to the floor. Be satisfied with a second hand suite, and dining set, and spend on Colefax and Fowler Bovary or Paradise Tree embroidered window treatments.

Make slip-covers to disguise and suit the style. Linen just gets better with age and use. There are hundreds of straight-line sewing machine adventures on Pinterest.

Tension and balance (équlibre):

Be brave with scale. Choose single accentsm or large artwork, antiques or furnishings and stage them boldly to make a whole room. 

Retailers offer plenty of ideas for going large and asymmetrical — a massive vintage style clock-face is an easy find.

The sophisticated married to a bit of lovely but rough, is always seductive and you can do this discreetly. 

A grainy limed table, its imperfections highlighted in beeswax set with prim linen and clear, cut glass or pock-marked, wooden floors smothered in soft rugs.

Combine polished French court style to more laid back provincial (country) choices. 

Achunky armoire will hold a considerable amount
A chunky armoire will hold a considerable amount

Accents walls have returned and a layered rough finish of peeling paint and paper can be created in one area (see main image) with a belt sander if very brave..

Keep at least one wall almost empty — it’s simply dramatic. If you have architectural features, let them do the talking instead of paintings and prints.

Fancy a wallpaper? Receding colours can carry something boldly geometric or faintingly floral, just ensure they mind their manners and don’t bully the rest of your romantic interior.

Accessorising (accessoire):

It’s impossible to discuss French style without swinging in a chandelier. Hang vintage finds, slightly rusted or cut glass into the room on plenty of chain. 

Huge gilt or lime washed mirrors — repro’ or original are essential — try leaning one against a wall in a corner. Leave any ‘foxing’ to a vintage mirror well alone.

To instantly kick a table, desk or console up the society ladder and to increase shine, have a piece of glass cut to cover the surface with a neatly bevelled edge. Play with the unusual. Cast iron sewing machine bases make curiously beautiful side tables.

Art Deco adds subtle depth —try marble clocks and statuary from the 1920s to add a layer of accrued wit and warmth for a French inspired room.

* Niall Mullen Antiques

* artand 


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