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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

“French Refreshed” Offers Lessons in Pared-Down Sophistication

Back when I was a live-in home stager, trading the perks of a permanent residence for reduced rent and flexibility, my job was to move into higher end houses that owners were struggling to sell, and give them a fresh look. When they sold, I moved to the next problem property. I soon learned that one of the biggest obstacles standing between a house and a sales agreement was a tired, dated interior.

Homeowners stop seeing their homes. They have a tendency – and I fight this, too – to decorate then stop. They furnish a room, and leave it that way. And leave it. As a result, homes across America are suffering from an epidemic of decoration stagnation.

In one historic home I staged, the owners had stayed true – too true -- to the period (1800s) when selecting furniture. The place was filled with rickety antiques, Victorian tapestry settees, heavy draperies, Civil War memorabilia, and lamps converted from the kind that once burned oil. I get what they were going for, but, geeze, just walking in made you age 50 years. I half expected to open a closet and have a literal skeleton fall out. It was authentic all right.

A set of icy blue suede sofas, some contemporary art, a glass table and a major drapery purge revitalized the stale home, and helped younger buyers see themselves there.

I thought of this project last week when I got ahold of interior designer Betty Lou Phillips’s most recent book, “French Refreshed” (August 2019, Gibbs, Smith Publisher), another stunning coffee table book by the same author who has brought us 13 other gorgeous books on French and Italian design.

In her latest book, Phillips reminds us of the important distinction between classic (good) and dated (bad). Once again, she lets the French lead the way, while throwing us a lifeline to pull us out of our home-decor ruts. Seriously, looking through these pages is like setting a firecracker off under your derriere, launching you off the sofa and inspiring you to change it up.

“As tastemakers, the French reign supreme,” Phillips is telling me over the phone from her Dallas home. “Armed with educated eyes, unerring taste and amazing confidence, the French have long held the design world in their thrall. Their influence knows no bounds.”

“But French looks seem so, well, eternal,” I say. “How have they changed?”

She tells me how. Over the last three to five years, as Phillips (and her discerning eye) have gone to Paris on shopping trips for her design clients (another job I wish I had), she’s noticed a shift, she says. Premier hotel after premier hotel – Hôtel de Crillon, Hôtel Ritz, Le Meurice and Hôtel Plaza Athénée – had renovated, and were “gleaming with pared-down sophistication, and a noticeably cleaner look.”

When the French shift, the design world tilts on its axis. Phillips took note, and captured the new leanings in words and pictures.

“So what’s different?” I want to know.

“More is more no longer works,” she says. “Today’s top French designs reflect a discreet cachet. Icy formality, ornate fussiness and opulence, are passé. Clean, not stuffy, reflects our culture and the times.

Extravagance rarely suggests elegance anymore. Simplicity is the new luxury.”

Sounds like a breath of fresh air to me.

Though “French Refreshed” focuses on French design, it’s updated concepts can apply to any style décor, she says. The key takeaway: You don’t have to start over. Refresh doesn’t mean replace. But it does mean move on with the times.

Then she listed for us the signature characteristics of refreshed French style:

  • A mix of new and vintage. Injecting a modern piece into a room of antiques uplifts the whole space. “In a noted shift, Midcentury and modern-day pieces worthy of standing ovations are not only elevating looks but also playing starring roles,” she writes.

  • Off the wall. Rather than line the walls, furniture in today’s refreshed interiors floats in rooms, even in smaller quarters.

  • Work the angles. Furniture set on an angle opens up rooms, adds a sense of ease and makes rooms feel more inviting, Phillips says.

  • Asymmetry reigns. Neither symmetry nor mirror imagery dictates furniture placement anymore, meaning looks feel less formal.

  • More glass and glimmer. For instance, in between chairs, a bar cart replaces the skirted table.

  • Simpler window treatments. Today’s draperies just brush the floor. Those that pool or puddle are out, as are swags and other ornamentation.

  • Modern art. Contemporary and modern inject a fresh feel. “The terms modern and contemporary art are often used interchangeably but shouldn’t be,” she says. “Modern art refers to works produced from the 1880s to the 1960s. Contemporary art followed.”

  • Statement-making pendants. Streamline pendant light fixtures are replacing chandeliers while projecting a French forties flair.

  • A softer palette. “The French have long gravitated to sand and grey as a base,” Phillips says. “That hasn’t changed, but now they’re layering in soft pastels – soft pink, light lavender and pale blue -- in lieu of bright color.”

CAPTION #2: A Refreshing Change -- Bar carts between chairs are replacing skirted tables in au courant French design, says “French Refreshed” author Betty Lou Phillips. Photo by Dan Piassick from French Refreshed by Betty Lou Phillips, reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.

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