left: A touch of eclecticism, whimsy and a touch of joie de vivre for a home’s most important room
We Americans possess an enduring fascination with French culinary arts, French design, and indeed, the French art of livin g. Joie de vivre tugs at our heartstrings and continues to pull us, inspire us and motivate us to infuse it into our own living spaces, lifestyles and families.
This chandelier shows off the homeowner’s prized copper collection, illuminating the counter sitting area
No singular room in the home moves us towards joie as does the kitchen. It is the heartbeat of the home, the room where roasts are basted and hearts repaired, where recipes are filed and homework checked. The kitchen serves purposes as varied as our family members’ personalities, yet requires our earnest attempts at infusing joie de vivre—the cheerful enjoyment of life—into those human beings whose lives we are nurturing.
The French have always embraced this notion of infusing joy into everyday routines and personal spaces. They have long recognized the value of nurturing: with nurturing meals and conversations; with loving preparations and presentations. And we desire to impart this to our home and families, regardless of how far we live from authentic French culture.
As we seek to make our kitchens the most nurturing room in our homes, we desire to impart joie not just through those things that are not things at all: candlelit ambiance, uplifting conversation, laughter amongst friends. We desire to impart joie through good design. Architectural brilliance. Designer know-how. We want all of those tangible things that add gravitas to the kitchen “experience.”
Evoking Country French Style
The differences in the ways that Americans and the French evoke Country French style into their kitchens are so distinct it is glaring. While American homeowners desire their kitchens to be showy and magazine-quality picturesque, Country French kitchen designers—who are, in many cases, the homeowners themselves—abhor the notion that homes are ostentatious displays of wealth.
After the French Revolution, the population withdrew notions of eye-popping drama and opulence, and instead, relied on the warmth drawn from simplicity and understatement. The French country folk prefer their homes to possess similar ideals of restraint, warmth, and functionality. Beauty will always play the starring role. But French houses of the southeastern Mediterranean region rarely promote themselves; indeed, even landmark houses known for their exquisite architecture or proximity to the sea, boast little of the prized possessions held inside.
The French prize possessions for their provenance. The idea of purchasing something new for the home without any connection to one’s heritage is foreign to them. Authentic Country French style has as its fundamental theme the notion that ties to the past represent lines to a family’s future. Pieces incorporated into one’s kitchen need to reflect family histories, connections and stories. Threadbare fabric-covered chairs would hold a greater place in the home than would new upholstered pieces with no sign of wear or tear. Country French style exudes evidence that families are busy living life—that they don’t operate in design vacuums, but function in the daily activities of hustle-bustle life. The tug of the family pulls like an umbilical cord back to places of origin, to birth homes, to churches where important ceremonies took place, and to familiar shopkeepers and artisans. It is this desire to impart meaning and warmth—indeed, history—into living spaces that fundamentally separates authentic Country French style from uniquely American style.
Defining the Country French Kitchen
My response to the question: “What makes a kitchen Country French?” comes from my gut. One knows it when one sees it. A kitchen looks and acts authentic or it doesn’t. So let’s look at a few fundamentals.
The commonly accepted “rules” of American kitchen design, while nearly sacrosanct, are generally ignored in authentic Country French kitchen design. Because the French have different patterns of preparation and gathering, a propensity to incorporate disparate objects, and design executed by the homeowners themselves, fundamental differences remain. For example, a Country French kitchen might incorporate an antique table covered in marble for daily rolling of the dough. The height of the table might be completely incongruous with that of the nearby range or countertop to which it abuts. Yet the French will prefer it to something newly constructed and with perfect alignment if the surface does not match the task at hand.
So, too, the American predisposition for encumbering kitchen islands with cooktops or sinks is decidedly not authentically Country French. Indeed, the concept of a kitchen island is more distinctly American than it is French. The Country French kitchen would happily place a solid antique table with perfect functionality in the kitchen and leave it that way. It would remain an empty work surface because it is needed for just that: work.
Many homes across France do not possess separate dining rooms, so tables and other large pieces of furniture in Country French kitchens typically serve multiple purposes. The kitchen table might be the place where meals are enjoyed . . . and it might also be the area where children do painting projects. As long as the table has clean lines and quality wood and craftsmanship, it will honor the French longing for form and beauty.
Chairs might be priceless heirlooms or chaises pliantes—metal bistro chairs—brought in from the garden. A fully matched set bears no greater enjoyment for daily use than do mismatched ones. The French juxtapose disparate objects, placing old next to new, prized next to inexpensive and large scale next to small. It is this give and take that brings joie to homes decorated in Provençal style.
Buy Organic—Buy Local
Authentic Country French kitchens always use native, “of the earth” building materials. This emphatically defines its style. Homeowners do not look far from their own village for materials. They use indigenous stone, excavated from local quarries and masterfully cut by a local craftsman, or tailleur de pierre. Authentic French kitchens incorporate native soapstone for their sinks, unless they prefer indigenous limestone. They use wood from native trees for their armoires and cabinetry. Armoires, used in the kitchen for storage of linens and china, rather than as entertainment centers or clothing wardrobes as we do in the States, remain a staple in authentic Country French kitchens.
A local craftsman—compagnon—is chosen to produce wares for living spaces. Locally produced faience brightens shelves and locally produced stemware holds wine. Fabrics from the local mill are used for curtains and table coverings, large checks juxtaposing toile de jouy, and delightfully so. Even the humble rooster, locally raised and kin to most natives of rural France, takes its place as the official beckoner of each new day!
Function Intersects Beauty
An authentic Country French kitchen is utilitarian in nature, for it serves as the workhorse of the home. Marble tops tables where pastry dough is rolled; soapstone imbues sinks where vegetables are washed; and limestone or earthen terra-cotta supports legs that stand in preparation of each day’s meals. Materials serve function and are chosen for durability, practicality and accessibility. Yet they are always prized for their inherent aesthetic qualities. For example, for hundreds of years, hearths have been built into exterior walls. This filled the practical need for ventilation. While we are no longer constrained in our design for this purpose, its wisdom remains timeless. The French will intersect this functionality with the sheer beauty of an enameled, brass-trimmed La Cornue range. The piece de resistance!
Cabinetry: The $64K Question Americans love brand new cabinetry in abundance. We view cabinetry as the ultimate trophy item in our kitchens, and use it to both store and hide all of the contents therein. We want our expensive, custom cabinets to hide everything from our beautiful, handpainted dinnerware to our stemware, serving pieces and groceries! We even hide those items in common use: jars of flour, measuring cups and mixing bowls. But authentic Country French kitchens prefer the accessibility—and creative opportunities—inherent with open shelving. Bearing a propensity for things in full view and within arm’s reach, the French cook likes to quickly grab a spoon when the pot of stew needs stirring. Open shelves hold glassware and cassoulets, hanging plate racks hold daily dinnerware, and countertops hold buckets of utensils. The French find wide appeal in these tools and gain creative energy from artfully arranging them. Never mind the dust; the objects are used with frequency, prohibiting dust to find the time to settle! Never mind the clutter; the artistic possibilities drive the charm factor and therefore make it all forgiving!
Approaching design as exploration into your soul and creating nurturing environments for your family is, by its very nature, authentically Country French. It can be easily implemented by simply training your eye—and your heart—for looking for joie in the everyday moments of life. Exploring the simple things in life with verve and creativity. Appreciating beauty and history. We need to seek it and re-create it in the corners—large and small—of our lives.
by Carolina Fernandez, Contributing Writer
Carolina Fernandez is the author of, Country French Kitchens (Gibbs Smith Publishers, 2008). She serves a niche clientele of art and design professionals in a financial advisory capacity in Fairfield County, Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and their four children.
You may purchase the author’s book, Country French Kitchens, through Amazon.com.