French provincial

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 July, 2008, 12:00am

Considering Asia's love affair with the outdoor lifestyle, it's no wonder the informal furniture of the sunny French countryside is so popular.

One look at a beautiful French provincial table setting and it's easy to imagine yourself sitting out on a sun-drenched terrace in Menerbes, looking over fields of lavender and poppies, while getting slowly sozzled on pastis avec d'eau.

The style we know as French provincial was first produced in the 1750s and continued to be crafted through the 1800s. The signature look of French provincial is its warmth and rusticity. Many of the original pieces were produced from honey-coloured timbers such as walnut, beech and oak, and knocked together by country craftsmen. This made it a lot less formal than the dark, polished furniture that would have been found in the parlours of Paris at the time.

Most interior designers will tell you it's the way French provincial furniture is used that's important. The general rule is: less is more. The key is to find one exceptional piece, such as a rustic armoire, and instead of using it for what it was intended - storing clothes in the bedroom - place it in the sitting room to serve as a drinks cupboard, teamed with a couple of modern sofas.

The look in international design circles is to juxtapose objects and materials in interesting ways. So a pair of French provincial chairs may be upholstered in leopard skin or black leather, to give them an edge.

French provincial specialist Peter Orlando advises buyers to purchase 18th-century pieces, if they can afford them. 'Generally speaking you can't beat the appeal of a lovely 18th-century piece with its wear and tear and patina,' he says. 'You'll always get your money back, and in most cases it will go up in value.'

For those on a budget, furniture from the 19th century is a more affordable option. For instance, you can pick up a genuine 19th-century sideboard from US$5,500; one from the 18th century will set you back at least triple that.

Orlando recommends starting with a key piece, such as a sideboard, armoire or a pair of bergers (upholstered armchairs), then slowly building up a collection. And there's no need to be pedantic about sticking with only the provincial style.

'Even in the French countryside they also used pieces from the city,' he says. 'These tended to be a bit more glamorous, such as gilded mirrors and perhaps a chandelier or two.'

If you love the look of French provincial, but your wallet isn't so keen, there's always the option of buying quality Vietnamese reproductions.