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Expert Advice: How to Decorate Like a Frenchwoman


Expert Advice: How to Decorate Like a Frenchwoman

May 9, 2017

That enviable mix of elegance and insouciance, ageless beauty and off-the-cuff ease—how do the French do it? Corinne Gilbert, a Paris-born, Sorbonne-educated artist-interior designer based in Brooklyn, offers lessons in bohemian style.

Photography by Matthew Williams for Remodelista, except where noted.

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Above: Gilbert in the dining room of her rental apartment in a former boardinghouse in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. She started her career as a fashion designer, later became a decorative finishes painter for a Park Avenue clientele, and began doing interiors by demand. She works instinctively, with an artist’s eye, a practical streak, and an unmistakeable French accent. “Good design,” says Gilbert, “is about creating moments of grace.” Here are her key tips.

1. Mix up styles and stories.

Furnish your rooms with pieces from different family members and eras: heirloom country furniture and sixties plastic designs, Asian antiques and abstract paintings. Aim for not only a look but also a feel.

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Above: Cutlery-filled vintage hotel silver shares shelf space with Chinese lacquerware and a midcentury painting in Gilbert’s galley kitchen. Despite its busyness, the mix works because of the cohesive color range and lack of pattern.

 2. Use chairs as sculpture.

It’s nice to plant a graceful or unexpected chair somewhere on its own. (Nice as well to know that when you enter a house, you will find a seat for taking off your shoes.)

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Above: A flea market chair that looks like it might talk stands alone on Gilbert’s second-floor landing. The painting  is by David Shrigley. Photograph by Corinne Gilbert.

3. Alternate clusters of objects with empty spaces.

Group plants, art (expensive and cheap), and books to create still lives, but give them room to breathe. And keep in mind: A limited palette is unifying and warm textures, such as leather, wool, and plaster, are easy on the eyes.

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Above: A mantel still life with ceramic planter and metal vases by Bruno Jaharra. Photograph by Corinne Gilbert.

4. Layer your lighting (and always use dimmers).

Instead of spotlights on the ceiling—something rarely seen in French interiors—use a combination of lighting appropriate for different needs: table lamps, standing lamps, and sconces; new and old, Noguchi and Louis XIV. And adjust your lighting with dimmers. Use a lot of candles, too, and light them every evening, sometimes even at breakfast in winter.

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Above: A range of lighting sources—natural light included—in Gilbert’s dining room.

5. Hang mirrors to add light and depth.

Wall mirrors act as additional windows. They reflect light and provide lovely little glimpses of the house.

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Above: Color-edged oval mirrors by MC & Co.—the Brooklyn design shop Gilbert formerly ran with artist Dan McCarthy—hang in her work studio. The 2009 designs (“they look like small puddles,” says Gilbert) helped spark the current irregular-shaped mirrors trend. The pillows and lampshades are MC & Co. collaborations with printmaker Muriel Favaro.

6. Swap in new accessories every season.

Change the feel of the house with the weather: Introduce wool blankets on the sofa, plaid curtains in a window, and paper whites on the table in winter; fresh flowers and Liberty pillowcases in spring; succulents and gauze curtains in summer; foliage and wool carpets in the fall.

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Above: A Butterfly Chair accessorized with a summery mix stands in a corner of Gilbert’s bedroom. The portrait of her is by Dan McCarthy.

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Above: Living room stools dressed for winter. Photograph by Corinne Gilbert.

7. Create vagabond chic by sewing patches.

Instead of reupholstering or slipcovering furniture or replacing worn throw pillows, get out a needle and thread and apply a few artful appliqués.

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Above: Patch-embellished pillows by Gilbert on her living room futon sofa (which doubles as a guest bed).

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Above: A patched beanbag chair and throw pillow. Photograph by Corinne Gilbert.

8. Make curtains from sheets and tablecloths.

Your grandmother’s linens, flea market bedding, a souvenir sari—these all make great DIY window coverings. It’s a French thing: Just fold over on top and iron (you can also hem but that’s not essential), then sew on rings. Go with all linen or cotton in the same shades of white and a variety of homemade curtains work well in the same room.

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Above: A linen tablecloth curtain in Gilbert’s living room. She’s been making these easy window covers since she had her first apartment. Go to Corinne Gilbert to see more of her work, and take a full tour of her apartment in the Remodelista book.

More Lessons in French Style? Go to:

N.B.: This post is an update; the original story ran on January 22, 2015.

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