Of course one could classify "French Impressions" as a coffee table book.
It is stunningly beautiful, and merits pride of place in a conspicuous location like any lovely objet in one's home worthy of frequent regard.
But, "French Impressions"* by famed interior designer and award-winning author, Betty Lou Phillips, is much, much more than pure decoration or an inspirational home decor look-book. It is also a book rich and remarkable for the tales it tells. Creatively and enchantingly well-written, as are all of Betty Lou's books, her words enliven the kind of delicious history lessons that almost feel like insider gossip. Add to that a primer on the tricky -- sometimes quirky (for us) -- rules and traditions of French etiquette, and one has a tome to treasure.
She has, in fact, not only given us a great read, but also scintillating material for fascinating conversation at a French dinner party, complete with the perfect good manners manual to go with it.
Betty Lou loves French history and design and knows how to translate the French aesthetic both for her readers and her clients. She is responsible for every detail in the regal home photographed for her book. The pictures here give you but a tiny hint of her immense talent.
When asked the inevitable question, "Why is it that you love France?" She always replies with these words from the Broadway musical, "Wicked":
"So much of me is what I learned from you [the French]. You'll be with me like a hand print on my heart."
Then she adds, "Like so many others, I have a fascination for France and all it represents. It is not just that the French bring style and sophistication to everything they do. Or that their attention to detail defines good taste. Nor is it the passion that they bring to their personal space, making their architecturally and culturally rich country an even more strikingly beautiful place to live. Rather, it is, in fact, all of these things. And, their example of combining the ordinary with the extraordinary is inspiring."
In a recent conversation with her, I suggested we do a Q&A wherein she can guide us through some of her favorite tricks and techniques to create the impression of a maison Française, and as she says, "stretch the imagination and suggest fresh ways of enhancing one's surroundings."
T: Since decorating, like everything else worth doing well, is always all about the details, tell us some of your favorites. Give us some tips from the high, through the medium to the very affordable please.
BL: Whether working with a client or planning a personal space the desire to create an artful, intimate environment radiating beauty, comfort, and peacefulness motivates me. Always, I strive to tailor each setting in a way that adds value. Doing so results in an artistically satisfying room with the feeling of well-being.
And so, to bring France home:
HIGH. . .
- Consider letting finely etched knobs, surface bolts and crémone bolts that could almost pass for artwork, bestow added nobility to groaning doors and tall, narrow windows.
- Make spaces appear taller than they actually are with crisp crown moldings -- seamlessly molded together -- that step out onto ceilings.
- Elevate the ordinary by adorning heavy vents with polished brass grills hosting scrolled motifs.
- Hang art salon style -- stack paintings and drawings high on walls and over doors.
- Favor large scale furnishings of aristocratic proportions. Even in small rooms, generously sized furnishings look stately, not stuffy.
MEDIUM. . .
- Give upholstery a more sophisticated look by using bullion that is deep rather than shallow.
- Opt for trims that are full, not skimpy when embellishing vintage textiles fabricated into throw pillows.
- Make a strong statement by grouping small paintings together, instead of scattering them around a room.
- Cross boundary lines by disregarding the American practice of leaving eight to 18 inches of exposed wood around the perimeter of a room. Instead, opt for ample-sized area rugs that urge a room to look larger than it is. Small carpets fail to win acclaim.
- Calculate window treatment fabrics at two-and-a-half or three times the distance from one end of the curtain rod to the other, including returns -- the space from the face of the rod to the wall. Don't skimp on fabric.
- Add the patina of age by glazing a piece of furniture that needs some help. Glazing also lends an old-world aura to textured, hand-plastered walls by reflecting light differently than paint, depending on the base and top coats used.
- Please the senses as much as the palate by bedecking the dining table with sparkling crystal (or lovely glassware), oversize linen napkins, well-polished silver, and a striking mix of china patterns.
- Line the interior of lampshades with fabric that picks up the setting's palette.
LOW. . .
- Lavish extraordinary attention on your bed. Royal residence or not, pressed linens add a layer of respectability.
- Take a walk back in time by letting a dressing table add to the setting's allure.
- Monogram towels: His or "Hers or Madame and Monsieur to give them a bit more attitude.
- Let words help organize one's life. Hand-paint les epices (spices), pain (bread), chocolat, and more on the trim separating pantry shelves.
- Save time by adding: Colors, Whites, Darks, Dry Cleaning above (or on) laundry room baskets.
- Keep centerpieces low -- with fresh flowers straight from the garden or from a local market -- so they never interfere with conversations.
- Prop a remnant of a damaged oil painting on a small easel and place the frame-less canvas on an end table.
- Line a hall wall with framed photos of family members as children.
- Remember, the smartest curtains fall from as close to the ceiling molding as possible, making even small rooms appear somewhat grander.
- Seat the humble across from the haughty, the ordinary across from the extraordinary; good taste is not about personal wealth or visual extravagance.
- Be highly selective when purchasing the new.
- Avoid lining up furniture around the perimeter of a room.
- Make no secret of your love for family, affection for pets, and fervor for France.
- And certainly spare no expense when it comes to your dog.
T: What are your favorite colors in clothes? In rooms?
BL: I adore gray. But, I am passionate about brown. I grew up on a registered American Quarter Horse farm where browns -- sorrel, chestnut and bay -- were, to me, the most beautiful colors on earth. Nevertheless, I quickly learned that like the color black, brown was not a "psychologically correct" answer when asked my favorite color. So, for decades my favorite color remained my secret.
T: What are some of the amenities you give your friends who occupy your guest rooms?
BL: Bottled water awaits, but then so do heated towels, slippers and a hair dryer. For fashion emergencies, they'll find an emery board, nail polish remover, hair spray, lint roller, and a sewing kit. Also, lip balm and dental floss are tucked in the bathrooms' vintage pharmacy chest.
*French Impressions* (Gibbs Smith, $50)
**For the first time ever on my blog, we're (Betty Lou, really) doing a giveaway of two copies of "French Impressions" -- Betty Lou graciously agreed. (I knew she would, she's one of my best friends and she is also one of the kindest and most generous human beings I have ever known.)