The need to escape was almost overwhelming during the worst days of the pandemic lockdown. And like many, I took the opportunity to “vacation” in rural France via the reality series The Chateau Diaries. First featured on the British television series Escape to the Chateau: DIY, the inhabitants of Chateau de Lalande provided a welcome break from the bleakness that we were all feeling. Since the chateau is located in such an isolated area, on screen it appeared that life went on largely as usual (a blessed relief from reality). If you have not watched yet, the cast of characters is led by chatelaine Stephanie Jarvis, who is, by turns, charming, vivacious, heartwarming, and always hilarious.
In addition to providing some much-needed escapism, the show led to me to rethink my interior decorating scheme, which frankly, was a bit tired. Some French flair is just what it needed!
If you need a little chateau décor inspiration, I’ve compiled six must-have elements below. A word of caution, in a typical house, a little “chateau” goes a long way!
Take a “Gilt Trip”
Candlesticks, mirrors, artwork, furnishings… even paneling. In a chateau, a multitude of surfaces are covered in gleaming gold. Whilst that may be overwhelming for a standard 4-bed American home, just a dash of gold adds warm, Old World charm.
But what is gilt, exactly? Gilt objects are not easily defined. According to Conservation and Design, “Gilt objects are created by using various karats of gold leaf, metal leaf (primarily bronze), or various types of “gold” paint. They can be plated, water or oil gilded, and painted. Plating can be done using many methods from traditional ormoulu, using mercury and heat, to various electrically induced coatings.”
Suffice it to say, you’re looking for gold.
And, gilt mirrors and frames are plentiful and easy to find at your local brocante or antique shop. You may even happen upon a piece or two at a flea market or tag sale! Older pieces are often damaged by time, so check corners carefully. True antiques can be repaired by a professional, however, it may be best to skip a newer piece with damage (unless you don’t mind the minor imperfections).
Furnishings can also be “gilded” at home with a bit of gold paint from a DIY or art supply shop. I personally love the deeper, richer golden hues, which instantly “age” a piece, rather than a very bright color. A bit of trim, outlining a routed edge, or just a dusting on the corners give a table, cabinet or chair a certain je ne sais quoi. Allover gold is a bold option for a console table or chair.
Dressing the Mantel
Chateaus are vast, drafty places often built several centuries before the advent of central heating. Hence, the presence of fireplaces… everywhere! Today, typical new build homes have one or two fireplaces, at best. But, adding a fireplace using an electric version with a pretty mantel is a quick solution if your home is fireplace-free. A salvaged mantel (sans firebox) is another way to add the visual warmth and history that a fireplace provides.
The fireplace (working or not) also provides a very important focal point to a room. Adding an enormous over the mantel mirror is a French staple (and a perfect opportunity to add the aforementioned gilt element). Or, choose a stunning framed piece of art, a collection of decorative plates, or wall sconces (electrified or candle versions).
Actual fire tools are also a necessity for a working fireplace. A poker (also called a stoker), a pretty pair or andirons, and bellows will keep your blaze cheery. And, don’t forget the fire screen (or fireguard). This is a wonderful opportunity to add French flair, as decorative screens can include beautiful scrollwork, fleur-de-lis, and other lovely figures which are very, very French.
Mirrors are synonymous with chateau living. But, why you may wonder? According to Wendy Moons for the New York Times, “In 17th- and 18th-century Europe, a mirror was the ultimate status symbol. Louis XIV set the example by installing the spectacular Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. After that, displaying a mirror was a mark of refinement, power, wealth and self-confidence.”
Over the mantel mirrors are one option, but their sheer size (often up to 5 feet tall depending on ceiling height) can make them budget-busters. Another option is to group several smaller mirrors together in a gallery style. Choose varying shapes and sizes but keep the materials similar for a cohesive effect. Or, try mirror paneling for an entirely mirrored wall. Fantastique!
Mirrors also quickly and easily make a small room appear larger by reflecting natural light (no demolition of walls necessary).
When installing mirrors, make sure to secure well, as they are often extremely heavy. When “leaning” a mirror, either over the mantel or from the floor / cheval style, use strapping bolted to the wall to avoid potential disaster.
Finally, placement is important. Evaluate the reflection. When reflecting a window with a beautiful view, a mirror is twice as nice.
Add Decorative Mouldings in Every Room
Adding decorative moulding is an easy way to elevate the look of your space. Mouldings, from the very simple to the incredibly ornate, add unmistakable elegance to any room.
Mouldings incorporate many categories including baseboards, wainscoting, coffered ceilings, ceiling and chandelier medallions, door and window casings, and chair rail. But, one of the fastest ways to add French chateau style is through the addition of crown mouldings.
Throughout history, crown mouldings (mouldings which cover the join between the wall and ceiling) designated wealth and prosperity. Pieces were hand carved, making them a good indicator of a homeowner’s wealth and status.
“The French really elevated the art of decorative molding. In the 14th Century, they started with the first iterations of “boiserie,” decorative carved wood paneling,” say the experts at Royal Moudings. “Their signature style consists of detailed designs and layers of shadows that are still the ultimate standard in beautiful crown moulding today.”
Crown mouldings need not be installed by a professional and can be purchased at a standard DIY shop. Materials and prices vary depending on the size and complexity of the design but can be purchased for as little as a few dollars per linear foot.
Make a Statement with Vintage Furniture
Adding statement pieces such as a carved armoire, a Napoleonic daybed, a chandelier dripping with sparkling crystals or an Aubusson carpet rich with complex designs, provides a room with essential character. Your home may not be steeped in history, but a few well-chosen furnishings create a storied ambiance.
Sometimes, it just takes one spectacular piece to totally transform a room. And, finding that treasure is half the fun! On The Chateau Diaries, the residents of Chateau de la Lande regularly visit the local brocantes and charity shops on the hunt for unique pieces, from loveseats and consoles, to bedframes, desks and more.
Whilst you may not live in rural France, you can still unearth bargains galore shopping for vintage furniture at independently owned and operated local shops in every town. There are several national organizations that operate in every major city throughout the US. The best of these include Goodwill Industries, The Salvation Army, and the Re-Store/Habitat for Humanity. Click here for Thrift Shopping Secrets and Tips.
Add Drama to Windows
The architecture of a chateau includes many dramatic features that you simply can’t add to a modern home. However, there are a few that you can fake, including lovely triple sash windows that run practically from floor to ceiling.
The simplest way to add grandeur to your existing windows is to hang your drapes higher than the window frame, just under the crown moulding. Even if you have 8 ft. ceilings and standard size windows, this instantly draw the eye upward and achieves two aims. First, it provides the optical illusion of a higher ceiling. Second, it elevates that “status” of the window. And, drapes should always reach the floor.
Of course, the type of drapes you select are also important. True French chateau style drapes often have details such as pelmets, jabots, swags, tails, contrasting lining, multiple layers, and dazzling passementerie trim such as bullion fringe, braid and even beading.
While these may be a bit over-the-top for the average home, sumptuous tassel ties backs add elegance and luxury to even the simplest of window treatments. Similarly, curtain knobs with beautiful carved details are affordable and easy to install.
To get more French chateau decor inspiration (or just spend an entertaining half hour!), tune in to The Chateau Diaries.
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Susan Said… WHAT?! is your guide to a life filled with style. From must-have fashion and accessories, to gorgeous gardens, stunning interiors, plus the latest for posh weddings and events. Susan Conforte McNeill is an author, entrepreneur, and co-founder of the literacy organization Success Won’t Wait! Susan Said…WHAT?! was named one of the Top 50 Beauty Blogs in the World by RebateZone.com.