HED:French Country plays dominant role in interior design
By Lena Mitchell
A recent celebration of “Victorian Good Times” at the historic Walton-Young House on the University of Mississippi Oxford campus held a special treat for lovers of antique furniture.
Antique specialist Lynda Lee Mead Shea, Miss America 1960-61, Ole Miss alumnus and president and owner of French Country Imports of Memphis, took about 70 museum visitors on a vicarious tour of the Provencal region of southern France. Along the way she acquainted them with the appeal of French country decorating and furniture through her slide presentation and talk..
“French Country has become a dominant factor in interior design,” Shea said. “(Professionals) more and more are looking to rural France for inspiration.”
Each region of France has its own unique imprint and influences, Shea said. The craggy southern region known as Provence is amorphous and has no clearly-defined geographic boundaries, though it generally stretches from CŽvennes in the East to St. Tropez in the West, along the Mediterranean coastal region of Cote D’Azur.
The history of the region is long and varied. Provence was a separate country until the 15th Century, and at various times was occupied by the Phoenicians, Romans, Spanish and Italians.
“The area has changed my sensibilities to spatial, textural and natural,” Shea said. “It is a region that has influenced so many artists: Picasso, Matisse, CŽzanne and Van Gogh.”
Color is one of the features that most clearly evokes images of the Provence region: orange with a gold tone derived from soil heavily laden with bauxite; the buttery yellow of limestone found throughout the countryside; vibrant yellow reflecting fields of sunflowers.
“Van Gogh was fascinated with sunflowers,” Shea said. He created numerous sunflower paintings and one of his sunflower still-lifes sold for an extraordinary sum about 20 years ago. He was one of the most financially successful painters of his day.
The red of poppies and blue of the lavender fields also found their way into the artists’ paintings and into colors used in the interiors of homes.
Homes built around courtyards and outdoor eating areas overhung by trees letting in dappled sunlight are also traditional French country.
“The treetops are cut out, or pollarded, to yield this dappled light,” Shea said. “That is very, very French, something people don’t do in this country very much.”
Two basic home designs of the region are the bastille, or manor house, and mas, or farmhouse.
“The design of the mas grows out of the needs of the farming family that lives in it,” Shea said. “That has led to some odd-looking portals (doors), and no two windows are ever alike. Different parts are built of different materials and have different roof lines. This idea was the inspiration for some things we’ve done in Memphis. Silos, too, are very much a part of this.”
Interiors in the French country style are very spare and restrained. That restraint is a watchword, Shea said.
Provence can be recognized in homes that use ceramics and pottery. The kind of pottery distinguishes the village of origin, and slate floors frequently are identified with Provencal decor.
Provencal furnishings also notably use lots of steel furniture, since the area has a very dry climate.
Provencal chairs are one of Shea’s specialties, made of wood with ladder backs. The chairs are versatile and can easily be used even in very formal settings.