The Home Design Philosophy You'll Want To Steal From The French

Photo: Lauren Edmonds

After years of research, writer and Francophile Danielle Postel-Vinay has come to a bold but not-so-surprising conclusion: French homes are some of the most enviable ones around. In this excerpt from her new book, Home Sweet Maison: The French Art of Making a Home, she recounts stepping inside the boudoir of a French woman, Jacqueline, for the first time and explains why all of us could stand to recreate such a space in our own homes.

Occupying the antechamber to her bedroom, the boudoir was a second-floor space with a long sweep of windows overlooking a park. What I remember most, aside from the feeling of protection I felt when I sat in the boudoir, was the sheer amount of reflection happening in the room: It was full of mirrors—a full-length mirror in a mahogany frame, a vanity table with a large round mirror, a gilded mirror hanging on the wall opposite the windows. Reflected from all angles were Jacqueline’s possessions: dresses on hooks; antique jewelry in cases and trays; a rocking chair with an enormous silk shawl over the back; stacks of hardcover books; her diary, open to her last entry; a record player and a stack of records. All this was reflected back at me from wherever I sat.

It seemed to me that everything had depth and dimension in Jacqueline’s boudoir. It was a well-tended and beloved chaos. Boudoir derives from the French word bouder, "to pout," and one can easily imagine how the room was used as a place of refuge, somewhere to go when the world was too cruel, a safe place to let one’s guard down and do just that—pout. Traditionally, the boudoir was a female-only sitting room, a place where women spent time together when the men went to the fumoir, or smoking room, to smoke, drink, or play cards after dinner.

The Marquis de Sade gave the boudoir a more scandalous spin when he wrote about his exploits, but the boudoir, in spirit, has nothing to do with seduction or racy sexual indiscretions. It is a place of repose, a sanctuary from the demands and judgments of the world. More intimate than a salon and more public than a bedroom, the boudoir was a place where friends could drink, talk, get ready for an event, or just lounge.

Sometimes, on my visits to Jacqueline’s home, I would walk up the stairs and find her stretched out on a couch in her boudoir, lost in thought, a book at her side as she stared off into space. I had the feeling that she was totally free in her boudoir, able to let go of everything—even the dark memories of her childhood—and exist in another time and place.

Peace and self-care are much more important than the décor.

For all intents and purposes, the boudoir is not a room but a fantasy, one that no longer exists. Jacqueline created this space, but in all the homes I’ve visited in France in the years since Jacqueline’s death, I have never found even one with a boudoir. This space has disappeared in the French home.

And yet, if you can, I urge you to create one in your home. The hours I spent in Jacqueline’s were some of the most memorable moments of our friendship. It was here that she showed me her favorite box of rings, pictures of the vintage clothing store she opened in Berkeley, and the photos of her estranged son. These were some of the most private conversations we had, and I cannot imagine them happening elsewhere.

For me, the fact that the boudoir doesn’t exist in the contemporary home is liberating. Extinction gives one all sorts of creative license. You could make a boudoir with beanbag chairs or huge pillows scattered over the floor. You could make a boudoir that feels like a dressing room on a film set, the vanity full of makeup and stacks of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines at your feet. Just remember that your boudoir is a place of repose. Peace and self-care are much more important than the décor. Be as quirky or as outlandish as you want. Create a room that makes you feel beautiful and special.

Make your boudoir a place to dream while awake.

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How to craft your French boudoir:

  1. Choose a private space, away from the rest of your family, and fill it with your personal treasures—personal photographs, diaries, love letters, jewelry, favorite books, and magazines.
  2. Make sure there is a comfortable place to lounge. Your boudoir should have a couch, a beanbag chair, a daybed, or an overstuffed armchair that will let you sink in and be free to read, think, dream, or listen to music at leisure.
  3. Be selective. Don’t let just anyone into your boudoir. This is your secret, special place and friends and family must get your permission to enter. Once you decide that someone should be allowed into your private world, and you sit down together in your boudoir, understand that the friendship has reached a new level of intimacy.
  4. Hang mirrors. Don’t worry about being vain. In the boudoir, you should focus on yourself, both the physical and emotional sides of your life. The boudoir should reflect you, your taste, and your ideas in all their various manifestations.
  5. Make your boudoir a place to dream while awake. This is where you are free to fantasize, hope, wish, and scheme for all that you want in life.

How will you decorate your boudoir? Here are some French-inspired ideas.

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