After a couple of centuries with a decidedly British intonation when it comes to interior design, Baltimore -- indeed, the whole mid-Atlantic region -- is developing a French accent.
Especially when it comes to "country" furniture, Americans are embracing the lightness, splendid detail and glowing woods typical of French furniture over the past three centuries. The long carved benches with rush seats, typical of Provence, make graceful kitchen seating. The buffet a deux corps, or double-bodied, buffet/hutch combinations of Normandy, store linen, dishes or even electronic equipment beautifully. And the Quimper-like figures carved in deep relief in chests from Brittany are stylish, whimsical additions to a hallway.
But besides being beautiful, French country style is "a very comfortable kind of furniture, both rustic and elegant at the same time," said Bringier McConnell, who, with his wife Sally, owns French Country Living, a 10-year-old shop in Great Falls, Va., that specializes in furniture and other domestic artifacts of France.
"The French are masters of design," McConnell said. "A Louis XV chair or a Louis-Philippe bed looks wonderful today because they looked great back then."
The McConnells quit high-powered jobs in Washington to spend a year in France, where they decided to bring French style back to the United States. They have seen the popularity of their wares take off in the last couple of years. They have customers from as near as Baltimore and as far away as Pittsburgh, Pa., and North Carolina. They recently opened a companion store, called French Country Living Tile & Stone, also in Great Falls. And they plan to issue a mail-order catalog this fall.
So popular is the style these days that Sally McConnell recently helped organize a discussion for the Fashion Group International of Washington, D.C., a group of women fashion and design professionals, to talk about French architecture, interior design, gardening and "the art of living well."
Even American furniture companies are falling under the French influence. Noted French interior designer Jacques Grange -- clients include Paloma Picasso and Yves St. Laurent -- has designed 24 pieces for John Widdicomb Co., of Grand Rapids, Mich. Thomasville, of Thomasville, N.C., has an 11-piece bedroom collection called Chateau Provence. Pulaski Furniture Corp., Pulaski, Va., offers a Louis XVI vitrine, or small glass-doored chest. Tradition France, of Morgantown, N.C., offers the Avignon Collection.
"France is hot right now," said Jean McHale, of Gaines-McHale Antiques in Otterbein. "People are looking for great quality furniture that has substance and character, that has great wood. But the one word they tell me they're looking for is detail."
French furniture glories in detail. Relief carving, mostly of a fanciful, botanical nature, elaborate pierced-metal lock trim, and curvy little legs abound. So-called "marriage armoires" -- given to newlyweds by their parents -- feature carved lovebirds.
It's also versatile. McHale pointed out a sinuous, long, natural cherry Louis XV-style buffet with a marble top. "You could take that piece and put it in a very formal dining room and dress it up, or it would be fabulous in an informal setting," McHale said.
"People are going back to a more casual lifestyle," and they want pieces that are sturdy as well as beautiful, said Danetta Cignarale, who, with partner Daniel Garfink, runs French Accents, a year-old Hampden shop that specializes in fine 17th- and 18th-century pieces.
She pointed out a small settee with a seat that lifts up to reveal storage space. It features "husband and wife" carved medallions on the front. "This piece could go in a mud room -- kids could keep their muddy shoes in it."
Tom Williams, of Hale-Williams, a residential design firm in Ruxton, agreed.
"For the last couple of years, especially, we've seen people move from a very formal to a more relaxed look," he said.
"What we're doing these days is creating the look of a collection of things, instead of a whole lot of things that look like they were bought all at once," Williams said. "French country works beautifully."
"Typically you wouldn't do a whole house in French provincial," Williams said; instead French pieces would be blended in. He particularly likes the look of a French farm-style table in a great room, where it adds style and interest while helping to integrate the functions and look of kitchen and family room.
A single piece, or a few pieces, go well with the British and American country looks that have long been popular in this region, he said. "Provincial French furniture has the scale and woods that are appropriate."