Maison: The French Salon

It is a particular pleasure to sit in beautifully decorated French Salon sipping champagne and enjoying great conversation. The French are experts in the art of living. French home decor is characterized by a warmth, sensuality and extravagance.

In the past the Salon was where guests were received. It was the room where family and friends would gather to play cards; listen to music or relax after dinner. In the 18th century there where famous Salons where the intellectual and social elites would gather to listen, discuss and debate. This was the most important room in the house, where the best furniture was placed and the most prized artworks and decorative pieces were displayed.

This room was always full of life and spoke of abundance – abundance of inspiration, of materials and décor. It was luxurious yet comfortable, always of exquisite quality using plenty of luxurious furnishings and fabrics. The focal point of the Salon was the fireplace usually in polished white marble with carved ornamentation accompanied by a large gilt wood overmantel mirror and foliated bronze wall sconces with tall candles which added an elegant quality to the light of the room. On top of the mantel you would often find a beautiful three piece matching garniture consisting of a beautiful clock with a pair of ormolu candelabras or two matching vases or urns.

In a French living room, the wall treatments were beautifully executed. The walls may have been upholstered with fabric, wallpapered, or painted. The French used an interesting variety of colours, panelling and sometimes Trompe l’oeil illusions, such as landscapes, murals or faux-drapery painted on the walls, adding to the room a sense of lavishness and luxury. Often entire walls would be covered from top to bottom with gilt- framed paintings, portraits, mirrors, cased fans or other glamorous and exotic objects adding to the ambience.

Windows were also decorated in a sumptuous manner reflecting the grandness of the room. They were dressed in textiles such as silk damasks, brocades, velvets and tapestries usually in the colour palates of red, burgundy, indigo, deep green and lustrous gold. Drapes hung in French pleats from the top of the windows and cascaded down to the floor. Silk ropes, fringes and ornate tassels would add to the look as would lavishly swagged, trimmed and decorated pelmets or curtain rods with interestingly shaped finials.

In the centre of the room a grand sparkling crystal chandelier in the Versailles style or perhaps a beautiful Baccarat gasolier would hang. A grand centre table or Table de Salon richly decorated in marquetry, parquetry or Boulle work was placed under the chandelier to make a statement. There were usually occasional chairs in the room which could be moved around this table as the occasion required.

The furniture of the Salon would consist of a matching suite which made an appearance for the first time in the 19th century. The suite would comprise a canapé or settee with matching fauteuils and occasional chairs in richly embroidered upholstery and was to become de rigueur in the fashionable Salon. The suite would also be accompanied by gilded or pastel-painted and gilt-detailed bergeres, low stools and foot rests. Heavily buttoned and often fringed ottomans were present upholstered in rich silks and brocades usually in red, gold, or blue. The ottoman is still a popular item in modern décor today.

Marble topped commodes with ormolu appliqués and heavily decorated chiffonniers inlayed with of mother of pearl, brass, ivory or exotic woods were placed against the walls under big paintings, mirrors or tapestries. Side or small occasional movable tables known as petite meuble were very popular. Etageres, pedestals and sewing tables of many shapes and sizes were scattered all over the room. Usually a beautiful lady’s desk or Secretaire would occupy a special corner of the room. The French have never been afraid of mixing textures or different styles in the same room, as long as it would look elegant.

Gilded folding écrans or fire screens, usually in silk or tapestry would also feature as part of the décor. Vitrines or glass cabinets with beautiful ormolu decorations or hand painted vernis martin panels with floral or pastoral scenes served the purpose of displaying the owner’s collection of expensive porcelain, sterling silver, precious china and crystal. Large vases with huge floral arrangements were found in the living areas and gilded plant stands or jardinières overflowing with potted palms and ferns were always in evidence.

Side lamps, beautiful crystal and gilded brass girandoles (table chandeliers) and candelabras provided lighting in a most flattering way, adding cosiness, atmosphere and beauty to a room.

Carpets and rugs, usually in woven silk, in soft hues of pale green, pink, and blue, often featured designs of densely-massed flowers in bouquets, garlands of fruits, cherubs and foliage with deep multiple borderers and fringes, often imitating the designs of the great French carpet factories of Aubusson or Savonerie.

Today recreating a French Salon is not difficult, perhaps by just simplifying a few things, but still keeping the feeling of luxury, elegance, cosiness and comfort. The French way of decorating is suited to the Australian climate and smaller houses or apartments as it is lighter and softer than the sometimes gloomy, austere and heavy Victorian style. French furniture is lighter, smaller and more delicate than some English designs.

Sometimes just by adding a crystal chandelier and some beautiful window drapes to a room you can start to create the feeling of a French Salon. Hanging an ornate mirror over an existing fire place and adding a couple of Louis’s chairs and some pretty paintings in gilded frames will add to the look. Also remember, like the French, do not be afraid of colour!

Et Voila! You too could be sipping champagne and enjoying great conversations in your very own Salon right here in Australia.

Mario Dominguez-Gorga

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