Monday Oct 02, 2023

Popular French Country home decor is both laid-back and elegant. A new book shows you how to do it.

Sara Silm’s vagabond spirit has taken her all over the world for work, travel and life, and at 50 she’s settling into family life in the Béarn region of France.

Silm and her husband in 2015 bought an old chateau with land and a barn and set out to create a primary home for her children who’d been in boarding school in the U.K. as the couple — both Australians — bounced around Europe and Central Asia for his work.

Their home dates back to the 1800s, so it needed a lot of expensive work. But it came full of treasures, too, from old oil paintings and antiques to armoires full of linens.

Silm calls the first year she lived in the house “proper camping” and the rest of her family moved in after it had electricity, plumbing, a sturdy roof and doors that could close.

She’d been working on the home for while when a friend told an editor at the Thames & Hudson publisher about her project, leading to a book contract. Now, the chateau is the home base for Silm, her husband who splits his time between London and Paris and their children, Hugo, 22, Annabelle, 19, and Toby, 16

Her book, “How to French Country,” chronicles her efforts to revitalize the aging home and make a guest house out of its barn. Readers learn about French antiques, colors and style along the way.

French Country style tips

Colors: French Country colors are all muted tones and vary with each area of rural France. Great paint options are: Benjamin Moore Putnam Ivory, Georgetown Pink Beige, Yellow Brick Road, Philipsburg Blue, Ashley Grey, Stonington Gray, Sherwood Green, Southfied Green and Jamestown Blue; and Farrow & Ball Setting Plaster, Hague Blue, Light Blue, Oval Room Blue, Vert de Terre and Skylight. For neutrals, consider Farrow & Ball Mole’s Breath, Ammonite, Strong White, Purbeck Stone or Cornforth White.

Furniture: If you’re going to paint it, chalk-based paint is a great option.

Masonry: You’re going for a natural feel, even if you are putting a coat of something on brick or stone. Stick to lime wash paint for a more natural look.

Mix with Swedish: Swedish antiques – usually called “Gustavian” – mix well with French Country style and often are in lighter, washed out colors.

Source: Sara Silm and “How to French Country”

Written in four parts — her home, the barn, the basics of design and, finally, recipes for foods as they’d be eaten there, seasonally — the tome serves as a handbook for anyone wanting to work French country style into their home.

Silm recently spoke with the Chronicle about her book, her journey to France and more.

Q: Were you interested in French country décor before you moved to the Béarn?

A: To be perfectly honest, I’m not a Francophile — I’m a world-ophile. I love culture and I love people and digging deep into whichever part of the world I’m in.

We were living in Kazakhstan and searching for a house to call a home because our children were in boarding school and needed a home to make memories in rather than a hotel room. I could have easily picked somewhere in Italy or Greece. We were in an Irish pub in Kazakhstan, eating curry, not the local cuisine, and this English friend of ours was talking about where to buy a house. He suggested the Béarn region of France because he had owned a house there for a decade.

It’s in the middle of nowhere, and that’s the exciting thing. Everyone knows Provence, but didn’t before Peter Mayle wrote “A Year in Provence.” It was like the Béarn is now, a rural area. This is like getting let in on a secret. It’s a part of France nobody knows about.

Q: In the book you talk about the color, pattern and objects that comprise French country style. Which is most important element to get right?

A: Start with color. It is transformative and will have a profound effect on the way you feel emotionally in your home. Dig deep into questions of color and what makes you feel good. No matter what color you love, there’s a French country equivalent.

I went to all of the local villages and color matched patinaed paint on shutters and doors. When you visit France and fall in love with the colors, what you’re actually falling in love with is a color that can’t really be recreated. I made my own color palettes with an international paint system, NCS (National Colour System), that commercial interior designers use. You can take that NCS code to a paint company and have it mixed. I give readers a chance to take a little piece of France home with them.

I narrow it down to a failproof list. You can take those to anyone and put one or several in a home, and they are guaranteed, like a little chorus in perfect harmony.

Q: In your book, you even differentiate the different color palettes for each region. I had no idea there would be so much variation.

A: It was a big surprise to me, too, actually. I’m in the Béarn region of France and the next village behind mine is in the Pays Basque, where house can only be one of four colors. The house is white, the roof is terracotta and the shutters are blue, red, green, or brown and that’s it. They are sold in hardware stores and there’s no variation of the blue. It’s Basque Blue and that’s it. You see blue more around the sea and in the countryside it’s green, brown or red, that’s it.

Q: What about the furniture?

A: Just quickly going to Gustavian, King Gustav III of Sweden visited Versailles and took the color palette to Sweden and grayed it down. Those colors are French colors. In terms of furniture, what I enjoyed most in the book is being conscious of solutions to every budget. French country style is not chateau style, it’s laid back and practical. The more bashed up they are, the better, really.

I focused on buying old pieces, not necessarily fabulously valuable, but pieces from local brocantes (outdoor flea markets).

You don’t want your interior to be too woody. Wood is lovely and I have pieces that are natural, but it’s lovely to bring in color via furniture. A lime-based paint has a lovely soft chalky finish and finish it with a wax coating for day-to-day wear and tear. It’s a lovely way to weave more color into your furniture.

Q: What were the biggest challenges in your 200-year-old house?

A: The house is probably a young house by French standards. It’s ancient to me; Australians don’t have houses that old. Part of the roof had collapsed and everything was so old it had to be replaced, electricity, the boiler and the plumbing system. They’re big-ticket items that have to be completed before you can get onto the pretty things. The first year, that’s where our budget went and after that, we looked at furniture.

My greatest advice in furnishing a house is to not buy into the temptation of having a show home that after a month you have everything in place. Wait and find a perfect piece that has a story to tell, and then it becomes a part of your life.

Q: What are your favorite elements of the house?

A: I love the exposed stone walls. They have a beautiful color, white limestone with gray and fawny beige. It’s very laid back, and I love it.

I also love the old beams, though I didn’t love them in their original state. They were imposing and dark, so I painted them gray and painted in between in white so they’re nice and fresh. Even in a new build, you can have false beams that you create to instill the same sense of rustic charm.

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