FOR CENTURIES, the French have been in the business of exporting style -- high fashion, cuisine and interior decor. In the area of furniture design, one of the most appealing and perennially popular exported styles has been French Provincial--perhaps more accurately called Country French.
This warm and graceful furniture--most of it hails from the 18th Century--commands high prices. A favorite of interior decorators, French Provincial is exactly what its name implies: furniture from provinces such as Alsace, Normandy, Brittany, and Burgundy.
It is the simple and utilitarian furniture used by French country villagers over the years, a rural (but by no means unsophisticated) interpretation of the prevailing styles fashionable in Paris at any given time. Of course, craftsmen used local woods: chiefly pale honey-colored walnut, but also beech, elm, chestnut, cherry and apple wood, all selected to show color and grain to best advantage.
Local craftsmen took as their models the furniture produced in Paris during various periods, always adapting and simplifying the designs. They used no marquetry, veneer or ormolu, yet their creations clearly echo more elaborate pieces found in the aristocratic homes of the capital.
Country furniture from the time of Louis XIV, for example, will show classical and Baroque influences; later, the rococo of Louis XV and the neoclassical of Louis XVI were modified to conform to simpler, rural tastes.
Most country furniture, of course, was sturdily utilitarian--armoires, four-poster beds from Burgundy, oak benches from Brittany, and those ubiquitous chests of drawers (or commodes) with three drawers that were copied from elaborate Louis XV models. The open-shelved dressers found in country kitchens and panetieres (cupboards for bread) with flower scroll carvings and scalloped aprons were made in great quantities and are very popular today.
French Provincial decor is universally appealing, appropriate to casual settings in almost every part of the world. Style is the business of the French, and they rarely disappoint.
French Provincial furniture can be found at La Vieille France, La Maison Francaise, and Rose Tarlow/Melrose House (reproductions) in West Los Angeles and The Cricket in Venice. They also are sold at Mission Antiques in Pasadena, Richard Yeakel in Laguna Beach, Steven-Thomas in Santa Ana, World Antique Mart and Unicorn Mall, both in San Diego.