How to incorporate the chic of French Riviera interiors into your home
Imagine a marble-floored hotel suite bathed in moonlight. Bond, James Bond, tosses the keys of his Aston Martin DB5 to a liveried valet. It prowls towards a large terrace fringed with the heads of palm trees agitated by the breezes caressing the shores of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.
Fresh, sophisticated, dizzying with its ozone-soaked beauty, the Riviera style has been inspired for more than a century by the interiors of the legendary high-end towns and villages of France and Italy bordering the sapphire depths of the Mediterranean.
This year, having always been popular as a fashion, it has come into a new high-end wave in interiors and is fashionable all over the world. To understand why this classic chapter of decorating has served as the backdrop for the ocean-going antics of our rich and famous for decades, we have to water ski more than two hundred years.
French interiors have never recovered from the impact of the neoclassical style (1760-1830) championed by the imperious Napoleon I.
Neoclassical might have looked very different from what we recognize as the modern Riviera style of the 1920s, but sober, clean and extremely elegant, it had a major influence on the look-book. The Rivera style, despite including mid-century modernity, has the same airy touch and aristocratic sophistication of neoclassical palaces and salons, and there are often quite a few leaning 18th-century antiques littering the spaces.
Gentlemen across Europe hoard expensive furniture and decorative items over generations (wealthy industrialists might ask decorators to indicate well-mannered surroundings). That’s really what we pretend with Riviera and other period styles – heirloom furniture, stacks, art, collectibles and upper class pieces. The best of the best.
French interior designers working on homes and hotel suites, the true A-listers who fill the pages of “World of Interiors” are brilliant at mixing old and new design. It’s worth doing an image search, exploring how they put together thick abstract 1970s impasto oil paintings, reproductions of oily lacquered Boulle cabinets, inlaid Art Deco trumeau mirrors chrome and gilding.
The Côte d’Azur has been a seaside resort since Roman times. Ancient or modern, the look (Riviera is Italian for “coastal”) is carefully curated French fare, infused with coastal light distilled through floor-to-ceiling windows and drifting cotton sheers. It’s light, soft and buoyant.
We return to the days of legendary Côte d’Azur residents, itinerant gamblers and tipsy, tanned star personalities – Coco Chanel, Matisse, Somerset Maughan, Picasso, Brigitte Bardot, Elton John and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The glamorous and decadent playground of the intelligentsia and celebrity – the new royalty in need of high-level refuge.
Yet, like Hollywood Regency in the United States, the confident glamor continues. Exquisite attention to detail, touches of mirror, gilded bronze, soar over the polished parquet and waxed terracotta, with patrician grace and effortlessness. Frankly, my dear, it should look shamelessly high society and a bit expensive.
I know, I know, how do we conjure Villefranche sur mer in Golleen, or savor our own Saint-Tropez near the Lough? Yachting, open-top sports cars, Hermès whipped up sun-kissed neckline, tucked in chunky pearls – there’s not a trace of shabby in this chic mogul. If you like aged, rubbed pine and linen sofas, go French country or Swedish Gustavian, and leave that gentrified Gallic stuff alone.
Otherwise, the news is very, very good. The Riviera style has a very limited palette, and it’s easy to tickle a room in indulgent champagne style on a modest lemonade budget, once you’ve mastered the basics. If you have south-facing patio doors, bay windows, or any other glazing that lets the sun in, you’re on the right track.
First up: the walls. White is all you need. The piece should be as clean and crisp as a Silvermint. Whichever angle you take on the Riviera, it’s all anchored in acres of largely unbroken white. The walls of this old seaside villa have been plastered and whitewashed. Your choice of white will depend on how the room looks and how much natural light you need to play with, but we’re looking for something sheer, very lofty, that brings shadows out of every corner.
In terms of furniture. We really only use a few well-spaced, sleek pieces, and most of them will stay on the floor rather than loading up the walls like you would with a period game like High Victorian or Cottage-Core. The space, bringing the breath of a white beach under a huge sky inside, is really important. We want the furniture we include to pretty much float in a pale golden light that flies everywhere. Matte white walls, white window treatments, white backdrops to fabrics – white, white, white, not cream or rain gray – white.
To add vital color or even classic designs in hand painted or stenciled designs, go blue first. Blue in shades ranging from a delicate, faded Wedgewood blue to a jewel-rich lapis, is your first accent color, and it’s ideal with earthy terracotta for accents and accessories. We are inspired by a warm, coastal and French seaside setting bathed by the Mediterranean. Gold, indicating blinding sun all day, is ideal for a small sash for furniture and picture frames if you like vintage French spaces. For something a little more now for a room, pale wood can step in for a more modern take on Rivera’s cool, upscale vibe.
Edwardian brown furniture is a useful and inexpensive cheat for some antique/vintage inclusions that would be familiar in a well-run coastal villa in Nice – dining room sets and occasional chairs and leggy side tables. Look for the well-made Hepplewhite and Sheraton reproductions that were hugely popular well into the 1940s with their veneers, inlays, and thin, tapered legs. Cheap and mundane pieces can even take a sand and a bit of chalk paint, but make the finish look pristine, with no cheerful 1980s paint effects.
If you prefer mid-century front and center, that kick, hairpin-backed furniture, and button-backed velvet found all over the high street will work just as well. Just look for great lines and gorgeous pieces in every direction. Place them with enough surrounding space to celebrate every decision you make. Chrome lamps and pendants from the 70s and 80s are reproduced in hundreds of varieties if you like a little rock star style withdrawn.
Hide, leather, linen and short pile wool – honest, natural materials are ideal for upholstery and rugs for these late 20th century interpretations.
For a coastal touch, opt for stripes on beige or navy-colored tiles to channel classic, streamlined lounger sails. You can adjust the look to a seaside theme, but don’t go too bohemian or rustic.
Used in thoughtful flashes, crystal is a perfect refinement for the magic of the Riviera. Oscillating prismatic highlights with chandeliers from your favorite era, candelabra and even a candelabra or two made of glass or even laser-cut Plexiglas are worth trying. Don’t hang a cut glass fixture too high. Attaching these parts to the ceiling can decimate the joy of living of a shrubby and glorious old dear from your local auction house. Invite him to the party, hanging above a table. Add a crisp white linen, white crockery and frothy flowers, and you’re already on your way to the shallow waters of the jet set.