When Belle sang about wanting more than her "provincial life" in Beauty and the Beast, so many of us kids were confused about what she longed to get away from. We couldn't call up images of provincial life because we didn't know what that meant. But you might have a few family heirlooms of antique French Provincial furniture that you use every day. This iconic style continues to inspire artisans and designers today, but nothing beats the original pieces that made it famous.
What Is French Provincial Style?
French Provincial describes a type of design style and fad that emerged during King Louis XV and his successor King Louis XVI's reigns. Louis XVI was married to Marie Antoinette, who popularized this style across France. The style refers to the provinces, aka the French countryside, and simpler furniture that was devoid of elaborate Baroque bells-and-whistles.
Did you know that Marie Antoinette sparked a huge scandal with her provincial fashion? Famed artist Elisabeth Le Brun painted a portrait of Marie Antoinette in 1783 wearing a simple, cotton gown. With layers of gauzy fabric cinched at the waist, this provincial-inspired outfit shocked society so much that they asked Le Brun to remove it from its debut exhibition for being indecent.
What Does French Provincial Furniture Look Like?
Furniture is a deceptively difficult type of antique. So many furniture makers used old designs to inspire new ones that revival after revival over the centuries make knowing if you have a genuine antique difficult to figure out. Thankfully, you can sidestep the expensive appraisal costs by knowing what characteristics to look for. Authentic French Provincial furniture all has a few specific traits.
Neutral Color Palette
French Provincial furniture was all about levity and countryside elegance. They weren't dampening their vibes with dark furniture. Look for white, grey, cream, beige, taupe, lavender, and light blue paint or stains. Similarly, the upholstery was also in a pastel and airy color-palette.
Sturdy, Natural Woods
French Provincial furniture was largely devoid of metal, except for the occasional accent piece (like handles, pulls, and trim). Wood was the go-to for furniture, and the natural woods they used were both local and hardy. They built these pieces to last.
Curvy, Sinuous Lines
When you look at a piece of furniture, is it really boxy and bulky or is it full of wavy and curvy lines? French Provincial furniture loved rolling curves, and it shows up in armchairs with rounded backs and dressers with distinct s-shaped or w-shaped drawer fronts.
How Valuable Is Genuine French Provincial Furniture?
Pristine furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries is hard to find, especially across the pond. So, if you come across a genuine piece in good condition, it has a good chance of being worth thousands. The more well-kept and the larger the piece, the more valuable it's going to be. Yet, we're not talking about nickels and dimes here. Some of the plainest pieces are worth $10,000+. Take this short wooden workbench, for example. It's from the 17th century and isn't particularly eye-catching; but, its spectacular construction and age make it worth about $6,000.
Should You Ever Update Your old French Provincial Furniture?
Deciding to update antique furniture to better fit your current design needs can feel like gambling, and boy, are the stakes high. But you don't have to go all in on a totally blind bet. There are a few principles you can use to guide what kind of restoration or upcycling you do based on your situation.
- Can your furniture withstand manhandling? If your pieces are falling apart, have loose screws, or are cracked and breaking, chances are they won't survive serious work - unless you get that work completed by a skilled restorationist.
- Is your furniture really old? Look for maker's marks, hand-done joinery, saw marks, and square nails to see if your piece is really old. Signs of a lot of wear and tear might also mean that it has been around for a long time. If a piece is from the 17th or 18th centuries, then altering them in any way will lower their value.
- Are you looking to do cosmetic improvement? With antiques, cosmetic improvements are much easier to do (and undo if you really hate it). Changing out the upholstery on a chair or repainting a dresser, for example, is much safer than completely changing the tabletop on an old cabinet. You can keep the old upholstery in storage, and put it back if it turns out the new fabric you bought isn't working with your decor. Things like painting and reupholstering are less invasive ways to upcycle any type of French Provincial furniture.
All of that being said, the ultimate deciding factor in updating a piece or completely tearing it down to be used for parts is about how you feel about it. If you've had a piece passed down for generations, it might feel sacrilegious to deface it with spray paint, but if you found it at a yard sale for a good price, there's no harm in transforming it into something new.
Furniture, no matter how old or how well made, is created with the user in mind. Meaning, it's there to be used in whatever way the person who owns it wants to use it for. So, curate a collection of antique furniture you're excited to use every day, in whatever way you need to.
Bring the Countryside Inside
Nowadays, you can find reproduction French Provincial furniture in just about any big-box furniture store. These pieces will certainly evoke that 17th century French countryside feeling, but there's nothing like the original pieces to bring the theme home. Antique French Provincial furniture is timeless, and you'll get decades' worth of use out of any pieces you find.