Ever wonder what makes a French house a home? Danielle Postel-Vinay shares what she's learned about the French art of making a home in Home Sweet Maison, a practical guide to creating a living space that is at once comfortable and organized, welcoming and personal. Vinay leans on her insights of being married to a Parisian, as well as a transformative friendship with a Frenchwoman who mentored her in all things la belle vie.
It happened in the middle of a French antique store called La Maison Supreme in Hudson, New York. A woman I had never met before stood next to me amid hundreds of precious objects—Murano glass chandeliers, Baccarat Champagne flutes, Sèvres dishes, 18th century mirrors glimmering in gilded frames, a paradise of pure maximalist fantasy—and had a moment of regret.
“My mother had so many of these kinds of things,” the woman said, a wistful look in her eyes as she touched a cut-crystal wine glass. “She inherited them from my grandmother. But after my mother died, I threw it all out. I didn’t want to clutter up my house. Now, my grandmother’s china is gone. Sometimes I regret minimalism.”
Regret. Remorse. Nostalgia for what has been tossed out. I felt sad for her. These pieces of her family history were gone and she would never get them back.
This sort of thing wouldn’t happen in my home. I understand the need to organize one’s living space, and hate clutter and disorder as much as anyone, but I believe in the power of certain things—items chosen to reflect our taste and personal history--to make us feel happier in our homes. I am a maximalist, influenced by the French tradition of home design, the kind of person who likes to own things. I have saved the old dishes inherited from my uncle and the blue glass punch bowl that once belonged to my grandmother. I collect beautiful objects and integrate them in my living spaces because I knew that without them, I would feel ungrounded, without a connection to my past, all the things that define who I am.
I attribute this tendency to my love of the French home. The French own stuff, and very often, a lot of it. They do not aspire to live in a minimalist environment with no possessions. Theirs is an heirloom culture, one that values beautiful, precious objects and—even more important—holds onto these objects for the next generation. In a French home, throwing out grandma’s china is not an option. And I believe that, in the current era of decluttering to the point of emptiness, there is a lot to learn from the French about how to live with our possessions.
You don’t have to be French, or live in France, to have a French home. In fact, the first time I encountered a French home was in the United States.
I’d been invited to dinner by a woman named Jacqueline Manon, the owner of an antique shop on the main street of my Midwestern hometown. I was 17, a junior in high school, and had applied for a part-time job at her store, Manon’s, hoping to make some money so I could move into my first apartment. I was taking my first steps toward living on my own, and fate brought me to Jacqueline.
She didn’t hire me, but she didn’t turn me away, either. I spent many afternoons in her antique shop, where we sat in overstuffed chairs talking, drinking coffee, and smoking cigarettes. During those afternoons at Manon’s, Jacqueline taught me about her business—the buying and selling of precious objects—as well as about her life. I learned about antique furniture and old jewelry and vintage clothes. I learned how one could experience the past through a love of collecting, but also how objects had the power to lead one to the future.
Jacqueline and I slowly created an unlikely friendship: I was a bookish girl in need of guidance. She was 54 years old, the daughter of a French woman and a German man, an ex-model-turned-hippie who was fierce in her tastes and protective of her privacy. She had immigrated to the United States 35 years earlier, in the 1960s, moving first to New York City, then San Francisco, and eventually settling in the Midwest. It was here, in the middle of America, that she became my first mentor in the art of living.
I arrived for dinner one April evening, climbed the steps and rang the bell. It had taken months before Jacqueline had invited me to her home, a large Victorian painted lady overlooking a park. For her, home was a sanctuary, a place she went to escape the rest of the world. Her two Yorkshire terriers Coco and Chantilly were barking like crazy, their voices high and sharp over the sound of Edith Piaf playing on a stereo. The door opened, and there stood Jacqueline, wearing a patterned scarf tied over her grey hair, long silver earrings, and a hand-knit sweater.
“Come in,” she said, holding the dogs back. “Don’t mind my girls, they’re very protective of me. Come in, come in, make yourself at home.”
We walked through the entryway and into a house unlike anything I had ever seen. Every room—from the entryway to the salon to the reading nook to the dining room—felt foreign yet intimate. It was filled with furniture and objects, plants and books and statues, and yet it felt spacious and elegant. There was nothing minimal or severe about Jacqueline's house. In fact, the very idea of minimalism—that heartless discarding of the past—was the very opposite of what I found there. The rooms were formal yet bohemian, orderly yet casual, with oil paintings on the walls and Joni Mitchell albums stacked on the couch. The air smelled clean, fresh, and yet there was dust on her old books and the silk of a spider web in the corner of a window. Her house, it seemed to me, was not just a place to eat and sleep, but a vessel for her vision of life. And that vision of life included possessions.
Some years later, after a long and close friendship, Jacqueline passed away. She left me many of her favorite possessions—a set of English bone china with hand-painted roses, a pair of Dansk enameled pots, a case of jewelry and boxes of cookbooks, among other things. Over the years, I carried these objects with me when I moved, adding them to a growing collection of possessions that, when put together in my living space, defined me and my past, my taste and my way of viewing the world. I kept every single beautiful thing she gave me. And I have no regrets.
In the entrée (entrance or foyer) of your home, choose a case, bookshelf, or cabinet to display your own memory theater. This will showcase your personal treasures, objects that reflect your history and give your guests a glimpse of the microcosm of your life.
In the salle à manger (dining room) try a vaisselier, hutch, or cabinet: This piece of furniture serves two purposes—it not only makes your finest dishes and prettiest tableware visible, but also holds the silverware, tablecloths, napkins, place mats, napkin rings, flower vases, candleholders, and other items you will use on your table. It makes setting the table easy and allows you to store multiple sets of dishes.
Make a bibliothèque or home library in your home. Make it public, so that guests can see and discuss your books with you. The bigger the better. You can never own enough books!
Consider creating a boudoir, a private space for you to spend time alone with your favorite things. Fill it with your most treasured belongings—photos, diaries, jewelry, and so on. This is your place to think and relax, so have fun with it. Fill it with mirrors or your favorite artwork. Anything that expresses the essence of you.
How do you display your prized heirlooms in the home? Share your preferred decorating style with us below!