While the two countries might disagree about which has the upper hand in all things cultural, France and Italy each boasts centuries-old traditions for living the good life. What’s more, each has made a graceful transition to modern styles that keep them as relevant and influential today as they were when European powers built empires that reached around the globe.
In fact, it’s the lingering strength of their aesthetic legacies that drives trends in many other nations, according to Betty Lou Phillips, an American interior designer.
Phillips highlights the cultural influence of both countries in her book The Allure of French and Italian Decor. While artistic and design issues sit front and center, the book’s scope goes far beyond strictly aesthetic concerns. For Phillips, the appeal of French and Italian cultures doesn’t rest merely on producing or owning beautiful furnishings, but about making a beautiful life.
Achieving la dolce vita (“the sweet life”) is where the real aim lies, and it means creating a life the way one would create a work of art — choose your materials carefully, hone your skills to shape them into a beautiful form, and let your personal muse, whatever that may be, determine the work’s character and spirit.
For Phillips, France and Italy excel at the traditions that can inspire such an effort. The French have given us Impressionism, Champagne, renowned cuisine, fine cheeses and chocolates, haute couture fashion, and a bent for turning everyday events into ritual experiences to be carefully cultivated and savored. The Italians can lay claim to the remarkable architecture of ancient Rome, Renaissance masters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, world-famous textiles and glasswork, gorgeous hand-built sports cars and, of course, gelato.
For purposes of the book, what both cultures value is what makes them worth emulating: a passion for beauty, an intuitive sense of scale and proportion, harmony of colors and personal style. More than 200 color photographs illustrate how these traits translate into interior decor, and Phillips narrates some of the key principles along the way:
• Perfection is overrated: Don’t aim for flawless. Marks of wear and tear will usually enhance the personality of an item and impart a flavor of history or humanity to it. Quality materials are always desirable, but don’t dismiss as damage the scars and minor mishaps from years of use; they convey a richness of experience that money can’t buy.
• Don’t overlook the simple and understated: These traits have nearly universal appeal and make a home more comfortable for everyday living. Spare interiors tend toward serenity, while clutter makes most of us anxious and annoyed. And unless you are trying to mimic the look of a Las Vegas casino hotel, forget garish displays of wealth; they are bad form and often undermine the feeling of comfort and welcome you want in a home.
• Mix it up: Matching furnishings or rigidly “unified” decorating themes can squeeze the life out of a room, making the space impressive visually but strangely uninviting for actual living. There’s nothing wrong with having a strong central motif, but introduce some harmonies to go with that tune.
• Be willing to wait: Finding just the right furnishings takes discipline and patience. Phillips suggests that nearly every item in a home have a special quality or a personally important meaning. For her, the best interiors grow organically over time, the product of serendipitous finds, family belongings that pass down through generations, and having a good eye for character-rich pieces that happen to cross one’s path at the right time.
• Take it outside: Thanks to a mild Mediterranean climate, southern France and Italy have what Phillips calls an “open air aesthetic.” In their cities, the most visible symbol of this outdoor lifestyle is the sidewalk cafe, but private homes deserve these transitional spaces, too. Whether it’s a modest balcony on a condo tower or a portico in a generous back garden, devote some time and energy toward creating an outdoor living space of your own.
The book is a serene tour not of literal places but of the quality of life they have cultivated over centuries, and it offers both inspiration and guidance for those who want to create the same kind of timeless magic in their own home. To that end, a comprehensive resource directory of sources and services is provided as a reader service.