A chandelier placed above a humble farm table. A fauteuil chair stationed beside a metal cafe seat. The French have a way of creating style that seems as easy as breathing.
Of course, they have a national advantage. They tend to live in venerable homes with beautiful windows, doorknobs, carved trim, moldings, shutters and balustrades.
Even without a stick of furniture, a French room looks French.
So what's an American to do? If you want to venture down the path of insouciance, elan and effortless elegance, a good way to start is to consult with Josephine Ryan, author of French Home (Ryland Peters, $30).
In order to stock her antiques shop - it is situated in London but French in spirit - Ryan has spent years crossing the English Channel, developing a sixth sense for "the chemistry that happens when a look is pulled together with a certain nonchalance, underscored by enormous confidence."
Translated into three dimensions, that means placing a 1930s Lucite table beside an 18th-century salon chair, its silk shredded through generations of wear.
It means hanging an oversized contemporary painting above a curvaceous rococo console, even though their styles are utterly disparate.
It means tossing a cashmere throw across a bed, adding a splash of color and texture not unlike the scarves that are so elegantly tossed over the shoulders of Parisian women.
Practicing the French approach to style requires education, and Ryan points out a few areas worth studying. The first is furniture.
Consider the fauteuil, a chair with open arms and an upholstered back and seat. Carved and gilded, it echoes the ornamentation of French salons, a reminder that it was originally designed to be placed against a beautifully paneled wall.
The fauteuil's next of kin is the bergere, a precursor of the armchair that's all about curvaceous upholstery, from the arms to the back to the seat. With its stylish wooden legs and lower seat, it was "originally designed to prevent a grand dame's skirts from creasing," Ryan says.
The shapes of these classic chairs vary according to which Louis happened to be on the throne, but never mind. All you really need to know is that they add a sculptural quality to modern interiors.
Beautiful to look at from the front as well as the back, they can be upholstered in two or more fabrics - a stripe and a floral or perhaps two patterns of red. Their decorative carving can be played up with glossy paint or played down with a flat finish.
Incorporating fauteuils and bergeres into a room scheme adds visual movement and what Ryan calls "a distinctly French flavor," allowing the rest of a room's pieces to be simpler and cleaner. In other words, your sofa can be large and comfortable, your armchairs light on their feet.
Another subject she suggests studying is color. Worn through the years, the French palette stems from "benign neglect." It's all about softness and patina, about soothing, chalky, harmonious hues that are "adjacent to each other on the color wheel," Ryan says. The whites won't be brilliant, fresh and new, but rather tempered with a touch of black or raw umber.
"Imagine blues merging into grays and grays into browns and pale eau de nil greens deepening to become verdigris," she says.
And think of them extending not just across walls and floors, moldings and door frames, but onto the furniture. By transforming wood with a coat of paint, the French are able to fine-tune a room's color palette and make it a true work of art.
The mirror is another distinctly French medium. At Versailles, Louis XIV famously installed a Hall of Mirrors, playing up the architectural innovation and creating a worldwide appetite for mirrors inset in paneling and gesso frames.
Still today, Parisian apartments come with magnificent mirrors , reflecting light and creating a sweeping sense of space. And those rooms without such architectural details replicate the effect by covering a wall with a mix of mirrors, their frames painted one single color for unity.
Ideas like this remind you that the language of elegant simplicity may sound better with a French accent, but it can be spoken anywhere by anyone. You included.